In memory of
Rabbi Moshe Zemer z”l
Rabbi, scholar and mentsch
Question: On September 5, 2011, an IDF entertainment troupe performed at an official military event focusing on Operation Cast Lead at Bahad Ehad, the officers’ training base in the Negev. When a female soldier began to sing solo, nine observant Israeli officer cadets got up and left; they said that it was forbidden for them to listen to women singing. Their Regiment Commander Uzi Kliegler ran after them and ordered them to return to the ceremony. “Anyone refusing [this] order will be dismissed from the course.” In the end, four cadets refused to return to the hall and were dismissed from the officers’ training course while five were allowed to continue the course after convincing the committee that the move had not been preplanned. It should be noted that a considerable number of the officers’ course cadets are observant and most of them did not walk out.
Subsequently, various Orthodox rabbis were quoted in the media as being for or against their action. The Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel Yonah Metzger issued a formal responsum on September 25th justifying their actions and urging the army to arrange that only men should sing at military events where many observant men are present. Is it really forbidden for Jewish men to listen to women singing? Was there any halakhic justification for the soldiers to walk out?
I) The Three Talmudic Sources
All halakhic discussions of this topic are based primarily on one sentence uttered by the Amora Samuel in Babylon ca. 220 c.e. Some rabbis have claimed that his intent is clear; we shall see below that that is very far from the case. The sentence appears in three places in rabbinic literature, twice in the Babylonian Talmud and once in the Jerusalem Talmud.
1. Berakhot 24a contains a lengthy sugya about whether one may recite the Shema in immodest situations such as two men sharing a bed or a family sharing a bed or when the man’s clothes are torn and do not cover his privates. The Talmud continues:
Rabbi Yitzhak said: a handbreadth in a woman is ervah[=nakedness, unchastity, impropriety]. [The Talmud discusses this and concludes: “rather he is talking about his wife and when reciting Keriyat Shema.”]
Rav Hisda said: a thigh in a woman is ervah, as it is written (Isaiah 47:2) “Bare your thigh, wade through the rivers” and it is written (ibid., v. 3) “your ervah shall be uncovered and your shame shall be exposed”.
Samuel said: kol b’ishah ervah, a woman’s voice is ervah, as it is written (Song of Songs 2:14) “for your voice is sweet and your appearance is comely”.
Rav Sheshet said: Hair in a woman is ervah, as it is written (ibid. 4:1) “your hair is like a flock of goats”.
There are at least three major problems with this sugya:
a. None of these four Amoraim mention the Shema at all and it appears that this unit was copied here in its entirety from some other context.
b. Jastrow in his Talmudic dictionary (s.v. ervah, p. 1114) and many others think that Samuel is referring to a womansinging. But it is not at all clear whether Samuel means thespeaking voice of a woman or the singing voice of a woman. On the one hand, he may mean the speaking voice of a woman (see Psalm 104:24; 21; midrashim on the verse in Song of Songs 2:14 in the Bar Ilan Responsa Project;Metzudat David to Song of Songs ad loc.). On the other hand, he may mean the singing voice of a woman (see the beginning of the verse in Song of Songs; Ta’anit 16a; and sixmidrashim on Song of Songs 2:14).
c. It is also not clear if this is halakhah or aggadah. If they were making halakhic statements, they would have said: “it is forbidden to look at a woman’s thigh or to hear her voice or look at her hair”; therefore they seem to be making aggadic statements followed by verses.
At the most, we can say that the editor of the sugya who copied this unit here was trying to say that when one recites the Shema he should avoid a woman’s handbreadth or thigh or voice or hair.
2. Kiddushin 70a-b contains a lengthy story about a man from Nehardea who insults Rav Yehudah while visiting Pumbedita. Rav Yehudah then excommunicates him and declares him a “slave”. The man then summons Rav Yehudah to a din torah in front of Rav Nahman in Nehardea. Rav Yehudah asks his friend Rav Huna whether he should go and Rav Huna advises him to go. Rav Yehudah then goes to Nehardea to the house of Rav Nahman but, since he resents going, he challenges everything that Rav Nahman does and says, frequently using the words of Samuel to do so. The story continues:
[Rav Nahman:] May my daughter Dunag come and give us drink?
[Rav Yehudah] said to him: So said Samuel: one does not use a woman.
[Rav Nahman:] But she is a minor!
[Rav Yehudah:] Samuel said explicitly one does not use a woman at all, whether she is an adult or a minor!
[Rav Nahman:] would my Lord like to send shalom to my wife Yalta?
[Rav Yehudah] said to him: So said Samuel: kol b’ishah ervah, a voice of a woman is ervah [i.e. I am not allowed to talk to her].
[Rav Nahman:] it is possible to talk to her via a messenger.
[Rav Yehudah] said to him: So said Samuel: one does not ask after the welfare of a woman.
[Rav Nahman:] Via her husband!
[Rav Yehudah] said to him: So said Samuel: one does not ask after the welfare of a woman at all.
[Yalta then tells her husband Nahman to get to the point so that Rav Yehudah should stop insulting him.]
Once again, this sugya is making secondary use of Samuel’s words “kol b’isha ervah“, but in this case it is not the later anonymous editors of the Talmud who have quoted Samuel but Rav Yehudah, one of his main disciples, who quotes him almost 500 times in the Babylonian Talmud. Rav Yehudah understood Samuel to say: a voice of a woman is ervah i.e. do not talk to women. This is in keeping with other Talmudic dicta about avoiding conversations with women (Avot 1:5; Eruvin 53b; Nedarim 20a; Hagigah 5b;Sanhedrin 75a; Berakhot 43b at bottom; and cf. the brief discussion by Tal Ilan).
3. Yerushalmi Hallah Chapter 2:4, ed. Vilna fol. 12b = ed. Venice fol. 58c
According to the Torah (Numbers 15:17-21), when a person bakes a loaf of bread or a cake, they are supposed to give a small portion of the dough called hallah to a Kohen. Today this small portion is burned after reciting a blessing. The mishnah in Hallah (2:3) says that a woman can sit and separate her hallah [and make the blessing] while naked because she can cover herself. The Talmud Yerushalmi comments:
From this we learn that her rear end is not forbidden because of ervah.
This is true regarding her reciting the blessing for hallah, but to look at her, anything is forbidden. As we have learned: a person who looks at her heel is like one who looks at the house of her womb [=vagina], and a person who looks at the house of her womb is as if he slept with her.
Samuel said: a voice of a woman is ervah. What is the reason? “vehaya mikol znutah, “the land was defiled from the sound of her harlotry” (Jeremiah 3:9; the new JPS tanakhtranslates following Radak: “the land was defiled by her casual immorality”).
For the third time, Samuel’s words are quoted in a secondary fashion in a Talmudic discussion. He was not part of this discussion and his words are not connected to the main topic which is lookingat a scantily clad woman who is sitting and separating dough forhallah. Once again, it is not clear what Samuel meant to say, but there is no hint whatsoever that he is referring to the singing voice of woman; it is more likely that he is referring to her speaking voice.
Thus if we were to rule on the basis of the three Talmudic passages we could say that Samuel and his fellow Amoraim quoted in Berakhot were making aggadic statements about the dangers of looking at and listening to women. On the other hand, we could say on the basis of Kiddushin (and probably Yerushalmi Hallah) that Samuel made a halakhic ruling that it is forbidden to speak to women or, on the basis of the context in Berakhot, that it is forbidden to speak to or look at women while reciting Keriyat Shema. It is pretty clear from the careful analysis above that none of these three passages say anything about a woman singing.
II) The Rif Ignored Samuel’s Statement in Both Passages in the Babylonian Talmud
The Rif, Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (1013-1103) was one of the most influential poskim [halakhic decisors] in Jewish history. Maimonides states that he relied on the Rif in his Mishneh Torah in all but thirty places (Responsa of the Rambam, ed. Blau, No. 251, p. 459 and the literature cited there in note 7). Hilkhot Harif, also known asTalmud Kattan, the little Talmud, codified Jewish law by abbreviating each sugya in the Talmud. He omitted the aggadic passages and most of the give and take of the Talmudic sugya, leaving only the opinions which he considered Jewish law. In thesugya in Berakhot quoted above, the Rif (ed. Vilna, fol. 15a)omitted the opinion of all four Amoraim quoted by the Talmud, as emphasized by Rabbi Zerahia Halevi (Hamaor Hakattan, ibid., fol. 15b) and by the Ra’avad of Posquieres (quoted by the Rashba to the sugya in Berakhot). In his code on Kiddushin (ed. Vilna, fol. 30b), the Rif quotes a few of the dicta of Samuel quoted by Rav Yehudah but omits the dictum “kol b’ishah ervah“. This means that the Rif considered all four of the Amoraic statements in Berakhot to be aggadah and not halakhah!
III) It is Forbidden to Talk to Women or to Certain Women
In the Rambam’s (Egypt, 1135-1204) summary of the sugya inBerakhot (Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 3:16), he rules that one may not recite Keriyat Shema while looking at a woman, even his wife, as per the Talmud’s explanation of Rabbi Yitzhak quoted above inBerakhot, but he omits Samuel’s opinion entirely. But in his laws of forbidden sexual relationships (Hilkhot Issurei Biah 21:2, 5) he rules that one should not wink at or laugh with or look at the little finger of one of the arayot, i.e. one of the forbidden sexual relationships listed in Leviticus 18, “and even to hear the voice of the ervah or to see her hair is forbidden”. The Rambam seems to understand Samuel to mean “kol b’ishah-ervah” [assur], “the voice of a woman who is an ervah” is forbidden. This is a rather novel interpretation since that is not exactly what Samuel said. In any case, the Rambam is clearly referring to her speaking voice and not to her singing voice.
This is proven by his famous reponsum about listening to secular Arabic girdle poems sung to music (Responsa of the Rambam, ed. Blau, No. 224, pp. 398-400). After giving four reasons to forbid this music he writes: “And if the singer is a woman, there is a fifth prohibition, as they of blessed memory said kol b’ishah ervah, and how much the moreso if she is singing“. In other words, Samuel was referring to women speaking and the Rambam adds that it is even more forbidden if she is singing.
Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (Toledo, 1270-1343) followed the Rambam in his Tur, one of the major codes of Jewish law (Tur Even Haezer 21) as did the Maharshal (Cracow, 1510-1573, quoted by the Perishah to Even Haezer 21, subparagraph 2).
A similar opinion is found in Sefer Hassidim, which is attributed to Rabbi Judah Hehassid, a contemporary of the Rambam (Regensburg, ca. 1150-1217; ed. Margaliot, paragraph 313). He says that “a young man should not teach girls practical Jewish law even if her father is standing there, lest he or the girl be overcome by their yetzer [=evil inclination] and kol b’ishah ervah, rather a father should teach his daughter and wife”. Thus, Rabbi Judah thinks that Samuel was referring to listening to the speaking voice of a woman or girl.
This also seems to be the opinion of Rabbi Yitzhak ben Isaac of Vienna (1180-1250; Or Zarua, Part I, fol. 24a, paragraph 133) and the Rosh (1250-1320; Piskey Harosh to Berakhot, Chapter 3, paragraph 37).
IV) It is Forbidden to Listen to Women Singing While Reciting the Shema
The halakhic authorities in this camp ruled according to their understanding of the sugya in Berakhot which is connected toKeriyat Shema and ignored the sugya in Kiddushin.
Rav Hai Gaon (Pumbedita, 939-1038) ruled (Otzar Hageonim toBerakhot, Perushim, p. 30, paragraph 102) that a man “should not recite the Shema when a woman is singing because kol b’ishah ervah… but when she is just talking normally it is permitted; and even if she is singing, if he can concentrate in his heart on his prayer so that he does not hear her or pay attention to her – it is permissible…”. In other words, he understood from the context inBerakhot that Samuel only says kol b’isha ervah when one is reciting the shema and he further understood that Samuel is referring to a woman singing. Even so, Rav Hai allowed a man to recite keriyat shema when a woman is singing if he is able to ignore her voice.
This general approach was followed by a number of classic Ashkenazic poskim such as Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (1115-1198;Sefer Yerei’im Hashalem, paragraph 392); the Ra’aviah (Cologne, 1140-1225; ed. Aptowitzer, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53, Berakhot, paragraph 76); and the Mordechai (Nuremberg, 1240-1298; to Berakhot, paragraph 80). Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, on the one hand, adds a stringency that one may not recite the Shema “or dvar kedushah” when a woman is singing; but also a leniency – that because of our sins we live among the Gentiles and therefore we are not careful not to learn while Gentile women are singing. The Ra’aviah adds a leniency that one may recite keriyat shema when a woman is singing if he is used to it (or: to her voice).
This general approach was also followed by Aharonim such as theBet Shmuel to Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 21, subparagraph 4 who expands the prohibition to tefillah [= prayer] as opposed to only the shema.
V) A Combination of the Previous Two Approaches
A number of prominent halakhic authorities combined the previous two approaches. They ruled that a man should not talk to a woman on the basis of Samuel in Kiddushin as in paragraph III above and that a man should not recite the Shema while a woman is singingon the basis of Berakhot as understood in paragraph IV above.
This camp includes the Ra’avad of Posquieres (1120-1198; quoted in Hiddushei Harashba to Berakhot 24a [mislabeled 25 in the printed editions]); the Meiri (Provence, d. 1315; in Bet Habehirah toBerakhot 24a, pp. 84-85); and Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 75:3 and Even Haezer 21:1, 6).
VI) It is Forbidden to Listen to All Women Singing at any Time
This approach was first suggested as a possible interpretation by Rabbi Joshua Falk (Poland, 1555-1614) in his Perishah to Tur Even Haezer 21, subparagraph 2, but he himself rejected it. The first to actually rule this way in practice was Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Pressburg, d. 1839; Responsa Hatam Sofer, Hoshen Mishpat, No. 190).
Aside from the fact that this very strict approach contradicts all of the halakhic sources we have seen above, we also know from the research of Emily Teitz that this approach contradicts the actualpractice of Jewish women who sang in the home, on festive occasions, as singers and in the synagogue throughout the Middle Ages.
Unfortunately, the Hatam Sofer’s strict ruling was adopted by many later authorities. Some tried to find “leniencies” such as allowing girls and boys to sing at the same time (Rabbi Y.Y. Weinberg,Seridei Eish) or allowing men to listen to women who cannot be seen, such as on a record or on the radio.
VII) Kevod Haberiyot Sets Aside Various Prohibitions
In any case, even if one were to rule entirely according to the Hatam Sofer, it would be forbidden to get up and leave a concert where women are singing. Even if Samuel meant to give a halakhic ruling (which is not at all clear) and even if he meant to prohibit listening to all women singing (which we have disproved above), there is a well-known halakhic principle that kevod haberiyot [=the honor of people] sets aside various prohibitions.There is no question that leaving a concert is insulting to the women performing as well as to most of the soldiers at the concert and to the commanding officers – indeed that is why the commanding officer removed those soldiers from the officers’ training course.
VIII) Summary and Conclusions
We have seen above that there is no general prohibition against women singing in classic Jewish law based on the Talmud and subsequent codes and commentaries until the early nineteenth century. The current blanket prohibition accepted by Haredi and some modern Orthodox rabbis was first suggested and rejected by Rabbi Joshua Falk (d. 1614) and was only given as a halakhic ruling by Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Hatam Sofer, in the early nineteenth century. However, this opinion is not in agreement with the simple meaning of the dictum by Samuel and with all of the opinions of the Rishonim. The Rif ignored Samuel’s dictum in bothBerakhot and Kiddushin. Some Rishonim ruled according to thesugya in Kiddushin that Samuel was referring to the speaking voice of women to the extent that such conversation would lead to forbidden sexual relations. This interpretation seems to be the intent of the parallel in Yerushalmi Hallah. On the other hand, Rav Hai Gaon and most of the Rishonim in Ashkenaz interpreted the words of Samuel according to the sugya in Berakhot and therefore ruled that it is forbidden to recite Keriyat Shema where a woman is singing because of kol b’isha ervah. Finally, some of the rabbis of Provence and Rabbi Joseph Karo ruled according to both of these interpretations. Furthermore, Emily Teitz has shown that in practice Jewish women sang at home, at semahot, as singers and in the synagogue throughout the Middle Ages. Thus, there is therefore no halakhic justification for anyone walking out when women sing. But even if one accepts the very strict ruling of the Hatam Sofer, it is forbidden to walk out in order not to insult the female performers.
4 Kislev 5772
Rabbi Sol Berman, “Kol Isha“, Joseph Lookstein Memorial Volume, New York, 1980, pp. 45-66 (the most thorough study of this topic; summarized in Hebrew by Kaddish Goldberg in Amudim 614 [Tishrei 5758], pp. 26-27)
Rabbi Ben Cherney, “Kol Isha“, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 10 (Fall 1985), pp. 57-75
Rabbi Boaz Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism, New York, 1959, p. 174, note 28
Orah Cohen, On Both Sides of the Divide: Gender Separation in Jewish Law (Hebrew), Bet El, 2007, pp. 189-196
Elyakim Getzel Ellenson, Ha’ishah Vehamitzvot (Hebrew), Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 81-91
Rabbi Louis Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, New York, 1948, pp. 93-100
M.Sh. Geshuri, “The Woman and Her Singing in the Biblical Period”, (Hebrew), Mahanayim 98, pp. 92-103
Rabbi M. Harari, Mikraei Kodesh, p. 233 quoted by Aviad Hacohen,Alon Shevut 11 (Nissan 5758), p. 64, note 3
Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine, Tubingen, 1995, pp. 126-127
Admiel Kosman, ” ‘And Miriam chanted for them’ – Kol Isha?”, online at Bar Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, February 7, 2004
Hannah Pinhassi, Deot 44 (October 2009), pp. 14-17
Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg, Hilkhot Nashim, Jerusalem, 1983, p. 45 and the literature in note 23
Emily Taitz, “Kol Isha – The Voice of Women: Where was it heard in medieval Europe?”, Conservative Judaism 38/3 (Spring 1986), pp. 46-61
Rabbi Moshe Zemer, Halakhah Shefuyah, Tel Aviv, 1993, pp. 234-237, 347 = Evolving Halakhah, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999, pp. 278-279
Rabbi Yonatan Rosenzweig, Tehumin 29 (5769), pp. 138-143; Reaction: Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Tehumin 30 (5770), pp. 212-215
Rabbi Moshe Alashkar, Responsa Maharam Alashkar, No. 35
Rabbi Yisachar Baer Eilenburg, Responsa Be’er Sheva, Be’er Mayyim Hayyim, No. 3
Rabbi David Bigman, “A New Analysis of ‘Kol B’isha Erva’ “, February 4, 2009, www.jewishideas.org
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Reshut Harabbim, Petah Tikvah, 2002, pp. 130-131
Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen, Intermarriage and Conversion: A Halakhic Solution, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1987, Chapter 19
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Part I, No. 26; Part 4, No. 15, paragraph 2
Rabbi Meir Friedmann, “Mitwurkung von Frauen beim Gottesdienste” (German), Hebrew Union College Annual 8-9 (1931-1932), pp. 511-523
Rabbi David Golinkin, Ma’amad Ha’ishah Bahalakhah: She’elot Uteshuvot, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 102-103
Rabbi Yaakov Hagiz, Responsa Halakhot Ketanot, Vol. 2, No. 93
Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, Aseh Lekhah Rav, Vol. I, No. 28; Vol. 3, No. 6
Rabbi Jonah Metzger, “Kol B’ishah Ervah” (Hebrew), September 25. 2011
Rabbi Meir Ben-Tziyon Hai Ouziel, Mishpitei Ouziel, Vol. 4, Hoshen Mishpat, No. 6
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 5, No. 2; Vol. 7, No. 28
Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, Seridei Eish, Vol. 2, No. 8
Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss, Minhat Yitzhak, Vol. 8, No. 126
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer, Vol. 1, Orah Hayyim, No. 6
III) News Articles (in chronological order)
The Jerusalem Post International Edition, August 19-25, 1979, p. 15 (the rabbi of the Wall ordered a mixed group of people singing with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to leave the Kotel Plaza)
Haaretz, June 24, 2008 (IDF forbids observant soldiers from walking out of military assemblies)
The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 21, 2008, p. 7; The Jerusalem Post Magazine, December 11, 2009, pp. 28-30 (on a film intended for women only)
The Jewish Press, February 20, 2009, p. 30 (on a women’s concert in Brooklyn)
Ynet, September 9, 2011 (news report about the latest incident)
Yizhar Hess, Yisrael Hayom, September 13, 2011, p. 35 (a Masorti reaction to the latest incident)
The Jerusalem Post, September 16, 2011 (Orthodox rabbinic reactions to the latest incident)
Shmuel Rosner, The New York Times, November 18, 2011
Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post, November 25, 2011, pp. 14-15