Kol Ishah – A Recent Landmark Ruling by Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The current issue of Techumin (volume 32) includes a landmark ruling by Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein regarding Kol Ishah (men listening to women singing). He addresses the major controversy that has arisen regarding some religious soldiers refusing to participate in solemn Tzahal ceremonies that include women singing. Rav Mosheh presents a breakthrough approach to this issue that is most worthy of our attention.

A word of caution regarding this discussion: Since some might regard Rav Mosheh’s approach to be a bit surprising, I must clarify that I have known Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein since 1978, when he came to the United States for a year to learn with his illustrious maternal grandfather, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Rav Mosheh since his youth has been a proper Ben Torah, an enormous Talmid Chacham, and a true Tzaddik. He is a most worthy successor to the Brisker dynasty.

Introduction to the Kol Ishah Prohibition

The Gemara (Berachot 24a) records the prohibition of Kol Ishah. The Gemara (Berachot 24a) states, “The voice of a woman is Ervah, as the Pasuk [in Shir HaShirim 2:14] states, ‘let me hear your voice because your voice is pleasant and appearance attractive.’” Rashi explains that the Pasuk in Shir HaShirim indicates that a woman’s voice is attractive to a man, and is thus prohibited to him. Rav Hai Ga’on (cited in the Mordechai, Berachot 80) writes that this restriction applies to a man who is reading Keri’at Shema, because a woman’s singing will distract him. Rosh (Berachot 3:37) disagrees and writes that the Gemara refers to all situations and is not limited to Keri’at Shema. The Shulchan Aruch rules that the Kol Ishah restriction applies to both Keri’at Shema (Orach Chaim 75:3) and other contexts (Even HaEzer 21:2). Rama (O.C. 75:3) and Beit Shmuel (21:4) clarify that this prohibition applies only to a woman’s singing voice and not to her speaking voice.

The Shulchan Aruch (E.H. 20:1) rules in accordance with the view of Rambam (Hilchot Isurei Bi’ah 21:1) that a couple is biblically forbidden to have physical contact if they are forbidden to live with each other. The Acharonim (summarized in Teshuvot Yabi’a Omer 1:6) debate whether the Kol Ishah prohibition is also a biblical level prohibition. Rav Ovadia Yosef (ibid.) rules in accordance with the opinions that it is only a rabbinical prohibition.

Both Rav Ovadia Yosef (ibid.) and Rav Yehuda Henkin (Teshuvot Bnei Banim 3:127) reject the claim that this prohibition does not apply today since men nowadays are accustomed to hear a woman’s voice. These authorities explain that since the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch codify this prohibition, we do not have the right to abolish it. The Gemara and its commentaries do not even hint at a possibility that this prohibition might not apply if men become habituated to hearing a woman’s voice. Thus, Posekim agree that the prohibition of Kol Ishah applies today.


There is, however, considerable disagreement regarding the scope of the Kol Ishah prohibition. For example, the question of its applicability to Zemirot has been discussed at some length in the twentieth century responsa literature. Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (Teshuvot Seridei Eish 2:8) notes that traditionally women refrained from singing Zemirot when there were males who were not family members sitting at the Shabbat table. However, he records that the practice in Germany was for women to sing Zemirot in the company of unrelated men. Rav Weinberg records that Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and Rav Shamson Refa’el Hirsch (two great German Rabbis of the nineteenth century) sanctioned this practice. Rav Weinberg reports that they based their ruling on the Talmudic rule (Megilah 21b) that “Trei Kali Lo Mishtamei,” two voices cannot be heard simultaneously.

Rav Weinberg writes that he does not find this explanation satisfying (perhaps because the Gemara, Sotah 48a, writes that men and women singing together is a major impropriety). Rav Weinberg instead defends the German Jewish practice by citing the Sedei Chemed (Kelalim, Ma’arechet HaKuf, 42) who quotes the Divrei Cheifetz, who asserts that the Kol Ishah prohibition does not apply to women singing Zemirot, singing songs to children, and lamenting for the dead. This authority explains that in these contexts men do not derive pleasure from the woman’s voice. In fact, the Pasuk (Shofetim 5:1) records that Devorah the prophetess sang a song of praise to Hashem together with Barak the son of Avino’am. According to the plain (Peshat) reading of the text, Devorah was married to Lapidot and not Barak. The Sedei Chemed writes that he believes that it is proper to be strict and not follow the minority approach of the Divrei Cheifetz, but he regards the lenient opinion as a viable approach.

Rav Weinberg writes that we should not pressure women who wish to follow the traditional practice to join Zemirot in a mixed group. Indeed, many Posekim oppose this practice of German Jewry (see Otzar HaPosekim E.H. 21:1:20:3). However, some cite the Gemara (Megilah 23a) that states that women are forbidden to receive an Aliyah to the Torah because of Kevod HaTzibur as proof to the German Jewish practice. They argue that the fact that the Gemara does not mention Kol Ishah as the reason to forbid women’s Aliyot proves that the Kol Ishah restriction does not apply when a woman sings sacred texts. Others reply that the Gemara might be speaking of a woman reading the Torah to her immediate family members or may be speaking of a female child reading the Torah (see comments of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv cited in Nishmat Avraham 5:76-77). These suggestions might also explain the Gemara (Berachot 57b and Rashi s.v. Kol) that states that hearing a woman’s voice is a soothing experience.

The question of whether the Kol Ishah prohibition applies to Zemirot remains unresolved. Chareidi communities in Israel and North America generally follow the stringent view on this matter and Modern Orthodox communities in Israel and North America generally follow the tradition of German Jewry in this regard. Interestingly, I asked Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in July 1985 whether he agrees with this ruling of Rav Weinberg. The Rav replied, “I agree with everything that he wrote, except for his permission to stun animals before Shechitah” during the Nazi oppression of the 1930’s (see volume one of Teshuvot Seridei Eish). Rav Soloveitchik related his great appreciation of Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg. Rav Shalom Carmy later told me that Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Weinberg had been close friends during the years that Rav Soloveitchik studied in Berlin.

Recordings and Radio Broadcasts

Twentieth century Halachic authorities have also debated whether the Kol Ishah prohibition applies to recordings and radio broadcasts. Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 5:2) rules leniently based on two considerations. The first is that the Gemara (Sanhedrin 45a) states, “The Yeitzer HaRa is not interested in what the eyes do not see.” The second is that technically one does not hear the woman’s voice because radio broadcasts and recordings are mere electronic reproductions of the woman’s voice. Rav Waldenberg writes that if we cannot fulfill Mitzvot such as Teki’at Shofar and Keri’at Megilah when hearing them on the radio, then the prohibition of Kol Ishah does not apply over the radio. Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (cited by his grandson Rav Yehudah Henkin, Teshuvot Bnei Banim 2:211 and 3:127) agrees with this position. Rav Y.E. Henkin was unsure whether the prohibition applies to hearing a woman’s voice broadcasted on television (ibid.). This might be because only one of the two lenient considerations that apply to the radio question is relevant to the television issue. Rav Waldenberg cautions, though, that listening to a woman’s voice on the radio is prohibited “if his intention is to enjoy her singing.”

Rav Yaakov Breisch (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 1:163), on the other hand, forbids a man to listen to a female voice on the radio. He reasons that the aforementioned Gemara in Sanhedrin 45a does not apply when there is some form of connection with the woman. He argues that a man’s Yeitzer HaRa is interested even if he only hears a woman’s voice. He rules strictly even in case where the listener is not acquainted with the singer. Rav Shmuel Wosner (Teshuvot Sheivet HaLeivi 3:E.H. 181 and Rav Binyamin Silber (Az Nidberu 9:9) also rule strictly on this question.

Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabi’a Omer 1:6) and Rav Chaim David HaLevi (Teshuvot Aseih Lecha Rav 3:6) adopt a compromise approach to this issue. They permit listening to a female voice on the radio only if the listener is not acquainted with the singer. They both rule strictly, though, even if the listener once glimpsed a picture of the singer. Rav Ovadia rules that the prohibition applies even if the singer is not alive.

Rav Chaim David HaLevi asserts that there is no basis to permit Kol Ishah simply because the woman is singing into a microphone. He writes that the prohibition applies even if the man is not, technically speaking, hearing the woman’s voice. Rav Waldenberg’s aforementioned lenient ruling applies only when the man does not see the woman. Rav J. David Bleich (Contemporary Halachic Problems 2:152) notes that Halachic authorities do not rule that the use of a microphone alone mitigates the prohibition of Kol Ishah.

Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein’s Additions

Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein argues that the ruling of the Divrei Cheifetz and Seridei Eish permits listening to a woman singing at official Tzahal events that are formal and serious. He first bolsters the opinion of the Divrei Cheifetz and the Seridei Eish by demonstrating that Rambam, Rashba and Ra’avyah agree that the Kol Ishah prohibition is not absolute but rather emerges from concern lest it lead to sin. Thus, in a context that concern for sin is not relevant, the Kol Ishah does not apply. Rav Mosheh proceeds to extend the Divrei Cheifetz and Seridei Eish’s lenient approach to formal Tzahal events since the singing is not of the type that leads to sin.

Rav Mosheh adds that he believes that there is an idealistic element to adopting this more limited understanding of the Kol Ishah prohibition. He notes that a human being has elements of both angels and animals (see Chagigah 16a). Our biological drives require exercising restraint and the prohibition of Kol Ishah is one expression of these limitations and protection of propriety. However, Rav Mosheh argues, not every encounter must be of a sensual nature, since we also resemble angels. In circumstances in which the angel element of our personalities is expressed, the prohibition of Kol Ishah need not be observed. Thus, argues Rav Mosheh, adopting the lenient approach regarding Kol Ishah recognizes the dignity of humanity that we are driven by more than our base biological urges.

I would add that one need not rely on the Divrei Cheifetz/Seridei Eish approach in order to permit a soldier to attend a Tzahal event that includes women singing. If the soldier does not intend to enjoy the female singing it is permissible for him to participate since it was not his choice to include female performances. The uproar caused by refusing to attend such an event seems to classify the situation as “I Efshar VeLo Ka Mechavein” (Pesachim 25b). This refers to the case where one does not have a reasonable alternative (see Tosafot ad loc. s.v. Lo Efshar) and does not intend to benefit from the pleasure that one encounters in circumstances that are for the most part beyond one’s control.

A classic example of this is where the smell from Avodah Zarah comes to one’s normal path of travel. A more contemporary example is the smell of Chameitz wafting in the streets of Manhattan or London where one walks to work on Chol HaMo’eid Pesach. Such activity is permitted if one does not intend to benefit from the smell and one does not have a viable alternative. The same seems to apply to a soldier whose noble and essential service in Tzahal of necessity requires interaction with the majority of Israel’s population which does not currently observe the Kol Ishah prohibition.


Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein is a noble and saintly Rav upon whose opinion one may follow. Indeed, his approach is, generally speaking, adopted by our community. However, we should also consider that the Sedei Chemed noted that the Divrei Cheifetz’s opinion is not endorsed by many authorities. Thus, it is understandable that some soldiers would be unwilling to participate even in a solemn event where women will be singing. At a time when many Israelis recognize the importance of integrating at least some Chareidi young men into Tzahal, it is important to create opportunities for Chareidim to serve in the army without their having to compromise on the religious standards of their community that includes an absolute prohibition on hearing women sing. Ahavat Yisrael is expressed when respect is shown even for opinions that are not accepted in our own community. Indeed, Rav Weinberg urges us not to pressure women to sing Zemirot in the presence of men if they are not comfortable doing so.

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