The Gemara (Berachot 24a) records the prohibition of Kol Isha. In this essay, we shall outline the parameters of this issue, as delineated by twentieth century Halachic authorities. We shall discuss the source of the prohibition and its applicability in our times. Then we shall discuss the questions of whether this prohibition applies to Zemirot, tape recordings, and radio broadcasts. We shall conclude with a brief discussion regarding husband-wife restrictions, and men hearing young girls sing.
The Source of the Prohibition
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 Gaon (cited in the Mordechai, Berachot 80) writes that this restriction applies to a man who is reading Kriat Shema, because a woman’s singing will distract him. The Rosh (Berachot 3:37) disagrees and writes that the Gemara refers to all situations and is not limited to Kriat Shema. The Shulchan Aruch rules that the Kol Isha restriction applies to both Kriat Shema (Orach Chaim 75:3) and other contexts (Even Haezer 21:2). The Rama (O.C. 75:3) and Bait 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 the Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah 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 Yabia Omer 1:6) debate whether the Kol Isha 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 enjoy 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, all recognized Poskim agree that the prohibition of Kol Isha applies today.
There is, however, considerable disagreement regarding the scope of the Kol Isha 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 woman to sing Zemirot in the company of unrelated men. Rav Weinberg records that Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (two great German Rabbis of the nineteenth century) sanctioned this practice. Rav Weinberg reports that they based their ruling on the Talmudic rule (Megila 21b) that “Trei Kali Lo Mishtamai,” 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 Sdei Chemed (Klalim, Maarechet Hakuf, 42) who quotes the Divrei Cheifetz who asserts that the Kol Isha prohibition does not apply to women singing Zemirot, singing songs to children, and lamentations for the dead. This authority explains that in these contexts men do not derive pleasure from the woman’s voice. In fact, the Pasuk (Shoftim 5:1) records that Devora the prophetess sang a song of praise to Hashem together with Barak the son of Avinoam. According to the simple reading of the text, Devora was married to Lapidot and not Barak. The Sdei Chemed writes that he believes that it is proper to be strict and not follow the 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 Poskim oppose this practice of German Jewry (see Otzar Haposkim E.H. 21:1:20:3). However, some cite the Gemara (Megila 23a) that states that women are forbidden to receive an Aliyah to the Torah because of Kavod Hatzibbur as proof to the German practice. They argue that the fact that the Gemara does not mention Kol Isha as the reason to forbid women’s Aliyot proves that the Kol Isha 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 Eliashiv 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.
Accordingly, the question of whether the Kol Isha 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. It seems appropriate, though, not to expand this leniency and permit situations beyond that which the German Poskim specifically authorized – a group of men and women singing Zemirot together. 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 Shechita” (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 Isha 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 Yetzer Hara is not interested in what the eyes do not see.” The second is that technically he 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 Tekiat Shofar and Kriat Megila when hearing them on the radio, then the prohibition of Kol Isha 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 Yetzer 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 Shevet Halevi 3:E.H.181 and Rav Binyamin Silber (Az Nidberu 9:9) also rule strictly on this question.
Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 1:6) and Rav Chaim David Halevi (Teshuvot Aseh 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 absolutely no basis to permit Kol Isha merely 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 no recognized Halachic authority rules that the use of a microphone alone mitigates the prohibition of Kol Isha.
Husband and Wife
The Pitchei Teshuva (Yoreh Deah 195:10) is uncertain whether a husband is forbidden to hear his wife singing during the time when the couple must separate. The Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 195:23) and Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:75) rule strictly and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Taharat Habayit 2:167-170) rules leniently, but writes that one who is strict on this matter will be blessed. Rav Mordechai Willig (in a Shiur delivered at Yeshiva University) ruled that a couple is permitted to rely on the lenient ruling of Rav Ovadia Yosef.
A Young Girl
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe O.C.1:26) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Taharat Habayit 2:270) rule (based on the Mishna Berura 75:17) that in case of need, one may rely on the ruling that the prohibition of Kol Isha does not apply to girls who are not Niddot. Rav Moshe writes (in 1947) that one may assume that there is no question with girls below the age of eleven. Rav Moshe writes that men must be strict regarding girls older than the age of eleven, since there are girls who “nowadays” become Niddot at the age of eleven.
Observance of the Kol Isha prohibition is quite challenging for us as this prohibition runs counter to the prevailing Western culture. In today’s promiscuous society where outrageous behavior is deemed acceptable, a woman’s singing voice appears innocuous. Moreover, the general culture views this prohibition offensive and demeaning to women. We are challenged to hold firm to our beliefs against the flow of the general cultural tide. This is one of the issues that we must part company with the rest of society, just as Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu parted with their two servants on the road to Akeidat Yitzchak. Rav Yehuda Amital told me that we should strictly observe the Kol Isha prohibition today precisely because of the deterioration of the moral standards of western society.