The Israeli media recently reported the story of an observant singer, Eliyahu Faizkov, whose high-pitched singing vocals have been banned from some religious radio stations. Apparently, some listeners had objected, assuming that they were listening to the voice of woman.
The mere suggestion that kol ishah (the prohibition of a man listening to a woman singing) should apply in the modern era is bound to raise hackles. In a society where overt sexual behaviour is common-place, this rule seems anachronistic: laughable perhaps, certainly deeply counter-cultural and to many, disempowering and offensive to women. Yet kol ishah is widely observed in the religious world and actually reflects deep truths about male-female interactions.
The key source is the Talmudic statement by Shemuel noting that a woman’s voice is sexually exciting; this indicates that in principle a man should not listen to a woman singing. Almost all sources understand this dictum to refer only to a woman’s singing voice.
The circumstances in which this rule applies has been debated for centuries. Some suggest that Shemuel’s statement was made only with reference to a man reciting the Shema – i.e. he may not say the Shema within earshot of a woman singing. Other important sources understand that the statement is a general one: a man may not listen for pleasure to a woman singing even when he is not praying or saying the Shema, as this would be considered a forbidden form of stimulation. The Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish law) clearly rules in favour of the second, more stringent opinion.
There is fierce discussion among later sources about men and women singing together in groups, especially around the Shabbat table. Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg notes that the common practice was (and remains) that women refrained from singing Shabbat songs in the presence of guests who were not family members. Yet in nineteenth-century
Contemporary halachists debate whether the restriction of kol ishah should apply to broadcast and recorded music. Rabbi Yaakov Breisch assumes that the prohibition applies with full force in such circumstances, but Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg contends that in the case of a radio broadcast or recording, one is not actually hearing the voice, but an electronic reproduction of it. While this may seem a technicality, the qualitative distinction between live and recorded music is undeniable and since one cannot fulfil the Mitzvah of hearing the Megillah over the radio, presumably a broadcast of a woman’s voice cannot constitute kol ishah. He also connects visual and aural stimulation and rules that when the man cannot see the woman, he may listen to a radio broadcast of her voice. Rabbi Yosef agrees with this position, but asserts that the same leniency won’t apply to a television show! For obvious reasons, he also restricts it to a case where the man has no idea what the woman singing looks like.
For the modern reader, the halachic issues are insignificant in comparison with the conceptual difficulties raised by kol ishah. Are men really aroused by women’s voices? Why is there no equivalent prohibition for women, called, say kol ish? Shouldn’t these rules be dependent on societal norms? If so, hardly anyone today considers a woman’s singing voice to be erotic. (Rabbi Yosef and others assert that the fact that we are comfortable with women’s voices does not remove the prohibition of kol ishah).
The Talmud places the onus on men to avoid listening to women’s voices. It may be polite (and it certainly makes life easier) for a woman to avoid singing in the presence of a man, but the burden of obligation falls on the man to avoid situations that compromise his religious life. There is no obligation for a woman to refrain from singing and no expectation that a woman should stifle her need to sing: sometimes, a man will have to make himself scarce. As with other areas of Jewish life, great sensitivity is required to weigh competing interests – in this case, the very real need of women to express themselves through the powerful medium of song, balanced against the law of kol ishah.
Judaism offers a wise approach to understanding male-female interactions. We delude ourselves if we think that men and women are sexually stimulated in the same way: a cursory glance at contemporary advertising and media is sufficient to dispel that myth. Judaism recognises that men are more frequently aroused by visual and other sensory stimuli than women. To redress this quite natural imbalance, Jewish law imposes a number of restrictions on men beyond those also incumbent on women: one of these is kol ishah. Put simply, creating a healthy and respectful Jewish society demands recognition and regulation of various stimuli, tailored to the needs of each gender.
In a desensitised world, kol ishah seems quaint, almost absurd. Yet it enables us to understand just how delicate our level of awareness should be. It is a tragedy that most men today claim to find nothing erotic in a woman’s singing voice, something that is natural and healthy. Observing kol ishah is one way to rekindle lost sensitivities, enabling us in turn to invest more of ourselves in our special relationships.
Shemuel said: the voice of a woman is ervah (sexually exciting), as the verse says: (Song 2:14) for your voice is sweet and your appearance attractive. (Talmud Berakhot 24a)
It is prohibited (for a man) to hear the voice of one forbidden to him. (Shulhan Arukh Ever HaEzer 21:1)
Whenever the song isn’t crude and [the man] doesn’t intend to enjoy [the woman’s] voice… while it is certainly appropriate to be stringent (and avoid listening)… it isn’t a surprising view (to be lenient). (Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, Sedey Hemed, quoting Divrey Hefetz)
When I came to the city of
….Shemuel’s law is not a general proposition as to the sexually arousing character of a woman’s voice, but rather is a restriction on the recitation of Shema under circumstances where it is not possible to maintain proper concentration. (Rabbi Saul Berman, Kol Isha)
The conclusion (of Rabbi Berman)…. is fundamentally mistaken, resulting from the author’s having ignored the key discussion…. (Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, Kol Isha Reviewed)
Do not think that now that everyone is accustomed to women’s voices we are no longer concerned about erotic thoughts…. (Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer 1:6)
Joke: May a religious man attend the opera? He’s not over* until the fat lady sings.
* doesn’t transgress
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.