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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Kol Isha

This week's Torah/Haftorah portion featured songs from two women:

Miriam and Devorah.

So what I'm trying to figure out is, did they sing these songs to "Women's Only" groups? Did Miriam say to Moshe, "Hey bro, gotta sing a song now, you had your turn. Now if you'd be so kind as to take all the male folk with you a couple miles in that direction so they don't hear me sing..."

Or did Devorah say to Barak, "Barak, thanks for all the help with the battle and all, but it is against Halacha for you to hear me sing, so get lost."

And if so, who recorded this stuff for the Chumash or Navi? Please enlighten me and reconcile how these very clear examples of women singing in public jibe with the common Orthodox practice of banning men from hearing them sing.


Mindy said...

yes, they did. Miriam and the women banged their tambourines so their voices wouldnt be heard.

Her brother Moshe may have written the song down; after all she was allowed to sing for him.

Jack's Shack said...

I don't buy it. I don't believe that kol isha was a real issue then. It is only in modernity that we have managed to mangle and twist halacha and minhagim into such a crazy mess.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Kol isha doesn't apply to religious contexts, according to some opinions. And Miriam was a PROPHET and Devora was not just a prophet but also a JUDGE so i think she knew her halakha. :-)

Jacob Da Jew said...

Interesting. Never thought about the point that you are bringing up.

Halfnutcase said...

well, I thought kol isha was a hilchos yichud issue and that rabbinic enactment wasn't made until dovid hamelech's time (in response to the misbehavior of his son). (or at least that is how tradition has it.)

Sure in those days a man could listen to a woman singing.

Ezzie said...

1) They were singing as a group.
2) They were singing shevach to Hashem.

Both of those are ways in which many (most?) hold it is permissible for a man to hear a woman sing. [My charedi cousins in Israel gave me a tape to listen to of a choir from their school, and said it was fine because it was a choir. My wife's family holds shevach l'Hashem is okay (Sephardi).]

Also, didn't Miriam lead the women away from the camp?

Emily said...

I feel like the application of this is really inconsistant. It's one of those things that everyone knows is there, but I have yet to run into people who follow it. Even at the Chabad house on my campus women sing at dinner on shabbos, and the rebbitzin was dancing and singing with all of the other women (without a mechitzah) on Simchat Torah. I also vaguly remember hearing something about Kol Isha not applying when people are singing in group, since there is then doubt as to who's voice you're hearing? Sadly, I have no source for that at all.

PsychoToddler said...

The text implies that Devorah was singing alone. How does this affect your argument?

goon said...

The grammer in Shmot (15:21) is interesting. "Vata'an lahem Miriam ...", "Miriam spoke to them...". The song is directed from the women to the men, otherwise the text would read "lahen" if it was only to the women. However, it does not appear that Miriam and the women sang, otherwise the text would read "vatashar". The latter is the text of the song of Devora, as it states "vatashar Devora uVarak ben Avinoam...". It's not really explicit whether they sang together, to each other or individually to their gender groups, only that they sang the same song.

Proponents and opponents of "kol isha" can probably find support for either side.

Did Halacha, as we know it, exist back then? The Rabbanim would have us believe that but this is an argument based on belief rather than historical support, which is sketchy at best. There is probably more historical justification for Halacha developing in the early Rabbinnic period rather than in biblical times. To argue that the protagonists in the biblical narrative were aware of Halacha as we know it is difficult.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

vata‘an means "and then she answered/responded". it seems to be a call-and-response form of singing/chanting.

RaggedyMom said...

RaggedyDad and I were just talking about this over Shabbos. I'm not going to be able to weigh in with all of the halachic specifications, but it does feel a little like one of those things where people posit that "things were different then" which I find incongruent and annoying (eg. the way upstanding, frum people appear dressed in photographs from the 1950s which would not fly at all today - though I know it's quite different than what you brought up). This seems like one of those grey areas that went on to become very black-and-white.

Eli said...

You raise an interesting point. But, regardless of the halachik implications, I really like the imagery associated with vata'an. I see it as the men singing the song verse by verse, with the women responding in a kind of responsive form "ashira...".
Perhaps a classic rock version is due?

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Maybe they were skeptics?

yitz said...

"Shir" or "shira" is actually poetry, not song. The word for music, melody etc. is either "mizmor" or "niggun". You can read more about this on my blog here.
Halacha began at Sinai, and obviously developed throughout Jewish history, to this day. There are very definitely limitations to the laws of Kol Isha, such as singing together, or singing songs of holiness, as has already been mentioned. Some are strict even with this, but this does not mean that it's all made up. Sure, you can find many heretical views in cyberspace and the JBlogosphere about this, but this does not negate the truth. And yes, you can find many variant opinions within the realm of Halacha, on just about every topic. But there are limits!

alan said...

The sources for "Kol Isha" are totally sketchy, even in the Gemara...
it's mortally unclear whether what's being prohibitted is women singing in font of men, women singing in front of men who are davenning, womening singing in front of men who are saying shema, women speaking in front of men, women speaking in front of men who are davenning, or womening speaking in front of men who are saying shema, etc. etc.

That's totally avoiding the question(s) of whether "Kol Isha" is meant to apply only to men hearing women sing/speak *for the purposes of their own sexual arousal*.

It's one of the most shadily-clarified halachot on Earth, and yet it's frequently wielded like a stick in my experience as an excuse just to "shut women up" - when even according to the most machmir opinions, the chiyuv would actually be on the men to get up and leave, since for a woman to sing is completely muttar - it's just the man can't hear it.

[Required comment about assumed heterosexuality]

And don't get me started about those people who interpret Kol Isha to preclude women saying zemirot and tefillot out loud. I've been to a number of shabbos meals where the men sit there burping and singing off key while the women just sit like small animals with their heads down waiting for the leashes to be taken of - or else they use that opportunity to start cleaning up after the men. Or shuls where the women's side of the mechitzas are deathly quiet and it feels like they're not allowed to davenned at all.

Doctor Bean said...

You're trying to make sense of rabbinic law? How quaint! Let me know how that goes.

Hila said...

PT: I can't speak for anyone but myself but I think it's complete cwap. So help me God if He doesn't agree. Could be that I'm biased and I was raised to use my voice as much as possible. I come from a family of singing women, several of whom have made singing and performing on stage their livelihood. So for me, it is unnatural for women not to sing.

Alan made an interesting point about Shabbos tables and women not singing, etc. This past Shabbos we were singing and whatnot after lunch and of course all the guys were off key. It really started to annoy me, so I started to sing louder. My friend Aliza looked at me and I thought she was gonna have a heart attack. It honestly didn’t occur to me at the time that they might find it *inappropriate*. Not that I would have stopped anyway. Shabbos amongst the mixed denominations at our campus centers is much different from the all-Orthodox one I experienced this Saturday. (Aside from lunch at the Rabbi’s house since the guests were not all Orthodox). But anyway, it doesn't matter, Point is that I felt better because I didn’t have to sit there listening to horrible singing, and I also heard the voices of other young women who seemed afraid to speak up before. And there's nothing I hate more than watching women be silenced because they're afraid of offending someone.

I'm sure you have plenty of people to discuss this with, but if you want to talk to someone who has an extensive background in not just the religious context but the historical as well, I would be more than happy to put you in touch with a professor of mine. Just e-mail me and let me know. soon2bejew@gmail.com

dilbert said...

I recieved a publication where a very learned rabbi did say that Miraim and the ladies used the tambourines so that the men would not hear their voices clearly and would not be guilty of hearing kol isha(when I read this passage to my wife, she took the publication outside, put it on the driveway, and ran over it many times in her 45 thousand ton Sequoia- dust to dust, tree to ground, but I digress).

I think that people's answers to the question basically reveal their attitudes towards halacha in general. The strict say that kol isha is from God, and just like the Patriarch/Matriarchs kept all 613 mitzvot, they kept kol isha at the red sea. On the other end, those who see halacha as non-binding and non-Divine, disregard kol isha altogether as an anachronism of an earlier, primitive age. And then there are those of us in the middle.

There have been a number of very scholarly articles written about kol isha(I think R. Saul Berman had one in the Edah Journal, and R. Yehuda Henkin responded in his book Equality Lost, among many others). The bottom line for us liberal orthodox types is that kol isha is a restriction against hearing seductive song. Therefore, it doesn't apply for religious song, group singing, non-seductive singing, etc.(for those of the historical bent, it seems that ladies of the evening back many ages ago used to sing as an inducement). Additionally, for those who do not want to give up going to Shakira concerts, it doesn't apply when the singing is not direct, so amplified/mic'ed singing is also ok.

By the way, I seem to recall that your daughter has had some dealings with this issue as well in her musical career.

Shifra said...

What Doctor Bean said.
And also:
Don't get me started!!!

Anonymous said...

Im not here to weigh in the halachik issues and their development just yet(though if enough people say things in an unjust manner I might feel compelled:)) Nor am i gonna weigh in on possible dispensations for shirei torah or other aspects of the issue. but let me weigh in just one thing that females might have a problem with, but guys should fully understand and if not... well u r a Liar! The idea that there is a ridiculous amount of attraction that comes from listening to a women sing is 10000% true. Im not sure if i put enough zero's after the comment to emphasize enough. It might not be fair, it might be totally perverse, but we need to have at least the intellectual honesty to say that nowadays, a guy, or group of guys, who listen to a girl sing(some might add in well here, but im leacing it out) will inevitably have thoughts of a sexual nature--to put it as simply as i possibly can. How this should played out in the halachik realm is a complicated discussion, but this much cannot be denied. Certainly its true on a global level(i.e. for most guys under most circumstances). I find an apt comparison to be the issue of going around without a shirt. for guys-- whatever(im not saying its assur or muttar-allowed or not allowed) for girls--well topless has its own connation for girls than for guys. i think any intellectually honest person would agree with that---but still feel free to disagree anyway.Brad

Shifra said...

I ASKED you not to get me started but Brad, you've gone and done it anyway! OK I'll try to limit myself.

There are so many things for a man to find attractive about women - their eyes or their speaking voices for example. Unless you are suggesting blindfolds for men or burkas for women there is no avoiding attraction. If the female voice is too much for a man to bear he should avoid it, but I don't think it's fair to decide what a woman is allowed based on what might attract a man.

PS You can't have more than 100% of something. That's just a personal pet peeve.

Ezzie said...

PT - If you were talking to me, I'd go with Shevach L'Hashem. The reasons are either/or, not 'both needed'.

Shira Salamone said...

Brad, now that you've gotten *me* started, too, let me just say that I'm unaware of any halachah that prohibits a *woman* from hearing a *man* sing. Sometimes it seems to me that Halachah treats men as though they have very little self-control and are totally dependent on women to ensure that they behave appropriately--which attitude, in addition to resulting in restrictions on clothing, singing, and dancing imposed on women, is also pretty insulting to men. (That it doesn't seem to have occurred to the rabbis that they were insulting themselves is a source of considerable astonishment to me.)

Ezzie said, "My wife's family holds shevach l'Hashem is okay (Sephardi).] Last fall, my husband and I went to a concert of Ladino music in which all of the singers were women. Did I mention that the concert took place in an Orthodox synagogue? Do I mention that the synagogue was Sefardi? Did I mention that my husband was very far, indeed, from being the only man in the audience? Now you know one of the reasons why I think Sefardim are the *intelligent* Jews.

Jack's Shack said...


I hate arguments that suggest that men have no control. Sometimes I get distracted by a pretty woman, or sometimes it is because of some particularly onerous task I am involved in.

Either way as an adult I take responsibility for myself and haven't any problem staying focused when I need to.

This is just balderdash.

Shira Salamone said...

Jack, that's exactly my point. Men are perfectly capable of taking responsibility for their own actions, and should neither treat themselves nor expect to be treated otherwise.

Halfnutcase said...

Now, of course, you all have gotten me started as well.

It really is insulting how people suggest that men have no self control. I'm a man, I'm around women every single day in school, and y'know what? I don't look at them for fun, I ignore them when they sing, and I certainly don't just go looking to do any kind of innapropriate thing just because girls are around me. This entire fetish with boys having no self control is simply an excuse. It's an excuse to control the women, and I think that it is very, very evil.

Near as I can tell, I still can't find a classic source that says that "women can't expose their ankles" or "women can't show above their elbows" Or "women can't show their collar bones. I have not found that "married women cannot show their hair".

THe only one of those halachos I've found anything close to, is the halacha that a man shouldn't listen to a woman sing. That I have found, and it is interesting to hear it mentioned that it's actualy pretty shoddily codified.

WHen I have found, however, is in hilchos shema it states that a man should not say the shema around a woman's exposed hair, her exposed calf (and no, interesting enough, based on the source tights are clearly not good enough. Only a long skirt will do.) and a low collar bone, etc. THis I have found, but stating those halachot implicitly implies that women wore that kind of clothing, even jewish women, and that this was a regular deal. What it also says is that a man MAY say shema and pray around these things is he is capable of diverting his attention/looking aside and praying. THis is permited.

I'm still waiting for the section that says that women may never show their collar bone, or even funnier that a long skirt is not tznius (contrary to the implications of the simin of shulchan aruch devoted to saying shema infront of nakedness.)

It's all stupid because boys can certainly control themselves. I think that this whole "no healthy boy can control him self" is nothing more than an excuse that origionates from victorian standards of modesty (because the first time this shows up is with a victorian era rabbi, the chafetz chaim) and is nothing more than an excuse used by misogynistic men to justify keeping women out of their sight.

Anonymous said...

Both shifra and shira are entirely correct. Yes there is no limit to the amount of things that males can find attractive about females, and obviously a burka is not something that i think is recommended for orthodox Jews, and while blindfolds is cetainly an interesting idea(and has some related ideas in the talmud) for the most part that's considered outside the norm for orthodox practice. and yes if a man finds a woman's voice alluring and its a woman who he is not married to, he should avoid it( i think that is an endorsment to the comments of our teachers of blessed memory, so in that case we are not disagreeing) and its also correct observation that its most probably not fair to put the onus on the women if the impropriety,so to speak, is at the behest of the man. ITs also true that more than 100% is not possible in the case that we r talking about, though what is ur pet peeve is just my cute over-emphasis(im a math major so i know what im talking about here) and as well its true, that as far as i know, there is no global halachah that precludes women from listening to men sing is permitted(though in a particular case I can imagine a scenario where that should be avoided as well) as for the fact that its insulting to men... well that maybe or maybe not accurate. but my point is regardless of whether its insulting--is it true??for the most part?in any instances? in many instances? in almost all instances?? and if it is, while there is what to discuss as how to that should impact our actions(i.e. all the instances of leniancies or putting the onus on the men and not the women etc.) I just wanted to weigh in on the fact that I think that assumption is totally correct(notice i didnt say 1000% out of concern for u shifra) and i dont think females necc. can weigh in on whether its true or not, and i also dont think that jack or nutcase(as much as i love them and their blogs) can say that based on their own urges that their is or isnt any truth to the premise. There are certainly many exceptions, if a man has only homo-sexual urges he probably doesnt find any issue with having females sing in front of him. The question is globally, and there is what to discuss about what percentage would be considered a problem that should now require a cross-the board response. and to adress shifra's point, im not necc sure where the good middle ground should be between doing what we can to avoid improper relationships/thoughts/actions and saying "each man is an island and has to be responsible for his own actions" but i do trust the wisdom of our sages of blessed memory, and in this specific case of kol isha--i've found them wise beyond comparison when it comes to discussing the danger(the impacts on our actions is a longer discussion), and an intellectually honest man i think would agree that there is an overwhelming response(percentage wise, not in strength of response) of sexual attraction for males when females sing. and i find that letting our teachers be my guide is a nice way of not resorting to burkas or blindfolds while not ignoring the very-real hormonic response.Brad

PsychoToddler said...

The question really is that we see quite clearly and unambiguously in the text, whether the Chumash or Shoftim, that women DID sing publicly, and so how and when did that become something that men could not listen to.

My question is how exactly does the obscure trump the obvious?

And don't tell me it's analagous to Yaakov marrying sisters which we now know is assur. There is very clear prohibition against marrying sisters in the Chumash. There is no prohibition against kol isha in the Tanach.

My feeling is that the Talmudic source of this was meant rhetorically, and was instead interpretted literally.

Halfnutcase said...

funny how all those men who assert that they have so self control and freak out over anything discount the experiences of other men who dissagree as weird.

Nothing like saying that anyone who disagrees with you is weird.

Some types of kol isha are a problem, but mostly those involve one on one singing that is very personal and intimate already. Everything else? not really.