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Parshas Beshalach (5775)

Kol Isha

While surfing the web a few years ago, I came across the following hilarious “Top Ten” list from Top Ten Hebrew Phrases that Can Double as Names for African-American Women.

Some of the phrases on the Top Ten list included Tekiyah (which literally means “blowing”), Shanda (actually a Yiddish phrase meaning “a shame” or “a disgrace”), and Aaliyah (lit. “ascending”).

My favorite entry on the list was Koleesha. This phrase is really a combination of two Hebrew words, kol, voice, and ishah, woman, and refers to the Rabbinical prohibition of Kol Ishah. The Talmud in Berachos 24a teaches that a man is forbidden to listen to the singing voice of a woman, because hearing her sing is usually sexually arousing and may lead him to impure thoughts.

[While it might be hard for a woman to imagine such a thing, the Sages are very in tune with human nature - and this rule has been observed by Jews for thousands of years. You could argue that on one level, we've lost sensitivity to the sensuality of a woman's voice. But I think any honest man would admit that on another level, it's still very much there. So with this in mind, when the Torah sets up barriers to protect society's moral fabric, the emphasis was placed to counter the reality of man's weaker character in these areas. Hearing the pleasant melody of a woman singing is just one way a man could become aroused, therefore he should avoid this medium, given that we are obligated to refrain from exposing ourselves to erotic situations. But, you ask: Why should women suffer restrictions simply because men can't control themselves? The answer is that we are all in this together. We all have to do our share and help each other out. - quoted from’s "Ask the Rabbi"]

Some say that the prohibition of kol ishah only applies where one recognizes the woman who is singing, or at least can see her. However, where one does not recognize the woman who is singing and does not see her then it is permitted to listen to her singing. According to these Halachic authorities one may listen to a woman singing on the radio if he does not know the woman. [Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ZT”L ruled that even if one knows her from looking at her picture, one may still listen to her voice.] Other authorities say that any singing that is not live (i.e. it is on mp3, CD etc.) is permitted since it is only her actual voice (live radio) that is forbidden.

Based on the above we can ask a serious question on this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Beshalach. The Torah relates that after witnessing the great miracle of Kerias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Sea, Moses and the Jewish people collectively sang a special shirah (song) of thanks to G-d for all that He did for them in saving them from their Egyptian tormentors (see Exodus 15:1-19).

We are then told (ibid. verses 20-21) that Miriam the prophetess took her drum in her hand with all the Jewish women following her and she said to them that they should (also) sing shirah to thank G-d for splitting the sea and for saving them.

Surely Miriam and the righteous Jewish women who were with her followed the rules of modesty and kol ishah - as befitting true daughters of Israel – so how then did they sing the shirah in the presence of the men? Another question is raised on this verse by the various Bible commentators. When telling us that Miriam said to the women to sing with her, the Torah writes: “Vataan ‘lahem’ Miriam – and Miriam spoke up to them”. This is grammatically incorrect because the Hebrew word lahem (with the letter mem at the end) actually means ‘to them’ in masculine plural, and since Miriam was talking to the women, it should have stated lahen (with the letter nun at the end) which means ‘to them’ in feminine plural.

The Vilna Gaon writes that these two questions answer each other. Miriam had no intention of singing in front of the men for that would have created a problem of kol ishah for all the men who were standing there. Rather, she spoke up to the men that they should continue singing shirah to G-d while she and the other women would join in the celebration by playing the drums and cymbals.

I would like to share with you two other approaches to answer our first question, one with possible halachic ramifications for us today.

The Me’am Lo’ez (a Torah anthology compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in 1730) writes that Miriam and the other women brought along with them drums and other musical instruments not only to add to the festivities, but also to ‘drown out’ the sounds of their voices so that the men shouldn’t hear kol ishah.

Finally, the Chid”a in his work Nachal Kedumim, answers, based on the Talmud in Niddah 13a, that whenever there is Eimsa D’Shechinah, a fear and awareness of G-d’s Divine Presence, there is no concern that a person will have impure thoughts. Therefore, at the Splitting of the Sea where the heavens opened up, as it were, and G-d revealed Himself in all His glory, there was definitely an Eimsa D’Shechinah, so that women and men were allowed to sing together at that time without any fear or concern that the men would be sexually aroused by the women’s voices.

There were some modern Halachic authorities who at times were lenient with regard to men and women singing zemiros (holy songs) together at the Shabbos table, based on the above rationale. They reasoned that while engaged in ‘holy’ activities such as singing Shabbos songs, a man who hears a woman sing is not likely to have impure thoughts.

[As with most of Halachah (Jewish law), when confused or in doubt regarding a specific law or the rationale behind it, it is best to speak with one’s rabbi or other competent Halachic authority.]

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