Thursday, October 14, 2004

Men in Halachah—Shirking their responsibilities

The sages of old were so convinced that females were “the other” that they named an entire Talmudic tractate—“Nashim (Women)”—after us. I thought it would be interesting to treat the men like Martians, for a change, and see how they like it.

So here’s my thesis: According to halachah/Jewish law, all men have poor self-control.

You want proof? You’ve got it.

I copied this from, Simcha’s blog—on that blog, just check the sidebar to the right for the “Select Topics” list and click on "Kol Isha I."

“It is generally understood that a man is not allowed to hear a woman's singing voice. . . .

The central talmudic discussion of kol ishah [my translation: a woman’s voice] is in Berakhos 24a:

R. Yitzhak said, "An exposed handbreadth [of flesh] of a woman is ervah (a matter of sexuality)."For what purpose? If I say that the rule treats the matter of gazing upon such a thing, Rav Sheshes said, "Why did Scripture list ornaments worn outside clothing along with those worn inside [at Num. 31:5]? It was to tell you that whoever looks even at the little finger of a woman is as if he stared at her sexual parts." Rather, the rule relates to one's own wife, and it pertains to the recitation of the Shema.

Rav Hisda said, "A woman's leg is ervah, as it is said, 'Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers' (Is. 47:2), and thereafter, 'Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yes, your shame shall be seen' (Is. 47:43)."

Shmuel said, "A woman's voice is ervah, as it is said, 'For your voice is sweet and your face pretty' (Song 2:14)."

R. Sheshes said, "A woman's hair is ervah, as it is said, 'Your hair is as a flock of goats' (Song 2:14)."

I should, perhaps, mention that another translation of ervah is “nakedness/nudity.”

Hence, the prohibition against hearing a woman sing, kol ishah ervah, can be translated literally as “a woman’s voice is nakedness/nudity” (or, in another version of the prohibition, kol ishah ervatah, “a woman’s voice is her nakedness/nudity”).

So let me get this straight: According to the Talmud, not only a woman’s leg, but also her (singing) voice, her hair, an exposed bit of her flesh/skin, and even her pinky are the functional equivalents of total nudity.

By way of response, I’ve copied the text below from Miriam's post (and the comments on) “Bnei for the men, Braq for the women,” found at

"Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, the head of the central rabbinic court in Bnei Brak, is asking righteous women to kindly leave shul before the service is over for reasons of 'modesty.' "

One anonymous commenter, obviously more learned than I, had this to say: “The midas chassidus [attribute/character trait of piety] is for men to take care of their own souls . . .“

My own comment, both to that post and to this one:
When I was a kid, there was a saying: "Children should be seen, not heard." Apparently, some in the Jewish community are of the opinion that not only should women not be heard ("kol ishah ervatah"), women should not [be] seen, either. Yes, indeed, why should women miss kaddish [which can be recited only with a minyan] and davvening b'tzibur [praying with a congregation]? Why is it more important for women to "protect" human males than to show kavod [honor, respect] for HaShem? (Would you walk out of a classroom before the class was over?) Why, pray tell, does the onus for the preservation of tzniut [modesty] always fall upon the women? Is a man not responsible for controlling his own yetzer ha-ra [evil inclination]?

As you can see, according to the Talmud and at least some current rabbanim/rabbis, men have such poor self-control that even looking at a woman’s pinky is enough to distract them with sexual thoughts. By commenting on a woman's body in such a judgmental manner, the rabbis actively encourage men to shift the responsibility for their own yetzer ha-ra/evil inclination to us women and blame their own poor self-control on us .



Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Just to make life interesting, I'm now going to commit the unpardonable sin of being the first to comment on my own post. :)

First of all, my husband thinks that the whole idea of a woman's singing voice being lascivious is ridiculous.

Second, contrary to those traditionalists who believe that Judaism developed without any influence from other cultures, I find a striking resemblance between the notion that a woman's singing voice is equal to her nakedness and the idea expressed in the ancient Greek myth of the Sirens, namely, that the gorgeous singing of some female entities could lure helpless sailors into crashing their ships on the rocks.

Third, the rabbis' discussion of "ervah" reminds me of the interpretation that one of my best friends gives to the rabbis' discussion of the plagues in the Seder. She's of the opinion that the "plague count" is a game of one-upmanship, each rabbi trying to top the other. The fact that the rabbis quoted in my post reached back into the Tanach/Bible to find quotes proving that everything they named was "ervah" suggests that they, too, were playing a game, which I hereby dub "See How Learned I Am."

Fourth, what really amazes me, not only in the instance of this rabbinical discussion, but concerning rabbinical discussions of this type in general, is the extent to which we Jews insist on taking *everything* the rabbis said so seriously and so literally. If the discussion concerning “ervah” was really a game among friends showing off to one another, why do the statements made in the course of this game still stand as halachah? Why is it (probably) considered heretical to suggest that, sometimes, er, boys just want to have fun?

Thu Oct 14, 01:42:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Barefoot Jewess said...

The Torah has such penetrating insight into the human condition. At the very beginning, Adam blamed Eve for his behaviour. IMO, not much has changed. My favourite copout is attributing higher spirtual gifts to women than to men, so therefore women need not participate so much in ritual, and especially, publicly. If women are so spritually gifted, why are they not the teachers???

Thu Oct 14, 01:48:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

Easy one first. The game of one upmanship that is the listing of plagues in the hagada(my daughter is very apropriately reading the Dr Seuss book "up on top") is actually to maximize the numbers of plagues. The reason? "kol hamachala asher samti b'mitzraim lo asim alecha" all the sickness that I put on Eygpt I will not put on you. Therefore, it is better for us if we can maximize the afflictions put on Eygpt.

Talmudic attitudes towards women. They seriously felt that women were alluring sexual beings and that men had trouble controlling their impulses around them. If you look around at today's society, it seems that they were not far off base. Because issues such as preventing extramarital relations were so important, safeguards were put into place. Some interpret these safeguards more strictly than others.
As far as the singing... why do Britney Spears, Christina Aguilara, Madonna,,, etc sing with barely any clothes? Clearly they see themselves as (or are at least trying to be) sexually alluring. In the traditional community, the restriction on hearing women's singing is interpreted as liberally as banning only listening to prostitutes trying to allure customers, or not listening to purposefully alluring music during prayers, all the way to banning any form of female voice, no mater if it is recorded, or diluted among many others.
Soooo, I dont think the Talmudic rabbis were way off base in their analysis of human behavior in this instance. Obviously, shifting blame/responsibility to the women was not their intent, and the interpretation of what they said is open to a wide variety possibilities. btw, there are many dichotomous statements about women in the gemara, many very very complementary, and many not complementary. suggested reading: Rabbi Yehuda Henkin- "Equality Lost" and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz'- " Jewish women in time and torah".

Thu Oct 14, 02:16:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Barefoot Jewess, I, too, have a problem with some of the rabbinic apologetics. If it's such a privilege for men to be obligated to observe all the time-bound mitzvot, and, likewise, such a privilege for women to attend to the honorable task of caring for a family, then why don't men say "baruch . . . she-asani ish (praised is the One who made me a man)" and women say "baruch she-asani isha (praised is the One who made me a woman)?" Why must a man insult half the Jewish people every morning by praising HaShem for *not* making him a woman, while a woman must resign herself to praising HaShem for having made her "in accordance with Your will?"

Dilbert, concerning the haggadah, one of the reasons why I have a problem with plague-multiplication games is that HaShem is also said to have chastised the angels for singing while his creatures (the Egyptians) were drowning in the sea, according to one of my favorite midrashim. And isn’t there a prohibition somewhere in the Torah against hating Egyptians, on the grounds that we once lived in their land as resident aliens? (“ . . . ki ger hayiti b’eretz mitzrayim”—wish I could remember [or find] the whole quote.)

As for female singers who troop around the stage in their underwear :(, their clothing—or lack thereof—has nothing to do with their voices. I see no point in condemning *all* female singers to silence just because *some* of them dress in such immodest attire. Surely one can make a distinction between Madonna and Neshama! I hope that you’re correct in saying that, even in these increasing Chareidi days, there is still a wide variety of interpretations within the Orthodox community concerning the prohibition against listening to a woman sing.

“suggested reading: Rabbi Yehuda Henkin- "Equality Lost" and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz'- " Jewish women in time and torah".” Thanks for the recommendations.

Thu Oct 14, 04:15:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

The midrash of God chastising the angels takes place while the Eygptians were drowning "ma'ase banei tovi'im bayim v'atem omrim shira lifanai" the work of my hands are drowning in the sea and you are singing. In other words, God is mourning the loss of part of his creation, although, obviously, he is assisting in their demise with the miraculous splitting of the sea. The plagues happened to the Eygptians over a period of time and were also divinely brought. Whether it is 10, or 50, or 250 does not impact on the loss of life/creation. No matter how many plagues were brought, the same number met their end. That is why trying to find a higher number does not seem to me objectionable to God. It is defining the means, not the end. And, most importantly, it is not celebrating the death of anyone.

Thu Oct 14, 04:33:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"No matter how many plagues were brought, the same number met their end." You have a point there. Thanks, Doc, I feel better already. :)

To return to our previous topic, may I assume that you prefer Neshama to Madonna? I suppose that the issue of women being shliachot(?) tzibbur/prayer leaders is worth another whole post, as it raises the question of "chiyuv" (obligation, assuming that I'm using the correct Hebrew term)in addition to the "kol isha" controversy.

Thu Oct 14, 05:38:00 PM 2004  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I have no problem with women singing--as long as their pinkies are covered. Unless they're covered with underwear...I guess that...would be...bad...nevermind

Thu Oct 14, 06:07:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Adam, if what the rabbis were on to was tzniut (modesty), I don't have a problem with that. But I do have a problem with the rabbinical standards for tzniut in dress. It seems to me that a blouse high enough to keep anything "interesting" covered even when one bends forward, and a skirt (or pants) long enough that one need not worry about how much is exposed when one sits down, should suffice. What's so immodest about a woman's elbows, that women in some Orthodox communities keep them covered even when it's 90 degrees outside? And what's with the heavy or dark-colored stockings that one sees in some Chareidi communities?

It also seems to me rather interesting that concerns about tzniut appear to be directly mostly at women. Why don’t most Orthodox men dress with tzniut in mind at all times, as Orthodox women do? When was the last time you heard a basketball couch at YU tell his male students that it was assur (forbidden) for them to wear the standard uniform of shorts and a sleeveless top?

Another problem that I have with tradition is, precisely, the difficulty of changing rabbinic decrees to bring them more in line with today’s circumstances. Sure, it was considered a disgrace in biblical times for a woman to have her hair uncovered in public, but in the twenty-first century, who cares? Yet, in some Orthodox communities, it’s unheard of for a married woman to leave home without at least a small scarf or baseball cap on her head. (Don’t get me started on scheitlach, or I’ll refer you to one of my earliest posts, “A wig and a prayer.”

Psycho Toddler, what can I say? :)

Thu Oct 14, 06:27:00 PM 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shira, if you wanted to you could make the same argument you made above against the whole of the religion. Shaboos, who cares. Yom tov, who cares. Shul, who cares. In the 21st century? No one.

The point is this what normative orthodox Judaism is, and beware throwing out the baby with the bathwater

Thu Oct 14, 06:29:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

The difference between Neshama and Madonna is that I own Neshama records and let my kids listen to them. Although you may not want to admit it, there are those that would find Neshama's voice sexually attractive, even when she is singing Shlomo's greatest hits.
How many guys are fantasizing about kd lang? Its not about an individual voice, it is a concept that was accepted by the Rabbis of the talmud, and therefore handed down to us that a woman's voice, under certain conditions, can be erotic. Do you disagree with that possibility? And, to limit the concequences, we have kol isha restrictions.
btw, not to be obnoxious, the restriction is not on the woman singing, its on the man listening. The woman can sing all she wants(of course, some may take steps to silence her, but that is another concern.)

Thu Oct 14, 07:03:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anonymous, I won’t deny that the possibility that we non-Orthodox will throw out the baby with the bathwater is a serious concern. Having used both the original Reform prayer book and the original Reconstructionist siddur in the past, I can attest to that problem from personal experience. On the other hand, having also used the *new* Reform and Reconstructionist siddurim in the past, I can also attest to the fact that at least part of the baby has been reclaimed from the bathwater—both new siddurim are vast improvements over their predecessors in terms of their inclusion of more Hebrew, in the case of the Reform siddur, and more traditional prayers, in the case of both siddurim. There’s hope for us non-frummies yet. :)

Dilbert, I guess, for me, the issue is one of intent. Obviously, one who concerns himself with behaving in accordance with halachah is not going to go out of his way to listen to a woman who *deliberately* sings erotically. I guess it’s that “siyag latorah” (fence around the Law) precautionary attitude that troubles me. Why tar all women all the time with the same brush? On the other hand, I am pleased to learn that the prohibition is against a man listening, not against a woman singing. Thanks for the clarification, Mori.

Thu Oct 14, 07:32:00 PM 2004  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I played a kumzitz recently with my Rabbi. The men were arranged in seats to our right; the women to our left. The men sang all the songs with us; the women were silent. I kept trying to shake the feeling that I had water in my left ear. Somehow, I think we orthodox are missing something.

Fri Oct 15, 05:13:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Renegade Rebbetzin said...

PsychoToddler -

I'm not surprised that happened. I see it happen all the time, particularly at my Shabbos table, where I try to set an example by singing zemirot along with the men, and yet some of the women still stay silent! But I have to say that some of the time, I don't sing along because men and women sing on different keys, and I simply CAN'T match the key they're singing. I wonder if that was the problem with your kumsitz?

Wish I'd been there!

Sun Oct 17, 12:36:00 AM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Gevalt, Rachel, it’s only a few weeks after Yom Kippur and already I’m insulting people?! Perhaps some of my words were poorly chosen. What I meant was that, judging by some of what the rabbis wrote, one might think that *they* thought that men have poor self-control. If *I* were of that opinion, I would have given up on men about 30 years ago, after a married co-worker harassed me repeatedly. (I was too stupid to think of complaining to the boss, at the time.) But as I was saying to dilbert, why tar all men all the time with the same brush?

I think that, as with most aspects of one’s character, self-control varies from one individual to another, and is often influenced by what we learn from others. I don’t think I’d be inaccurate in saying that many men who didn’t have an Orthodox upbringing and/or who don’t have an Orthodox education don’t think of women’s voices as automatically lascivious (though, certainly, one can choose to sing in a lascivious manner). As I said, my husband doesn’t consider women’s voices lascivious. Yet many Orthodox men do. It just seems to me that, if you’ve been taught all your life that a woman’s voice is lascivious, you’ll automatically think of it and react to it that way, even if the woman singing is trying to be modest and serious. For example, after hearing me lead the singing of the High Holiday Yigdal of my childhood on Erev Rosh Hashanah, my rabbi told me that he could understand why the rabbis declared a woman’s voice “ervatah.” Now it’s *my* turn to be insulted! How dare he! I was singing a *prayer,* for heaven’s sake (literally—I was singing for the sake of heaven!)!

I, too, don’t sing loudly when davvening in an Orthodox shul, out of respect. But I, too, strongly prefer to pray in a shul in which a woman’s voice is not an issue. I consider it an honor and a serious responsibility to chant the haftarah, or to be baalat koreh/Torah reader and/or baalat tefillah/prayer leader on those rare occasions on which I’m permitted to do so at my current synagogue (see my post “Responsibilities without rights” at And I expect to be taken seriously on those occasions.

On a less serious note (you should pardon the pun :) ), PsychoToddler, you ain’t kiddin’ when you say the Orthodox are missing something when the women don’t sing—they’re missing half the Jewish people!

And to the z’mirot-singing Renegade Rebbitzen, I offer this advice—drop an octave, jump an octave, or if you’re blessed with a reasonably good ear for music, harmonize. As an alto, I’m rarely in the same key as most others—I’m usually either singing below everyone, jumping an octave down or harmonizing in the “bargain basement,” or singing much more quietly in my upper range (because I have no volume up there in the vocal stratosphere) jumping up an octave or harmonizing above everyone. It works for me almost every time. Try it, you like it. When it comes to singing, I say we ain’t prayin' “Modim” for nothin’--isn't the ability to sing one of the miracles that's with us daily?--so enjoy!

Sun Oct 17, 05:18:00 AM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Thu Oct 21, 08:47:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

When I set up my site meter, I accepted the option of receiving an e-mailed copy of everything that gets posted here. So, seeing an interesting comment in my inbox, I went ahead and responded. Only afterward did I discover that, somehow, the comment to which I was responding never actually got "published" on the blog itself! So I'll copy the missing comment from my e-mail, then re-post the reply that I just deleted.

"'If it's such a privilege for men to be obligated to observe all the time-bound mitzvot, and, likewise, such a privilege for women to attend to the honorable task of caring for a family, then why don't men say "baruch . . . she-asani ish (praised is the One who made me a man)" and women say "baruch she-asani isha (praised is the One who made me a woman)?" Why must a man insult half the Jewish people every morning by praising HaShem for *not* making him a woman, while a woman must resign herself to praising HaShem for having made her "in accordance with Your will?'" The trio of blessing God for not making "me" (e.g. a Jewish man) a woman, gentile or slave may well have been instituted to directly contrast with Pauline Christian theology, wherein there exists "no man nor women, Jew or Greek, free or slave, for ye are all one in Jesus Christ" (my own paraphrase of the verse). In other words, the purpose of these blessings is to asssert that there are differences between groups which Christianity, then on the ascent, sought to abolish. And we are not all "one in Jesus Christ".

The beracha women recite, "she-asani kirtzono" is nearly a thousand years newer than the other berachot, which date to the 3rd or 4th century. So you cannot ask why the formula for men did not read "she-asani ish". It would have necessitated other affirmative declarations for consistency, such as "for making me a Jew" and "for making me free". Then the point that this was in contrast to Paul's doctrine would not have been apparent.

You can surely ask why the woman's formula was written as it was. But that is not a question on Talmudic sages, it is a question on whomever it was that composed that blessing in the 11th or 12 century.

Posted by Anonymous to ON THE FRINGE—AL TZITZIT at 10/21/2004 12:56:02 PM

Thu Oct 21, 09:54:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Wow! This is the first explanation I've ever heard concerning the wording of those brachot that *doesn't* rely on apologetics. And it makes sense, too. What more could I ask? Thank you!

Thu Oct 21, 09:55:00 PM 2004  

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