Is it Permitted to Hear a Woman Sing
Q: Rabbi, I heard that the ‘halacha’ (Jewish law) concerning hearing a woman sing is unclear, and some authorities are lenient. Isn’t the rabbi’s decision to be stringent and forbid hearing women sing, just stubbornness?
A: This is a complex issue, and I will attempt to sum it up concisely.
The Meaning of the Prohibition
The basis of the prohibition stems from the verse: “Let Him not see any nakedness among you” (Deuteronomy 23:15). This is foundation of the duty of modesty for men and women that it is forbidden to expose their nakedness. The Sages added to this, saying: “The voice of a woman is nakedness; a handbreadth of a woman is nakedness” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 24a). In other words, the duty of modesty also applies to a handbreadth of a woman’s body that is normally covered, and also hearing a woman sing. This is what many authorities have written (Rosh, S’mag, R’id, S’mak, R’ah, R’yaz, and many others).
Indeed, some authorities say that the essence of the prohibition is for a man not to recite words of sanctity, such as ‘kriyat Sh’ma’, while he hears a woman sing (Rav Hai Gaon, Rav Yehudah Gaon, R’avyah, Hagaot Mimoniot). The Later authorities (15th Century to present) were divided in their interpretation: Some understood that according to the opinion of these ‘Gaonim’ and ‘Rishonim’, there is no prohibition to hear a woman sing (Be’er Sheva, S’ridei Aish), while others understood that even they would agree that it is forbidden for a man to hear a woman’s singing voice (Gra, Yad Aharon).
We see then, that according to the overwhelming majority of ‘Rishonim’ it is forbidden to hear a woman sing for reasons of modesty, and regarding the opinion of a few of the ‘Rishonim’ – the ‘Achronim’ are divided. Consequently, the ‘Shulchan Aruch’ (Code of Jewish Law) determined that it is forbidden to hear a woman sing because of modesty, and this is how all of the later ‘poskim’ (arbiters) ruled (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 21:1; Mishna Berurah 75:17).
When There is No Intention to Hear
However, a man at home who hears a woman singing, but has no intention or desire to hear her sing, does not transgress the prohibition (Meiri, HaChinuch, Rabbeinu Yona). Others say that even if he has no intention, it is forbidden (Eshkol); however, if it’s difficult for him to go somewhere else, then he is considered ‘anus’ (coerced) and exempt. (Yearim, Mishna Berura 75:17).
Relying on the lenient opinions, some rabbis who were obligated because of their position to participate in Memorial Day ceremonies in which women sang would not leave the event, in order not to offend the bereaved families. Rather, they would have intention not to gain pleasure from her voice. But in situations where there was no fear of insult, they would leave.
However, it is clearly impossible by virtue of a special consent intended for certain individuals so as to prevent insults, to cancel the halacha determined by the Sages, and permit all soldiers to participate in events where women sing, reasoning that in the army, everything soldiers participate in is against their will and opinion, having no intention to listen and enjoy the singing. And the fact that it is an command does not make the situation any better; on the contrary, it makes things worse, for it is an order that contradicts halacha (Rambam, Laws of Kings 3:9).
In the past, it was customary for women to sing lamentations at funerals while escorting the dead, bringing people to tears (Talmud Ketubot 46b). Their lamentations, however, were totally different from singing, devoid of any enjoyment or immodesty (Tifferet Yisrael, Talmud Moed Katan 3:9).
The Song of Deborah
As is well known, the prophetess Deborah sang a song to God after the victory over Sisera and Yavin (Book of Judges 5:1). How then did the Sages decree not to hear a woman sing? The Chida explained that the Divine Presence prevailed upon her, and consequently, there was no fear of immodesty. Others explain she recited the song, and did not sing it with a tune (Mateh Ephraim).
It can also possibly be said that, indeed, there are positive sides to a woman’s singing, and thus, according to the Written Torah, there is no prohibition in hearing it. But the Torah imposed upon the Sages to set regulations and restrictions to protect the Torah, and when they saw that openness between men and women causes serious problems, to the point where one of the sins that led to the destruction of the First Temple was forbidden sexual relations, they decreed a number of regulations of modesty, and thus successfully set boundaries for Israel, until these sins became extremely rare.
There are a few ‘poskim’ who are of the opinion that men and woman are permitted to sing religious songs together, without a woman singing a solo. Perhaps they hold that since they are engaged in sacred matters, there is no fear they will come to sin. Accordingly, rabbis in Germany permitted all those sitting around the Sabbath table to sing religious songs together, and the author of the ‘Sridei Aish’ (2:8), Rabbi Yechiel Yaacov Weinberg, permitted boys and girls from the ‘Yeshurin’ youth movement in Paris to sing together, in order to bring them closer to Judaism. However, according to the vast majority of ‘poskim’, it is forbidden to sing even religious songs together (Tzitz Eliezer 7:28), but it customary not to be particular about the voices of women coming from the ‘ezrat nashim’ (woman’s section of the synagogue) (the Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 190, was stringent in this matter).
Hearing a Recording
The ‘Achronim’ are divided about whether the prohibition applies to hearing a woman sing by way of electronic devices. Some authorities are stringent, since the voice heard is exactly like singer’s original voice (Chelkat Yaacov, Orech Chaim 163; Oz Nidbaru, section 6, 69:8; Shevet Halevi 3:181; Avnei Yeshpeh2:5), while others are lenient when one is not familiar with the singer (Marachei Lev, Orech Chaim 5; Ohr L’tzion, section 2, 6:13; Asei Lecha Rav 1:28; Yibiyeh Omer 6:1). And then there are opinions according to which it is permitted to be lenient even when one is familiar with the singer, for the prohibition is only to hear her voice live (in accordance with R’avyah 1:76; it is also cited in Yibiyeh Omer 9, 108:43 in the name of Rabbi Eliyashiv; B’nei Banim, section 4, 7:6).
Although in a live concert the singer’s voice passes through the amplifying system, since she is present, it is also prohibited (see Pininei Halacha Berachot 5:10; 12:8. Also, Halichot Shlomo Auerbach, Tefillah 20:12).
Although there are certain sides according to which it is possible to be lenient, the opinion of the vast majority of ‘poskim’ forbids a man to hear a woman sing at a live concert. However, regarding hearing a female sing via an electronic device, someone who wishes to be lenient is permitted, because according to many authorities, the Sage’s prohibition does not apply to hearing a recording (further sources in Hebrew can be found at: http://revivim.yhb.org.il/?p=430
Should One be Lenient Today
Q: Maybe in the past, participating in an event where women sang was immodest, and as a result, the Sages prohibited it. But today, since a dignified performance of a female singer is considered a cultural event that enriches the soul, devoid of any immodesty or stimulation of evil impulses, it should be permitted.
Moreover, being stringent in this issue makes a bad name for the religious people, who ostensibly are not capable of controlling their ‘yeitzer ha’ra’ (evil inclination), and hearing the voice of any woman sing causes them sinful thoughts unknown to secular society. In addition, today, avoiding hearing a woman sing is considered an affront to her dignity. Given the circumstances, shouldn’t we seek out leniencies and rely on the opinion of a few of the ‘poskim’ who are lenient?
The Secular Example
A: If the enlightened secular society presented us with an example of normal family life, devoid of infidelity and pitfalls, there would be room to consider this idea. In practice, however, we see that the institution of the family within secular society is constantly being shattered. Various studies have found that three out of four men cheat on their wives, and two out of three married women cheat on their husbands. In addition, almost two-thirds of married couples get divorced. Can ways of modesty be learned from such a society?! Precisely now we can see just how great the wisdom and holiness of our Sages of blessed memory is, having set a protective boundary around the Torah, thereby fencing in the ‘vineyard of Israel’.
“Master of the Locality”
Q: Isn’t the Chief Rabbi of the I.D.F. the ‘mara d’atra’ (master of the locality) of the army? If he instructed that hearing a woman sing is permitted, then we should comply. If not, we weaken the institution of the rabbinate which we labored to strengthen.
A: All of the basic conditions for a rabbi to be considered a ‘mara d’atra’ are not met in the I.D.F. Chief Rabbi. First, the definition of ‘mara d’atra’ is ‘the master of the locality’, in other words, a person who everyone listens to. In the past, this included all issues of halacha and ethics, including wage agreements and strikes. When the status of the rabbinate was weakened, the authority of the rabbi was limited only to the field of halacha. In any case, this was the significance of choosing a rabbi – that the community took upon itself to abide by his halachic instructions; the I.D.F. Chief Rabbi, however, must answer to his commanders. He isn’t even allowed to publicly state a Jewish law without express permission from his commanders and the I.D.F. spokesman. This is how his silence after the dismissal of the cadets was explained. And if he violates these instructions by publicly stating a Jewish law without permission – he’ll be fired. In such a situation, it is obvious he has no authority of ‘mara d’atra’, but only as a senior officer and advisor to the Chief of Staff on religious affairs.
Besides this, a ‘mara d’atra’ should be elected by God-fearing people, whose goal is to strengthen Torah and mitzvoth, and not by secular commanders whose interests are radically different.
When the I.D.F. was established, Rabbi Herzog contacted the army officers asking them to appoint a rabbi, and requested that Rabbi Goren be the representative of the Chief Rabbinate. This is the correct way of appointing a rabbi. And in deed, Rabbi Goren did not see himself subordinate to his commanders, and confronted them frequently, as I have written previously. Gradually, the status of the I.D.F. Chief Rabbi weakened. Therefore, it must sadly be declared that the I.D.F. Chief Rabbi presently has no halachic authority, and certainly has no authority to dispute a halacha commonly accepted by the vast majority of ‘poskim’.
Consequently, when a soldier is ordered to hear a woman sing, he should refuse, thereby strengthening the security of Israel, as it is written: “This is because God your Lord makes His presence known in your camp, so as to deliver you and grant you victory over your enemy. Your camp must therefore be holy. Let Him not see anything lascivious among you, and turn away from you” (Deuteronomy 23:15).