Kol Isha

by Natalie Bergner

Since 1988 Women of the Wall has gathered at the Kotel to pray as a women’s prayer group (not a minyan), in the women’s section. While over the years some of our prayers have changed and our participants have grown from young mothers to grandmothers, one thing has never changed: we have always prayed out loud, raising our voices in song and praise in order to feel a spiritual and communal connection to Judaism. Sadly, throughout 27years of our gathering at the Kotel, there have been constant attempts to silence us. There has been silencing from the police (even though there is no legal basis for prohibiting us from praying out loud) and silencing from other men and women at the Kotel. The mere sound of our voices provokes them. As a women’s prayer group our focus is on fostering a community—a community of women who will stand united if a member says Kaddish in mourning and united if a member is in celebration. It has always been our spiritual intent to sing out loud.

Kol Isha literally means “the voice of a woman.” There is a debate in Talmudic and rabbinic literature as to whether or not men can hear the voice of a woman. At the heart of this issue is the Talmudic understanding (Berakhot 24a, Kiddushin 70b and Sotah 48a) of Shmuel’s statement, “Kol b’isha ervah,” the voice of a woman is ervah, as it is written (Song of Songs 2:14), “Sweet is your voice, comely your appearance.” The Talmud interprets kol b’isha ervah to mean that the voice of a woman is nakedness and therefore it is forbidden. The fear is that the voice of a woman will distract a man from his prayer or study. It is important to note that while this is the root of the prohibition against kol isha, the essential passage comes from Song of Songs, a text that is traditionally looked at metaphorically. Yet somehow Shmuel’s statement (2:14) has, in many cases, come to be understood literally and has been used to oppress women, excluding them from public spheres that involve raised voices, effectively silencing women.

There is a sharp contrast between the later Talmudic passages, which by and large forbid kol isha, and passages in the Torah, which draw positive attention to women’s voices.

In the Torah, Abraham is commanded by God to listen to the voice of Sara (Shema B’Kolech, Genesis 21:12):

“In all that Sara says unto you, listen to her voice.”

In Jeremiah 9:16-17 we learn that God calls on the Israelites to hear the wailing voices of mourning women:

“Thus saith the Lord: Consider ye, and call for the mourning women, that they may come…and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears.”

And, in one of the most famous biblical passages, Miriam, sister of Moses, leads the women through a song and dance in praise of God (Exodus 15:21):

“And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the Lord, for he is highly exalted.”

In none of the above biblical passages do we hear mention of disapproval of kol isha.

In the Mishna, Tractate Moed Katan 3:9:

“On the first days of the months, on Hanukkah and on Purim, women may cry out [in lamentation, during a funeral] and clap their hands.”

The Talmud (Megillah 23a) states that while theoretically it is permissible to hear the voice of a woman (when she recites the Purim megillah), kol isha is forbidden because of kavod hatzibur, “the honor of the community.”

According to Rav Hai Gaon (Babylon, 939-1038):

“[A man] should not recite the Shema when a woman is singing because of kol b’isha ervah…” But, “if he can concentrate in his heart on his prayer so that he does not hear her or pay attention to her—it is permissible.” Here, the warning against kol isha is taken as a preventative measure. Kol isha is not prohibited in all situations. If a man is capable of intense concentration during prayer then it is not forbidden for a woman to recite the Shema in his presence. Here the source leaves the decision of permissibility to the individual worshiper.

Later, we learn that the Rif, Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (1013-1103), one of the most influential poskim in Jewish history, considered Shmuel’s statement in both Berakhot 24a and Kiddushin 70a-b, to be aggadah and not halakha[1]. Aggadah refers to the non-legalistic exegetical texts in the classical rabbinic literature; therefore, according to the Rif, kol isha is not halakhically forbidden.

The first rabbinical ruling to forbid the voice of women singing on all occasions was declared only in the 19th century. Rabbi Moshe Sofer’s (Slovakia, d. 1839)[2] prohibition of kol isha became popular and was adopted by many later poskim[3].

We can see that Shmuel’s statement was interpreted by various halakhic authorities and can be understood either as halakha or aggadah. It is also clear that the stringencies against kol isha did not arise until as late as the 19th century and that in the Torah, the foundational Jewish text, women’s voices were not silenced but celebrated.

Ultimately it is our songs and our prayers that have kept Women of the Wall together during the most difficult moments at the Kotel. Not unlike the singing that was used in the American Civil Rights Movement, our singing reminds us of the beauty of our community and brings strength to each other. Every Rosh Hodesh we say the “Prayer for Women of the Wall.” We pray that women’s voices will be heard at the Kotel and received with love. “And for our sisters, all the women and girls of your people Israel: let us merit to see their joy and hear their voices raised before You in song and praise.”[4]

[1] His code on Kiddushin (ed. Vilna, fol. 30b)

[2] Responsa Hatam Sofer, Hoshen Mishpat, No. 190

[3] A legal scholar who decides on the halakha in cases where the law was previously found to be inconclusive

[4] Women of the Wall Siddur, “Prayer for Women of the Wall,” by Rachel Sharon Jaskow, p77

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