Music to My Ears: A Scientific Elucidation of Kol Ishah

The interpretation of the prohibition of hearing a female voice has evolved through halakhic discussion. A woman’s voice, as assessed by the Jewish sages, is considered to be attractive and/or sensuous and therefore, the rabbis set up laws to prohibit men from hearing female voices when necessary. The halakhic discussion of the prohibition of hearing a woman’s voice starts with the concept of “kol be-Ishah ervah” (a woman’s voice is nakedness). This concept is primarily discussed in two Talmudic sources: one in Berakhot and one in Kiddushin. In Berakhot, several rabbis discuss the concept of ervah (nakedness). R. Yitzchak teaches that a woman’s hair is ervah, and R. Sheshet opines that a woman’s legs are considered ervah.[i] Shmuel expresses the idea that a woman’s voice is ervah.[ii] Shmuel’s statement is fundamental to the concept of Kol Ishah, which will be the focus of the present discussion. Shmuel cites a poignant statement from Shir ha-Shirim as proof of his position: “For your voice is sweet and your appearance attractive.”[iii] In the second passage that discusses this concept, the Gemara in Kiddushin, R. Nahman asks R. Yehuda if he could send regards to Yalta, R. Nahman’s wife. R. Yehuda responds, citing Shmuel that a woman’s voice is ervah, and therefore it would be inappropriate of him to send greetings to R. Nahman’s wife.[iv]

These two passages present several inconsistencies with regards to the prohibition of listening to a woman’s voice. According to the Gemara in Berakhot, the prohibition would seem to apply to a woman’s singing voice based on the source in Shir ha-Shirim. However, the Gemara in Kiddushin discusses the prohibition with respect to a woman’s speaking voice. Prominent rabbis over the centuries seemed similarly torn about this compelling issue. Most German rishonim, including R. Eliezer b. Yoel ha-Levi, interpret the sources in Berakhot and Kiddushin as an indication that a man is prohibited from hearing a woman’s singing voice while reciting keriyat shemah. This ruling was made in order to avoid distraction while partaking in religious activities that require one’s full attention. Later rabbis extended the application of this prohibition to other activities as well. Another rabbi who gives his pesak on the issue of kol ishah is R. Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Arukh. He advises, rather than prohibits, that one avoid hearing a woman’s singing voice, not her speaking voice, during keriyat shemah. Citing R. Yosef Karo, rather than merely advisory in nature, R. Moshe Iserless believes the law to be in fact prohibitory.[v]

R. Saul Berman, a contemporary rabbi and professor at Stern College for Women, points out a major issue with the rabbinic interpretations of kol ishah. The rabbis who discussed this issue previously considered only the Gemara in Berakhot, which prohibits hearing a woman’s singing voice. However, they ignore the prohibition of hearing a woman’s speaking voice, as stated in the Gemara in Kiddushin. In R. Berman’s article “Kol Ishah,” he regards the interpretation of Rabad of Posquieres to be significant because Rabad dealt with the inconsistency between these two Talmudic sources. Rabad deems the restriction applicable to the woman’s speaking voice, not just her singing voice, as does Meiri.[vi] In his article, R. Berman also cites the opinions of R. Alfasi and Rambam. According to these two opinions, the prohibition of kol ishah applies to a woman’s speaking voice in addition to her singing voice, and it seeks to ban the illicit social relationship between a man and a forbidden woman.[vii],[viii] These two sources seem to indicate that hearing a woman’s speaking voice, along with her singing voice, is included within the prohibition of kol ishah.

A widely accepted opinion regarding kol ishah is that of R. Gumbiner, commonly known as the Magen Avraham. He states that the singing voice of a married woman is always forbidden, while her speaking voice is permitted.[ix] This is a generally accepted approach among many Orthodox communities. However, there is much room for debate, given the plethora of halakhic discussion on the topic of kol ishah.

Not only does the Talmud address the issue of kol ishah, but scientific research also assesses how hearing a woman’s voice could potentially be perceived as sensuous. A recent study performed at the University of Sheffield, under the guidance of psychiatrist Michael Hunter, changes our perspective on the application of the modern prohibition of kol ishah. Along with Hunter, Professor Peter Woodruff’s group in the Department of Psychiatry and the Division of Genomic Medicine shed light on the true nature of a woman’s voice, and, as a result, its classification as ervah. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers monitored the brain activity of 12 men while the men listened to voice recordings. The subjects received 96 stimuli consisting of voices that were identifiably either male or female and unaltered in pitch, and voices that were gender-ambiguous (pitch-scaled) of both males and females. The researchers found major differences in the way the voices were processed by the male brain depending on the gender of the voice stimulus. Male and female voices each activated different areas of the brain in male listeners.[x]

The researchers found that perception of a male voice results in activity in the mesio-parietal precuneus of the brain, an area involved in episodic memory and imagining of sounds. In contrast, female voices resulted in activation of the right anterior superior temporal gyrus (STG) near the superior temporal sulcus (STS), an area functioning specifically in the perception of the melodic and emotive aspects of the human voice. This finding is consistent with the idea that brain processes that attempt to attribute human qualities to voices are more involved in the perception of female voices than male voices.[xi]

Regarding the study, Hunter explains, “Voices allow the brain to determine various factors about a person’s appearance, including their sex, size and age. It is much more complex than most people think and is an extremely important tool for determining someone’s identity without having to see them.”[xii] The findings from Hunter’s experiment allow us to re-conceptualize our modern thoughts on kol ishah. Given that a woman’s speaking voice triggers a different part of the male brain than does a male voice, it is plausible that a woman’s speaking voice, similar to her singing voice, holds the potential to trigger sensual thoughts in male listeners. In the halakhic realm, Meiri also recognized this notion in his claim equating a woman’s singing voice with her speaking voice.[xiii]  Hunter’s scientific experiment supports this halakhic opinion that the prohibition of kol ishah applies to both a woman’s singing voice and speaking voice.

Today, in Western culture, the prohibition of kol ishah is seldom applied to a woman’s speaking voice. While I am in no way offering a halakhic pesak, by taking Hunter’s findings into account, we are able to recognize the reasoning behind those less prevalent opinions, such as those of R. Alfasi and Rambam, who apply the prohibition of kol ishah to a woman’s speaking voice in addition to her singing voice. Even though these opinions may not be treated as halakhah le-ma’aseh, this experiment gives us the ability to appreciate the basis of this approach, ultimately teaching us that “eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim Hayim”-these and these are the words of the living God[xiv]

Deborah Farber is currently a senior at SCW and is concentrating in pre-health sciences.

[i]               Berakhot 24a

[ii]                Ibid.

[iii]           Shir ha-Shirim: 2:14, translation mine.

[iv]              Kiddushin 70a

[v]               Shulhan Arukh, Orakh Hayim, 75:3

[vi]               Hidushei ha-Rashba  Berakhot 25a

[vii]          Saul J. Berman, “Kol ‘Isha,” in Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume, ed. by Leo Landman (1980), 45-66

[viii]             Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Keriyat Shemah 3:16

[ix]              Magen Avraham to Shulhan Arukh, Orakh Hayim 75:6

[x]                Sokhi, D. S., Hunter, M.D., Wilkinson, I.D., Woodruff, P.W.R. (2005). Male and Female Voices Activate Distinct Regions in the Male Brain. NeuroImage. 27:572-578.

[xi]              Ibid.

[xii]             “Male and female voices affect brain differently.” University of Sheffield. MediaCentre, 12 July 2005. available at

[xiii]             Berakhot 24a

[xiv]              Eruvin 13b