Kol Isha: The Voice of a Woman by Emily Taitz

In her article "Kol Isha — The Voice of Woman: Where Was It Heard in Medieval Europe?" Emily Taitz discusses the reality of women's vocal participation during the Middle Ages, given the rabbinic prohibition. Taitz's sources bear witness to the fact that despite all the prohibitions and warnings, women were in fact not silent. They sang throughout this period, when they were permitted as well as when they were not; within the realm of Jewish life and cultural activities, women's vocal participation was primarily in four areas:

1. as participants in home ritual and domestic activity;
2. as entertainers and singing teachers;
3. as professional mourners and wailers;
4. in the synagogue as prayer teachers and members of synagogue congregations.

The following excerpt is the introduction to her article. It gives us some background and context for the prohibition which maintains that "the voice of a woman is indecent."

The voice of a woman says Samuel in the Talmud is ervah.[1] This Hebrew word is translated as "indecent," "shameful," or "lustful." The original warning referred to the the Sh'ma prayer, which was not to be recited while a woman was singing for "the voice of a woman is indecent" (kol be-ishah ervah) and would be an improper diversion from concentration on holy things. While this ruling did not have major significance where women's legal rights or limitations were concerned (the general standard of women's exemption from all time-bound positive commandments, for example, was much more crucial in limiting their status in Judaism) it did become an accepted idea in life. Combined with that ruling, the general prohibitions which Jews had constructed around the use of music from the time of the destruction of the Temple,[2] plus the increasing discomfort occasioned by mixing of the sexes in any social situation, put further barriers in the way of women singing.

Woman's voice illustrationFor the strict interpreters of the laws forbidding music, neither private, recreational activity nor public entertainment were acceptable outlets for singing. This applied to men as well as women. In Kaftor ve-Perach, a book written in the early thirteenth century, the author warned against singing: "even to honor their work" because of the destruction of the Temple.[3] Raba is quoted as saying "a song in the house brings destruction,"[4] and Rabbi Isaac Alfasi quotes Rav, the great rabbi of the Talmud who demanded "if you hear a song, uproot it."[5]

Alfasi allows the unaccompanied singing voice (as opposed to instrumental song) but emphasizes his liberality on this matter by reminding us that Hai Gaon did not. He understood Hai Gaon's prohibition to apply to love songs especially those sung by women.[6] He had even condemned the Kairwan custom of women dancing and playing the tambourine at weddings.[7] "But words of service, and praise and musical remembrance of the grace of the Holy One Blessed be He, no man from Israel is prevented from this.[8]

Praise to God, then was the exception. It was the one area in which it was not only acceptable but proper — at least for men. For women its was problematic. Although in the Bible singing is quite acceptable as a form of prayer for women,[9] by Samuel's time, in the third century, a woman's voice was something to beware of — to avoid — lest it lead to sinful thoughts or worse.

Christian standard was hardly different. A capitulary of Charlemagne, from 789 CE strictly forbade nuns to compose or send winneleodas — friendship songs.[10] Women had been commanded to be silent in church by St. Paul himself, and the early female choirs that had been formed in the Eastern church were strongly repudiated. An eventual compromise grudgingly allowed women to respond to a male precentor.[11] This conformed perfectly to R. Joseph's opinion in Sotah: "If men sing and women respond (i.e., by singing after them or joining in the chorus) it is a breach of law but if women sing and men respond it is as if a fire were raging in a field of flax."[12]

Despite the traditional injunction against hearing a woman's voice in public, many gifted Jewish women are choosing to devote themselves fully to the music of the synagogue. JHOM.com shares with its readers a liturgical piece sung by Cantor Rebecca Garfein.

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Berachot24a. Back
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48a. Back
[3] Kaftor ve-Perah, ed. Abraham Moses Lopez {jerusalem 1897}, vol I. Back
[4] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48a. Back
[5] Alfasi, Isaac, Hilkhot Harav Alfasi (Jerusalem: Mosad HaRav Kuk, 1969) vol. I, chapter V. p. 25.Back
[6] For Hai Gaon's responsa on music see B.M./ Lewin ed. Ginze Kedem (Jerusalem: Mosad HaRav Kuk, 1969) vol. V, pp. 33-35, 58-59. Back
[7] Ibid. pp. 33-35, and see also Boaz Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism (new York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1959), p. 172. Back
[8] Alfasi, Hilkhot p. 25. Back
[9] Isaiah 54:1 and Zechariah 2:10. Back
[10] John Plummer ed, Vox Feminae: Studies in Medieval Women's Song. Studies in Medieval Culture, XV. (Kalmazoo, MI, Medieval Institute Publications, 1981), p. 3. Back
[11] Eric Werner, "Hellenism and Judaism in Christian Music," Hebrew Union College Annual 20 (1947); p. 443. Back
[12] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48a. Back
From: Emily Taitz, "Kol Isha — The Voice of Woman: Where was it Heard in Medieval Europe," Conservative Judaism, vol. 38(3) Spring 1986, pp. 46-47 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America). Permission of Conservative Judaism Magazine.

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