Ein Gedi nature reserve 521.
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The splitting of the Red (Reed) Sea was the remarkable miracle that climaxed the
Ten Plagues and indisputably confirmed the Hebrews as free people. The Egyptians
had chased them into the desert, hoping to force their former slaves to return;
Moses extended his hand over the sea, God drove back the waters with a powerful
easterly wind and the Israelites entered the sea bed on dry land.
Egyptians pursued the Hebrews, Moses extended his hand a second time, and the
waters returned with a vengeance, completely overwhelming the Egyptian cavalry
and chariots. Now, the Israelites found themselves in the midst of the sea on
dry land, with all of the drowned Egyptians dead on the seashore.
Moses and the Israelites sang this song to God, expressing, ‘I will sing to God
for His great victory, horse and rider He cast into the sea...’” (Exodus 15:19).
With the conclusion of this male paean of praise to the Almighty for His
wonders, the Bible records the activity of the women at the scene: “Miriam the
prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a drum in her hand and all the women followed
with drums and with dancing. And Miriam led them in song, ‘Sing to God for His
great victory, horse and rider He cast into the sea.’” (ibid. 20,
Apparently, Moses and Miriam sang the same lengthy song, although
the Bible only repeats the first verse in its description of the women’s
celebration. The great Hellenistic philosopher Philo Judaeus (20 BCE- 50 CE)
suggests that the men and women sang together. Rashi (ad loc.), citing the
Mechilta, interprets that “Moses sang the song to the men, he sang the song and
they responded after him, and Miriam sang the song to the women (and they
responded after her, as it is written ‘Sing’ [Shiru]).” The Malbim (Rabbi Meir
Leibush Weiser, 1809-1879) adds that “the women claimed that all of this (the
redemption from Egypt) occurred in their merit (Miriam and Princess Batya saved
Moses, Shiphrah and Puah defied Pharaoh).
Therefore they insisted on
singing separately, since they had (such) a (large) share in the miracles” (ad
loc.). And Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has them singing in tandem, with the men
initiating the song and women responding by repeating it. He emphasizes that the
women’s singing was of equal importance to the men’s.
What is most
remarkable about the description of this biblical scene and its various
commentaries is that no one seems concerned about “Kol Isha,” the prohibition
against hearing a woman sing since “a woman’s voice is a sexual stimulus”
Brachot 24a). Indeed, the Israeli news has recently been filled
with debates about religious soldiers who walked out of a military ceremony when
a group of women began to sing. One head of a hesder yeshiva (under whose
auspices soldiers combine studies with military service) declared that one is
forbidden from hearing a woman sing even under pain of death, although he later
admitted that he had been exaggerating to make his point.
When we study
the actual sources of Kol Isha and the commentaries of rabbinic decisors, the
incident at the Reed Sea appears much more normative than the attitude of the
yeshiva head. Most importantly, the Talmudic passage stating that “a woman’s
voice is a sexual stimulus” is written in the context of retaining concentration
when reciting the Shema prayer.
Rav Hai Gaon (cited in the Otzar
Hagaonim, Interpretations to Brachot 24 and in the Mordechai to Brachot siman
80), Rabbenu Hannanel (Brachot ibid.) and the Raviyah (Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel
Halevi) all limit the prohibition of a man hearing a woman sing to someone who
is reciting the Shema.
Rav Yosef Karo’s Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Aruch
Orah Haim 75:3) rules that “There is reason to be careful lest one hear the
voice of a woman vocalist when one is reciting the Shema.” Rabbi Moshe Isserlis
(Krakow, 1520-1572) adds “Even if the vocalist is one’s wife, but a voice to
which one is accustomed is not considered to be a sexual stimulus.”
sure, the Hatam Sofer forbids hearing a woman sing, or even speak, regardless of
any connection to the recitation of the Shema and there are certainly latter-day
decisors who rule likewise. I do not know of any posek who would permit
listening to women who are singing sexually suggestive songs; I would even
forbid listening to a man singing such songs (Kol Ish). But more contemporary
rulings are those of Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg (Montreux, 1884- 1966) in his Sridei
Aish (Part 2 Siman 8) who permits young men and women singing together in the
context of a religious youth group, the Sdei Hemed (Rav Hizkiyahu Medini,
1833-1905) who permits men to listen to a woman singing songs of sanctity even
if she is a soloist, and Rabbi Shmuel Ehrenfeld, the son-in-law of the Hatam
Sofer, known as the Hatan Sofer, who rules that several voices together in a
kind of choir situation is always permitted, since “two voices singing together
makes each individual voice unrecognizable and indistinguishable.”
the women singing at the sea was perfectly permissible as it was a song of
sanctity sung by many voices at the same time.The writer is the founder
and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi
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