Siman 75 Reciting Keriat Shema in the Presence of Immodesty

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion


SHIUR #44:Siman 75

Pages 215-218


by Rav Asher Meir








            This topic is perennially controversial, and our siman is a main focus of the dispute.  I am sure the readers would be disappointed if we failed to raise the subject.  I will mention that I heard from my master and teacher Rav Lichtenstein (who was quoting Rav Aharon Soloveitchik) that there is a possibility of immodesty to even discuss these issues, since the discussion focuses on areas which we may not look at and customarily do not discuss.  Even so, "It IS Torah and learn we must" (this expression explicitly includes subjects which are immodest to discuss), so I will raise the subject, while trying to maintain an  appropriate delicacy of expression.


            The gemara (Berakhot 24a) asserts that a revealed "tefach" of a woman's body [those areas which are customarily covered] is "erva," whose literal meaning seems to be "nakedness" and which is used in the Torah as a synonym for any incest, adultery, and the like.  The gemara then explains that this does not mean that a man is not allowed to stare at these places, because obviously it is impermissible to stare at a woman even in places which we never cover (though it is permissible to see her, as we explained last week).  It means that a man can not recite KS if he sees these areas, even if he is NOT staring.


            Rashi says: erva - to stare, and also [even] with regard to his wife for KS.  Presumably, Rashi understood that when the gemara forbids looking even at a woman's pinky, that is only if one is paying attention to her attractiveness (even if she is not attractive) but not if one is looking at her in a completely innocent context.  But areas known as "erva" are forbidden even without any untoward intentions.  We would view these as sights which may kindle immodest thoughts, as opposed to ordinary looks which do not arouse them but which may fuel them.


            This, combined with last week's class, gives us three categories:

1. Inherent erva - the reproductive organs.  It is impermissible to say words of kedusha if these are revealed even if no one sees them.  There is a lack of elementary dignity in such a state.

2.  "Erva" in a woman - these are stimuli which are liable to induce improper thoughts in a man.  He may not LOOK at (or LISTEN to) these at any time, and during KS he may not even SEE (or HEAR) them.

3.  Any other part of a woman, a man may SEE, and may LOOK AT in a completely neutral context (looking at the cashier's hand to see your change) but may not LOOK AT in an "esthetic" context.  (This word has been carefully chosen.  Even glances which are merely "esthetic" and not "amorous" are forbidden.  The only exception is if a bachur is considering a prospective match.  Then he may see if she is attractive ESTHETICALLY - according to his taste - but until they are married it is too early to look at her "amorously."


            The second two categories do not apply to women, and there is evidence that a woman is allowed to admire a man's looks (we learn that the girls used to gawk at Shaul - Berakhot 48b, and that even married women would admire the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan - BM 84a).  The reason is partially  because we assume that women are not aroused to intimate thoughts by the mere SIGHT of men, and partially since such thoughts, while improper, are not as great a halakhic problem regarding women, since they do not lead to waste of seed (which is likened to adultery - Nida 13b).


            What we have written so far is uncontroversial.  But the gemara then adds, that a woman's voice or hair is also "erva."  This raises three questions:


1.  To which category, or sub-category, do voice and hair belong - the second or the third?

2.  If they belong to the second category, is this category defined objectively or subjectively?  Did the sages establish that certain sights and sounds are inherently stimulating and spiritually damaging to a man?  Or did they merely enumerate certain stimuli which as a matter of cultural fact had such an influence in their time?

3.  Which voice and which hair are included?


            All of these questions are the subject of dispute.


1.  According to some Rishonim, voice and hair are not a problem specific to KS.  Staring and consciously listening - the second of the two issues mentioned by Rashi - are forbidden at all times.  The Beit Yosef infers that this is the opinion of the Rambam.  According to many other Rishonim, including the Rashi we cited, there is a problem of casual seeing and hearing during KS as well.


2.  There is an important contemporary difference of opinion if men may pray and say KS in the presence of married women who do not cover their hair.  The controversy arises because nowadays the unfortunate neglect of the mitzva of hair covering is so common that we may safely assume that a married woman's hair does not attract any more attention than the hair of a single girl.


            Quite a few authorities rule that it is permissible to read KS while a married woman's hair is in view.  See Igrot Moshe OC I:42, who quotes as well Arukh HaShulchan on our siman.


3.  According to almost all authorities only a woman's singing voice, not her speaking voice, is included.  (Even though the plain sense of the gemara on Kiddushin 70a suggests that even a speaking voice is problematic.)  However, the scope of the prohibition is widely disputed.


            One famous example is the minhag of some communities to have men and women sing zemirot together on Shabbat.  Some contemporary authorities rule that singing zemirot together is even worse than ordinarily hearing a woman's singing, since the man is saying sacred hymns which are like KS (Az Nidberu, IX:59).  Others say the opposite - even if we would normally forbid a man hearing a woman's singing voice, here we may be lenient, since we are singing holy melodies which will certainly not induce improper thoughts.


            Can we deduce what the MB's position is from what he writes on 479:9?


            According to Rav Ovadia Yosef, listening to a woman's singing on the radio or from a phonograph is permissible if the singer's appearance is not familiar to the listener - Yabia Omer OC I:6.  Rav Binyamin Zilber forbids this - Az Nidberu IX:9.


            As far as the hair is concerned, the Rashba on Berakhot 24a mentions that hair which women are not careful to cover (he is referring to wisps of hair which protrude from the hat or kerchief) do not pose a problem.  We just mentioned that many authorities rule that in a community where hair covering is generally neglected, hair is not a problem at all, since hair is not an inherent stimulus - after all, hair of a single girl is not erva.




            The conflict regarding wigs is a much more ancient one, dating to a time when hair covering per se was evidently not an issue.  The issue was raised already in the time of the Rishonim, by the She'iltei Giborim (Shabbat 29a:1), who proves from a mishna in Shabbat that wigs are permissible.  The Be'er Sheva (siman 18) took vociferous issue, and the dispute rages to this day.  Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe EHE II:12) points out that most authorities permit it, whereas Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer IV-EHE:3) suggests that the majority forbids it.  (Probably different majorities are in question.  Rav Ovadia includes the opinions of many Sefaradi authorities which Rav Feinstein most likely did not take into account.)


            How does the Mishna Berura rule?  See s.k. 15.


            As we saw in the previous section, the permissibility of reading KS in front of a particular custom does not testify to the permissibility of  that custom.  After all, Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Arukh HaShulchan, who permitted saying KS in the presence of the uncovered hair of a married woman, certainly did not permit married women to go around with their hair uncovered.  Therefore, it seems surprising that the MB does infer the ruling regarding wig-wearing in general from the laws of KS.  The MB seems to think that since the covering is itself hair, there is no room for middle ground.  If the wig is considered "hair," then of course it is the hair of the one who is wearing it and there is no room to permit saying KS.  If on the other hand one may say KS while seeing a wig, this can only mean that it is not considered "hair" at all.  If follows that this is a permissible hair covering in the first instance.




            Married women are required to cover their hair, and the gemara (Ketubot 72a) explains that we learn this from the Torah.  Most authorities accept the simple meaning of this gemara that hair covering is a Torah ordinance.  The custom among Jewish ladies has always been that married ladies cover all their hair, even though they may not have seen a problem if a few hairs protruded, as we mentioned in the name of the Rashba.


            Sadly, there was a significant weakening of this observance starting around a century ago, and even in Torah communities there were many married ladies who neglected covering their hair.  Today the situation has improved and deteriorated: it has improved, in that the percentage of couples who are careful about this has greatly risen.  It has deteriorated in the sense that among those who do cover their hair, a great many are very lenient in the amount they leave uncovered.


            Some people have sought a source of leniency for bangs and pony tails in the very She'iltei Giborim which is the source of the Rema in our siman.  The SG writes that hair is only forbidden "if it is attached to the skin, and in addition the skin is seen together with the hair," but not "hair which covers hair."  The beginning of the phrase suggests that even protruding hair is permitted as long as the ENTIRE scalp is covered, whereas the end suggests that wigs are permissible only if they cover all the hair.


            The first understanding would constitute a significant leniency, since the Rema's ruling on wigs per se is mainly based on the authority of the SG - see the Rema in the Darkhei Moshe on the Tur (OC 303).  However, the Rema's understanding does seem to be according to the more stringent interpretation.