Keriyat Shema- Problematic Situations and Places (3)

  • Rav David Brofsky




            The previous two shiurim focused on the high standards of hygiene required during the recitation of devarim she-bikedusha.  The Sages derive this standard from the verse:


"…For the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you, and to give up your enemies before you; therefore YOUR CAMP SHALL BE HOLY; that He should see NO NAKEDNESS in you, and turn away from you… (Devarim 23:13—15)"


The Gemara (Berakhot 25b) ALSO derives from this verse that one may not recite Keriyat Shema while seeing nakedness (erva). 


            This week, we will continue our discussion of "your camp shall be holy," and study standards of modesty as they relate to prayer and devarim she-bikedusha.  While the topic of modesty, and standards of tzniut, deserve a much broader and more comprehensive treatment, we will attempt to deal with those laws which apply directly to Keriyat Shema.


Prayer in the Presence of One's "Erva":


            The Peri Megadim, cited by the Biur Halakha (74), enumerates five cases in which one is prohibited from reciting Keriyat Shema, or other devarim she-bikedusha, due to erva.  He writes that the halakha prohibits reciting devarim she-bikedusha when can see one's own nakedness, or when "one's heart can see one's nakedness" (i.e. one doesn't have a separation, such as clothing or a belt, between one's upper and lower body), as well as when one is unclad, even if he is unable to see his nakedness.  Furthermore, he writes, it is also prohibited to recite Shema if one can see, or if one's "heart" can see, another's nakedness. 


            The Biur Halakha claims, however, that there may be halakhic differences between these categories.  On the one hand, while one is permitted to recite Shema in front of erva as long as one turns one's head, or possibly even if one closes one's eyes, this solution might not help in the presence of one's own erva.  Alternatively, he writes, while if one covers one's own erva with water (i.e. in a mikveh) one may recite a berakha, this would not work in the visual presence of another's erva. 


            Regarding reciting Shema while unclad, the Sifre (Devarim 258) teaches: "'For the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp… YOUR CAMP SHALL BE HOLY that He should see NO NAKEDNESS in you, and turn away from you…' – From here we learn that nakedness causes God's presence to leave…."


            Furthermore, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 114b) records that "One should not separate terumot while unclad, as it says, 'and He should see no nakedness in you…'" 


            Regarding men, the Gemara (Berakhot 24b) also mentions that one should not recite Keriyat Shema while one's "heart sees one's nakedness."  In other words, one should make a demarcation between one's upper and lower body. 


            Regarding women, the Acharonim debate whether they must ALSO make a separation between their upper and lower body while reciting Keriyat Shema.  While the Shulchan Arukh (74) writes that this is unnecessary, the Bach disagrees.  The Mishna Berura (74:16) cites the Shach and Taz (YD 200) who rule that a woman may recite the berakha upon immersing in a mikveh, even while immersed in clear water, as she is not required to separate her upper and lower body.  The Taz, however, suggests that she cross her arms over her chest, thereby separating her upper body from her lower body.


            Regarding reciting Shema in the presence of an undressed member of the opposite sex, the Gemara, as well as the Rishonim and Acharonim, debate the definition of these areas as well as the scope of the prohibition.  Incidentally, these halakhot should no be confused with the general warning against gazing at members of the opposite sex (histaklut), especially if this will lead to improper thoughts.  These laws are discussed in the Shulchan Arukh EH 21.


Shok Be-Isha Erva:


            The Gemara (Berakhot 24a) teaches that a man should not recite Keriyat Shema in the presence of "erva."  Aside from the obvious definition of "erva," i.e. private parts, the Gemara lists other types of erva.  As we shall see, the Gemara prohibits reciting Shema in the presence of a women's "shok," "se'ar," and while listening her singing voice ("kol be-isha").  Furthermore, a man may also not recite Shema in the presence of a "tefach" of an area of a women's body which is ordinarily covered.


            Regarding the "shok," the Gemara (Berakhot 24a) teaches, "Rav Chisda said: The shok of a woman is nakedness as it says, 'Expose a thigh to cross a river' (Yishayahu 47:2) and it says (Ibid.  3) 'Your nakedness will be exposed…'"


            The Acharonim discuss the precise definition of "shok."  The Peri Megadim (75:1) and Mishna Berura (75:2) argue that "shok" refers to a woman's thigh, ABOVE the knee, and that in a place in which woman are accustomed NOT to cover the area below their knees, a man may recite Keriyat Shema in her presence.  The Chazon Ish (OC 16:8) questions whether "shok" may even refer to the shin and ankle, and does not arrive at a definitive answer. 


Kol Be-Isha Erva:


            The Gemara (Berakhot 24a), as cited above, enumerates those areas of a women's body that are considered "erva."  After teaching that regarding Keriyat Shema even a "tefach be-isha" is considered erva, the Gemara adds:


"Shmuel said: The voice of a woman is nakedness as it says, 'For your voice is sweet and your countenance comely' (Shir Ha-shirim 2:14)."


When is a women's singing voice considered erva? On the one hand, the context seems to refer to the recitation of Keriyat Shema, while on the other hand, the juxtaposition with a women's hair and thigh imply that the a women's voice should be considered "erva" in other contexts as well! Furthermore, the Gemara elsewhere (Kiddusin 70a) applies "kol be-isha erva" completely outside of the realm of prayer!


            Interestingly, the Rif never cites this statement in any context.  Other Rishonim do, yet they disagree as to when the statement "kol be-isha erva" applies. 


            Some explain that a women's voice is considered to be "erva" ONLY in the context of Keriyat Shema.  Rav Hai Gaon (Otzar HaGeonim Berakhot, Peirushim 102), for example, explains, "One may also not recite [Keriyat Shema] while a woman is singing because a woman's voice is nakedness...  However, if one can focus on one's prayers while she is singing in a manner that one does not hear her and does not pay attention to her, it is permissible [to recite Keriyat Shema]." Rabbeinu Chananel, as well as the Ritva (Berakhot 24a) concurs with this view.


            The Yereim (392) also rules that a male should not learn Torah or recite devarim she-bikedusha while listening to the singing voice of a woman, yet bemoans, "Because of our great sins we are living among the non-Jews and 'at times one must violate the Torah in order to act (eit la'asot la-Shem hefeiru Toratecha)' and therefore we are not careful about learning while hearing a non-Jewess sing…"


            Other Rishonim, such as the Rosh (Berakhot 3:37) explain that while it is generally prohibited for a man to hear a woman's singing voice, it does not prevent the fulfillment of the mitzva of Keriyat Shema.  The Tur, and the Rambam, apparently also agree, as they cite Shmuel's statement ONLY in the broader context of avoiding immodest dress (see Tur Even Ha-Ezer 21 and Rambam Hilkhot Issurei Biah 21:2), and not in the laws of Keriyat Shema. 


            The Shulchan Arukh (EH 21:1) rules in accordance with the Rosh and Rambam, and prohibits men from listening to a women's singing voice.  Regarding Keriyat Shema (75:2-3) he writes, "One should be careful regarding listening to the voice of a women singing while reciting Keriyat Shema."  The Rema adds, "Even the voice of one's wife, however her regular voice (i.e. her speaking voice) is not considered erva."


            The Acharonim and poskim discuss the scope of "kol isha" and its contemporary applications (microphones, radio, zemirot etc.), which are beyond the topic of this shiur. 


Se'ar Ba-Isha Erva:


            The Gemara (Berakhot) also records, in the name of Rav Sheshet, that "the hair of a woman is nakedness…" The Shulchan Arukh (75:2) rules accordingly, noting that an unmarried women's hair is NOT considered erva.  Furthermore, the Rema adds that hair which usually hangs out of ones hair-covering (chutz litzmatan), as well as a wig, do not constitute erva.


            While the topic of "kisu'i rosh le-nashim" is worthy of discussion, in our context we will only address that which is relevant to Keriyat Shema.


            The Acharonim debate whether one may recite Keriyat Shema in that presence of a women's uncovered hair in a place in which woman are accustomed NOT to cover their hair.


            The Mishna Berura (75:10), as well as the Chazon Ish (16:6), insists that despite the custom of women NOT to cover their hair, a man may NOT recite the Keriyat Shema in the presence of a married women's hair. 


            The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (75:7), however, in a well-known piece, writes:


"Let us protest the immodesty of our generation.  In our sins, for many years Jewish women have violate this halakha and do not cover their hair, and all that they have protested have not help nor been effective… however, in any case, the halakha seems to be that it is permitted to pray, and recite berakhot in the presence of their uncovered hair, as most of them walk as such (i.e. without hair-covering), and it should count as those parts of the body which are normally uncovered…"


Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 1:42), as well as the Ben Ish Chai (Parashat Bo 12) and Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabia Omer OC 6:13), rule in accordance with the Arukh Ha-Shulchan. 


Mekomot Ha-Mechusim Be-Isha:


            The above cited Gemara (Berakhot 24a) also teaches, "Rav Yitzchak said: A tefach of a woman is nakedness (erva).  For what? … Keriyat Shema."


            The Shulchan Arukh (75:1) cites this Gemara, ruling that a man may not recite Shema in the presence of an uncovered tefach from an area which is usually covered, even of one's wife.  The Rema notes that clearly refers only to a man in the presence of a women, while a women MAY recite Keriyat Shema in the presence of areas of a man's body which are ordinarily covered.  Furthermore, he adds that he may not recite Shema in the presence of even LESS than a tefach if the woman is not his wife.  Many Achronim (Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Arukh Ha-Shulchan, and Chayyei Adam 4:2) disagree.


            Incidentally, the Acharonim discuss whether the standards of modesty put forth by Chazal are objective, or whether that may be affected by communal norms.


            The Divrei Chamudot (Berakhot 3:37 on the Rosh) writes that the Chazal's standards were a function of the communal norms of their time, and "It would seem that every place according to its custom, as the reason why areas which are not usually covered are not considered to be erva is because they do not arouse sexual thoughts (hirhur), as he is accustomed to them…"


            Rabbi Ovadiah Hadayah (1890 – 1969), in his responsa Yaskil Avdi (4:9), permits reciting berakhot in the presence of women's uncovered arms, be-sha'at ha-dochak, arguing that nowadays arms should be no different than hands, which are not normally covered! We should note that his ruling refers to the permissibility of reciting Shema, and not to how one should or may dress.


            Others (see Tiferet Shemuel [Rosh Berakhot 3:37], Chayye Adam 4:1, Iggrot Moshe [OC 1:42-3] as well as Rav Ovadya Yosef [Yabia Omer OC 6:14:3]) disagree, and distinguish between object erva, and erva which is defined by communal norms. 


Closing One's Eyes or Turning Away:


            The authorities question under which circumstances one may recite a berakha in the presence of erva.  Rav Yosef Karo rules (75:6) that not only may one turn one's head, but even closing one's eyes may suffice.  Furthermore, one may recite a berakha in the presence of erva if the room is dark, or if he is blind! He explains that since the verse relates to "seeing" ("…He should SEE no nakedness"), the prohibition is dependent upon whether one actually SEES erva.  He rules accordingly in the Shulchan Arukh.


            Most Acharonim (Bach, Magen Avraham 75:9, Taz 75:2, Chayyei Adam 4:3, Mishna Berura 75:29 and the Arukh Ha-Shulchan 75:11) disagree, noting that the Torah does not say "He should not SEE" (yir'e) but rather, "Nakedness should not be seen" (yeira'eh)."  The halakha seems to be in accordance with these views.


            Incidentally, the Mishna Berura (27) also writes that turning away one's head doesn't work when one is unclad.


            The Nishmat Adam (4:1) questions whether this stringency applies only to erva, literally, or to all parts of the body which are ordinarily covered. 


            The Chazon Ish (16:7) rules that regarding "tefach ba-isha erva," which is only prohibited because it distracts one from praying properly, closing one's eyes, or even gazing aside, would suffice.  Rav Ovadya Yosef (OC 3:7:10) also permits one to recite berakhot, and to learn Torah, in the presence of immodestly dressed women (including exposed arms and necks) if one closes his eyes, or looks aside.


            One may find a fuller treatment of this topic in Rav Elyakim Ellinson's "Hatznei'a Lechet" (pt.2). 


            Next week, we will continue our study of the laws of Keriyat Shema.