VOICE OF A WOMAN - KOL ISHA
The gemara in Berachot 24a lists a number of things about a woman that are considered to be "ervah," nakedness. One of the things listed is the voice of a woman. To underscore this statement, the gemara cites the verse from Shir HaShirim 2:14, "for your voice is sweet and your appearance is pleasant."Rashi explains this line of the gemara by stating that since the verse praises a woman's voice, it implies that it is something that arouses desire in men (Shir HaShirim is written as a love song between a man and a woman, and thus Rashi's inference makes perfect sense).
From this gemara, we get only a very basic idea that there is some problem involved with a man listening to a woman's voice. However, no guidelines are given for this law. The gemara in Kiddushin 70a offers some insight into the nature of this restriction. There it is written that someone objected to being asked to send regards to Yalta (the wife of one of the Amoraim), basing his objection on the idea that the voice of a woman is considered to be an "ervah." Rashi there explains that he refused this mission since if he sent her regards, she would obviously answer him back and he would then hear her voice, violating the beginning of the aforementioned verse in Shir HaShirim which says "let me hear your voice."
This gemara in Kiddushin seems to frame this law as being quite extreme, outlawing even the speaking voice of a woman. The continuation of the gemara seems to support such a position, as it states that a person should not even send regards to a woman through her husband. However, this gemara may not be as extreme as it first seems. It may only be teaching us that there is a problem with hearing the voice of a married woman, but not that of an unmarried one.
The Rishonim take various approaches to the limits of this law. Noting the fact that the original statement in Berachot is mentioned in the context of reciting the Shema,Rosh notes that this law applies to all situations, and not just when one is saying the Shema. The Ma'adanei Yom Tov, in his commentary on Rosh, notes that nowadays we are lenient and allow one to recite the Shema even if he hears a woman's voice at the time. This is due to the fact that as our situation has changed and we lived in societies where the sexes tend to mix on a frequent basis, it is not practical to forbid saying the Shema or learning Torah when there is a woman's voice nearby, since that would cause one to severely decrease the amount of time that he spends engaged in such holy activities.
On the other hand, bothRitva and Meiri claim that this law is talking about hearing a woman's voice while one is reciting the Shema. However, neither one of them stops there. Ritva further clarifies this law by stating that only the singing voice of a woman is problematic, but her speaking voice would not be an issue. Meiri takes a slightly different approach. He claims that even during the recitation of the Shema, a woman's voice is only forbidden if one is not used to it. However, one can say the Shema if he hears his wife's voice at the time. However, at the same time he offers a restriction as per the gemara in Kiddushin, forbidding one to hear the speaking voice of any woman who is not his wife. The Divrei Chamudot, one of the supercommentaries on Rosh, agrees with Ritva and says that a woman's speaking voice is fine, but one may not listen to her singing voice.
There is one final gemara that discusses the idea of listening to the voice of woman, albeit from a slightly different angle. The gemara in Sotah 48a says that if men sing and women answer then there is a problem of licentiousness, while if woman sing and men answer it is like a flame burning up flax (meaning that it arouses very strong passions). Rashi explains that when one is leading the singing he does not always listen to those who are answering. However, when one is responding to one who is leading the singing, he is careful to listen to the leader. Thus, if the men are answering they will be listening closely to the women who are leading. Once again, Rashi invokes the verse in Shir HaShirim, indicating that this gemara is speaking about the same issue that we have been discussing all along.
Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Bi'a 21:2), Tur (E.H. 21), and the Shulchan Aruch (E.H. 21:1) all use the same phrasing to state this law, stating that it is forbidden to listen to the "voice of an ervah." There is a subtle nuance here which may contribute to our analysis of this law. The gemara had stated that the voice itself was considered to be an ervah. Here, by contrast, we are told that the voice OF an ervah is forbidden. This would seem to allow for the possibility that there are situations when a woman's voice will be permitted, and only when the woman is considered to be an "ervah" is there a problem. This would possibly include the distinction between a man's listening to his own wife and listening to someone else's wife. Since his own wife is not an ervah to him there would be no issue, while another man's wife would be forbidden for him to listen to. However, this also opens the door to forbid a man to listen to his own wife when she is impure as a nidda.
We will conclude with statements from two of the commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. The Beit Shmuel allows one to listen to both his wife and any unmarried girl so long as it is not during the time of prayers. Furthermore, he allows one to listen to the speaking voice of any woman. On the other hand, the Be'eir Heitev cites the Be'er Sheva who rules that the only woman that one may listen to is his own wife, and he may only listen to her when he is not praying. However, when he is involved in prayer he may not even listen to his own wife, even though he is used to her voice.
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