TEFACH B'ISHAH 'ERVAH
Rabbi Yitzchok Etshalom
Kriat Shema 3:16-17
16. Just as it is forbidden to read [K'riat Sh'ma] while facing
tzo'ah or urine until he moves away from it, similarly, it is
forbidden to read while facing an *'ervah* (nakedness - see
questions) until he turns his face away. He should not even read
while facing the *'ervah* of a *Kuti* (see questions) or a minor.
Even if there is a glass barrier separating [him from the
*'ervah*], but he still sees it, it is forbidden to read until he
turns his head.
The entire body of a woman is considered an *'ervah*; therefore,
he should not gaze at a woman's body while he is reading, even if
it is his own wife. If one *tefach* (handbreadth - 3-4 inches) of
her body was uncovered, he should not read while facing her.
17. Just as it is forbidden to read while facing the *'ervah* of
other people, similarly he is forbidden from reading while facing
his own *'ervah* and he should not read while he is naked until
he covers up his own *'ervah*. If he had a belt of cloth or
leather or burlap on his hips, even though the rest of his body
is naked, he is allowed to read K'riat Sh'ma - as long as his
heel is not touching his *'ervah*. If he was sleeping under a
blanket and was naked underneath, he can wrap the blanket around
himself below his heart and read. However, he should not wrap it
around his neck, because then his heart would be "seeing" his
*'ervah* and it would be as if he were reading without a belt.
(one uncovered tefach of a woman is considered an 'ervah)
The Gemara in Berakhot (24a) states:
R. Yitzchak said: A tefach of a woman is considered *ervah. For
what [Halakhah]? If it is for [the prohibition of] "gazing" at
her, [this cannot be, for] R. Sheshet said: Why did Scripture
reckon outer jewelry with jewelry worn next to the body (see
Bamidbar [Numbers] 31:50)? To teach you that anyone who gazes
[even] at a woman's little finger is considered as if he was
gazing at her private parts. Rather, [it must be referring] to
his wife - and [while he is reading] K'riat Sh'ma. R. Hisda said:
A woman's *shok* (either thigh or calf) is 'ervah, as it says:
"Uncover your *shok* and pass over rivers" and it says
[immediately afterwards] "Let your 'ervah be uncovered and let
your shame be seen" (Yeshaya [Isaiah] 47:2-3). Sh'mu'el said: A
woman's *kol* (voice) is 'ervah, as it says: "For your voice is
sweet and your sight is comely" (Shir haShirim [Song of Songs]
2:14). R. Sheshet said: A woman's *se'ar* (hair) is considered
'ervah, as it says: Your hair is like a flock of goats (Shir
OBESRVATIONS FROM THIS SUGYA
(1) The Gemara rejects the distinction between normally covered
and uncovered parts of a woman's body for purposes of a
lascivious gaze; this is prohibited (with regard to some set of
women who are not his own wife) in any case. We are now left
with two options in understanding R. Yitzchak's statement: gazing
at his own wife, where we specifically disallow only when the
focus is on an uncovered part of the body; or redefining the set
of women who are included in R. Sheshet's stricture.
(2) The Gemara adopts neither of these resolutions, and reads R.
Yitzchak's Halakhah as pertaining to his own wife, while he is
reading K'riat Sh'ma. We don't know if this refers to "gazing"
at her (*istakulei bah*), just looking at her (in a non-sexual
way) or merely being in her presence while she is thus unclothed.
(3) Although R. Yitzchak's rule seems to be absolute (he doesn't
mention where that tefach might be), from R. Sheshet's analogy it
becomes obvious that not every tefach of a woman's body is
considered 'ervah if uncovered. Since he equates "staring" at
her little finger with staring at something much more private, it
follows that her little finger (e.g. hands, perhaps feet, perhaps
face) are not normally covered - and present no problem unless we
look at them with improper intent. Therefore, we have to define
which parts of the body are covered (pun intended) under R.
(4) After clarifying the meaning of *tefach b'ishah 'ervah*, the
Gemara lists three more items which are considered 'ervah: *shok*
(since the verse refers to it as an 'ervah), *kol* (since the
verse praises it as sweet) and *se'ar* (again, since the verse
praises it as sweet). Are the latter three to be understood like
the first one - that it refers to his wife's shok, kol and/or
se'ar while he is reading K'riat Sh'ma? If so, what of the shok,
kol and se'ar of other women (not while reading K'riat Sh'ma)? Do
we extend R. Sheshet's "little finger" rule to voice and hair?
Although a full treatment of this sugya is beyond the scope of
this shiur, we can at least outline some of the basic approaches
found in the Rishonim - and suggest a reading of the sugya which
fits well with those approaches.
WHO IS INCLUDED IN R. SHESHET'S PROHIBITION?
Rashi (Berakhot 24a s.v. l'istakulei bah) understands that the
"even a little finger" of R. Sheshet applies to a married (to
someone else) woman; Rashi later hints that this is associated
with *hirhur 'aveirah* - thoughts of sinning. In other words,
the prohibition of lascivious gazing is directly related to the
prohibition of acting on that gaze - since relations with a
married woman are a capital crime, gazing at her (in a way which
stimulates thoughts of such a violation) is an extension or
protection of that violation.
Rambam (MT Issurei Bi'ah 21:2-3) reads this prohibition as
applying to all forbidden women - even non-married women - the
one exception he makes (and encourages) is to gaze at the face of
a non-married woman who is he is considering marrying. We could
explain Rambam's approach as similar to Rashi - with the
extension applying to anyone with whom relations are forbidden.
However, from the context of Rambam's ruling, it seems that he
judges "gazing" as inherently problematic, and therefore equally
applicable to anyone who is a prohibited sexual liaison.
TEFACH - SPECIFICALLY WHILE READING K'RIAT SH'MA
The Gemara's resolution is, as mentioned, a bit vague - Rashi
understands that it is prohibited to read K'riat Sh'ma while
facing his own wife if a tefach is uncovered; Rambam takes this
one step further and requires turning the head away (see OC 75:6
for various opinions about turning the whole body away vs.
Rambam's approach). R. Hai Ga'on (cited below) rules that this
is only problematic if he is gazing at her, but even normal
looking doesn't present a problem.
TEFACH - ABSOLUTE OR CONTEXTUAL?
Although the Gemara records R. Yitzchak's statement in a
non-qualified form, the Rishonim generally assume that the tefach
mentioned is of a place which is normally covered. See, for
instance, RABD (quoted in Hashlamah, Rashba), Tosafot Rosh
(Berakhot 24a s.v. tefach) Or Zarua' #133 (at the end) and
This is also how R'ah explains the inclusion of "shok" in the
list - even though we would think that since the shok is
sometimes uncovered (while walking/working), it is still
considered a "normally covered area".
SHOK, KOL AND SE'AR
Where do these three types of 'ervah fit into our Halakhah - are
they forbidden at all times (e.g. listening to a woman's voice,
seeing her hair or her shok)? - If so, isn't shok redundant,
considering that we already identified any part of a woman's body
as "off limits" for gazing? Perhaps the intent is to let us know
that the shok should not even be "looked at" without gazing? Is
the explanation relating to his own wife and only during the
reading of K'riat Sh'ma applicable here?
R. Hai Ga'on (Otzar haGe'onim, Berakhot, Perushim p. 30, also
quoted in Rabbenu Yonah, Berakhot 17a in Rif pages, s.v. 'ervah)
rules that the whole list (shok, kol, se'ar) only applies to
reading K'riat Sh'ma; i.e. not to gaze at (or intently listen to,
in the case of kol) his own wife's tefach, shok, se'ar or kol
while reading K'riat Sh'ma. He evidently learns that the three
statements following the clarification (i.e. shok, kol and se'ar)
are all built upon that understanding - that we are discussing
those parts of his own wife's body (and, a fortiori, another
woman's body) which he must not focus on while saying K'riat
Rashi combines both approaches - shok, kol and se'ar are
forbidden on a married woman at any time (presumably - to stare
or listen intently), and are equally forbidden regarding his own
wife while reading K'riat Sh'ma. Rashi understands the Gemara as
defining that which is considered an 'ervah on a woman's body,
simultaneously affecting two areas: that which is forbidden to
"focus" on if the women is married to someone else - and that
which is problematic for K'riat Sh'ma. This follows Rashi's
approach from above, that the prohibition of gazing is an
extension of the actual prohibition of adultery - since looking
in that way stimulates that interest, it is clear that even such
thoughts, while permissible in the case of one's own wife, are
not appropriate while reading K'riat Sh'ma.
Rambam takes a slightly different approach: Whereas he rules that
a tefach presents a problem for K'riat Sh'ma - "even his own
wife", he doesn't mention se'ar, shok or kol; he does mention
se'ar and kol in the context of generally forbidden areas of
contact with women with whom relations are presently forbidden
(Issurei Bi'ah 21:2). Rambam evidently takes the last three
items on the list at "face value"; they are considered 'ervah and
are classified as prohibited as part of the larger group of
forbidden activities between a man and woman who are not
permitted to each other (see Issurei Bi'ah 21 - the whole chapter
is instructive for this point). Unlike the "tefach", which the
Gemara itself redefined (K'riat Sh'ma - his own wife), the others
are just defined as 'ervah.
See Teshuvot Maharm Al-Ashkar #35 for an interesting discussion
of the issue of se'ar; see also Arukh haShulhan OC 75:7. Also,
many of the Rishonim point to Rif's omission of this whole sugya
as indication that he felt it was rejected Halakhically, by
virtue of an earlier ruling in the Gemara regarding *agavot*
(which will be in the text of next week's Halakhot). See
Hiddushei Rashba, Berakhot 24a s.v. Amar Rav Hisda.
This shiur did not touch on many central issues relating to se'ar
and kol; even though it is not directly addressed in the text of
the next two Halakhot, The next shiur will focus on *se'ar
b'ishah 'ervah* and the whole issue of hair-covering for women.
This will include a rationale for unmarried women not covering
their hair and the resulting permission to read K'riat Sh'ma in
now, to the questions:
Q1: What is the definition of *'ervah* in this context?
A: See the shiur
Q2: What is a Kuti?
A: A Kuti is a member of the Samarian sect which was considered
quasi-Jewish in the times of the Mishna - but later found to be
idolaters and were distanced. See Mishnah Berakhot 8:8 and
Rambam's commentary there.
There are some manuscripts (see Sefer haMenuchah) which read
"goy" instead of "kuti" here; the original Gemara (in the version
we have, Berakhot 25b) reads " 'aku"m " (i.e. idolaters) but
likely refers to any non-Jew.
Q3: Why would we think that a glass barrier is sufficient?
ML (Meir Levin):
A possible approach to the Rambam.
Both the prohibition of Tsoah and of Ervah comes from the posuk
"and your camp should be holy...there shall not be seen in you
The paradigm defining the prohibition of Tsoah is that it should
not be "in your camp". Your camp has tsoah if you are within 4
amos or connected to it by sight or smell. Since this is what
defines "your camp" , it applies even if you do not actually see
it (at night or a blind person Cf. Beit Yosef OC 75). One
connects to the Tsoah in this fashion. A similiar idea in the
Ramban Breishis 19,17 by Lot's wife; (compare Bamidbar 21,9).
Correspondingly, when it is above or below 10 tfochim or behind a
glass partition, or in a whole covered by your shoe, it is not in
Erva is forbidden by "seeing it" or if it is "in you". A glass
partition is still a problem (nothing to do with being "in your
camp") whereas the night is ok. When the heart "sees the erva",
it is also a form of seeing. The heel touching the erva is a
problem of "in you"( and generalizes to any other organ in
contact with the erva-Rashi Brachot 26b or is a special case ,
rabbinic b/se one might come to touch the erva - Tosfos. The
Tosfos may not accept the "in you" as a determinant of the
prohibition). Since the prohibition is expressed in the passive(
shall not be seen), even seeing it from the corner of one's
eye(knegdo) is included. But it should be a shiur of Tefach, to
be called "seen".
In Halakha 16, the Rambam seems to refer to a woman who is fully
clothed. One may not gaze intently at her (mistakel) or see a
tefach revealed, even without gazing. This tefach may be only for
his wife or only in the generally uncovered place. He makes the
distinction between "mistakel" and "roeh" in Pirush Hamishnayot
(Commentary to the Mishna) on Sanhedrin, Perek Arba Misos. See
also Bach OC 75.
Q4: What is the definition of an "uncovered tefach"? - does
this apply to feet, to the face - what are the parameters?
A: See the shiur
Q5: Why is the 'ervah of others similar to his own 'ervah?
A: From the rest of this Halakhah (and MT Berakhot 1:9) it is
clear that the two are not alike - whereas the 'ervah of a woman
is much more expansive (any part which is normally covered), he
may read K'riat Sh'ma and say B'rakhot if he just covers his
"primary" 'ervah (genitals). (Tefillah is a different matter and
requires more covering - we'll leave that for our discussion of
Hilkhot Tefillah 4:7). The similarity which Rambam points to
does tell us something - probably that the source for both
prohibitions is the same "He should see no 'ervah among you..."
(Devarim [Deuteronomy] 23:15); referring to both your own
nakedness while invoking God's Name and to your exposure to
another's nakedness while doing so.
Q6: Why is there a concern about his heel touching his 'ervah?
A: RABD and Rabbenu Manoach understand that it doesn't mean
specifically his heel - but _even_ if his heel is touching (and
certainly any other part of his body), because any part of his
body which is touching his genitals will cause stimulation -
which is certainly problematic while saying K'riat Sh'ma.
Q7: Why are we concerned that his heart not "see" his 'ervah?
A: Rabbenu Manoach explains that since while saying K'riat Sh'ma,
we are accepting God's Unity, our love and reverence for Him -
all of which are "heart-oriented". If his heart is "exposed" to
his 'ervah, how can he properly focus on these?
Building on this idea, I believe that we can understand it
"environmentally" - to wit, we are trying to construct the proper
environment for focussing on God's Oneness, and all of the
commitments which result from that awareness. By separating
those parts of us which are normally associated with thinking and
feeling from those which perform more animalistic functions (and
often lead us astray), we are reminding ourselves of the strength
and constant awareness needed to live up to that commitment.
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