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Can one whisper t'fila (prayer)? I'm thinking of obligatory t'filos like sh'mone esre and "Sh'ma".

I know one can speak t'fila quietly, even very quietly; in fact, sh'mone esre is said quietly. I'm not asking about loudness versus quietness but specifically about whispering. As Wikipedia notes:

In normal speech, the vocal cords alternate between states of voice and voicelessness. In whispering,… the vocal cords alternate between whisper and voicelessness (though the acoustic difference between the two states is minimal).

In other words, whispering is speaking without the use — or with minimal use — of the vocal cords. All consonants and vowels become largely or completely devoiced. This is independent of loudness: it can be done pretty loudly, and normal speaking can be done quietly.

(The words תִּזְכְּרוּ and תִּשְׂכְּרוּ thus come out almost the same — but not quite. One difference lies in the fact that whispering generally doesn't completely remove voice (as noted in the Wikipedia quotation, above). Another lies in the fact that for some people the place of articulation of a zayin is slightly different than that of a sin, or one is more closed than the other. Also, the preceding chirik may differ slightly, e.g. in length, between the two words. Finally, WAF notes in a comment, below, that people often lengthen normally-voiced consonants when whispering, and suggests that that might suffice to distinguish them from the normally unvoiced ones.)

Is there any source or argument that says that t'fila can or cannot be done in a whisper?

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I have to being paying close attention to distinguish between voice and unvoiced consonants when whispering things like keriyat shema to avoid saying things like ve'ahafta or uchtaftam. For this reason I generally pray (at least keriyat shema) in a slightly voiced tone. –  Double AA Feb 20 '12 at 22:01
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@msh210, I was trying for sound, but it's synonimized with hearing. –  Isaac Moses Feb 20 '12 at 22:02
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I have wondered this myself and have eventually concluded not to whisper t'filos. That said, people very often compensate for the lack of voicing by lengthening the duration of the unvoiced corresponding sounds when whispering. It has been suggested that this compensation could suffice for differentiating the sounds in t'fila as well as it does in conversation. –  WAF Feb 22 '12 at 3:46
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WAF, thanks! I've added it to the question. @Yirmeyahu, very quietly. :-) –  msh210 Feb 22 '12 at 15:51
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related linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/2340/921 –  Double AA Oct 21 '12 at 2:18

2 Answers 2

In the beginning of Shmuel 1, we have the story Chana davening for a son. The posuk states that Chana was davening quietly:

וְחַנָּה, הִיא מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל-לִבָּהּ--רַק שְׂפָתֶיהָ נָּעוֹת, וְקוֹלָהּ לֹא יִשָּׁמֵעַ; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ עֵלִי, לְשִׁכֹּרָה (Shmuel 1, 1:13)

Eli HaNovi, mistaking her for a drunk, rebuked her. However, she was shown to be "in the right", so to speak, and Eli blessed her and left. I don't have a source for this, I have heard this story used as a proof that davening in a whisper is perfectly acceptable.

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I wonder where the person you heard it from knows she was whispering. –  msh210 Feb 22 '12 at 17:29
    
@msh210 - answer updated with quote –  eykanal Feb 22 '12 at 18:23
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So she was speaking very quietly. I see no reason to think she was whispering. (Presumably Eli wasn't within a foot or two of her.) –  msh210 Feb 22 '12 at 18:38
    
@msh210 It says her voice was inaudible, not merely that 'Eli did not hear it. –  Seth J Feb 22 '12 at 19:13
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@eykanal, at the very least, it says in the Gemara (Berachoth 31a, at the bottom) that one must not raise one's voice too loud, based on the Pasuk you cited from Shemuel. It does not specifically state that whispering is preferable. I haven't look at Rishonim. –  Seth J Feb 22 '12 at 19:21

The mishna in Berakhot 2:3 records the following dispute between Rabbi Yosei and the tana qama:

הקורא את שמע ולא השמיע לאזנו - יצא. רבי יוסי אומר: לא יצא

My translation:

One who reads the Shema' but not so that his ear hears it has fulfilled his obligation. Rabbi Yosei says, he has not fulfilled his obligation.

The gemara (Berakhot 15a) understands Rabbi Yosei to be interpreting the word shema' as "hear": read it in Hebrew, and make sure that it's audible. The tana qama, they suggest, interprets the word shema' as "understand": recite it in any language, even (presumably) in a whisper. The halakha is as the tana qama.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Qeri'at Shema' 2:8) is emphatic:

וצריך להשמיע לאזנו כשהוא קורא ואם לא השמיע לאזנו יצא

My translation:

One needs to make sure that he hears it [the Shema'] as he is reading, but if he does not make it audible, he has fulfilled his obligation.

So too, by the way, with the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 62:3) - although they both add the stipulation that some sound has to come out, even if you can't hear it. Just thinking the words is insufficient.

As for blessings, this appears also to have been the subject of debate. A mishna in Megillah 2:4 forbids a deaf person from reading megillat Esther, and the gemara (Megillah 19b) likens that to the opinion of Rabbi Yosei, as mentioned above. In presenting his opinion, however, they bring a beraita that attributes to Rabbi Yosei the assertion that one who recites birqat hamazon silently has not fulfilled his obligation, over against the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda who permits making silent berakhot.

The halakha here, as earlier, is not like Rabbi Yosei. The law, as it's presented in the Tur and Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 206:3) is that one should make one's berakhot audible, but one has fulfilled one's obligation even if he didn't - so long, again, as some sound is produced. This is contrary to the opinion of the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:7), who holds that berakhot can be made altogether silently.

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Conclusion: Unless one's hearing is impaired, or unless the sound is being drowned out by another source, it is physiologically impossible to say words that are inaudible to one's own ears without whispering. Although none of the sources mentioned above use the verb ל.ח.ש ("whisper"), it is to whispering that they are clearly referring.

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I don't see the Tanna Qama saying 'whisper' only 'any language', unless you are saying that whispering is another language? –  Double AA Jul 10 '12 at 15:27
    
This answer discusses loudness/quietness (audibility), not voicedness/voicelessness (whispering; your mention of whispering in your paraphrase is in error AFAICT). I don't see how it addresses the question. (Cf. comments on the other answer.) –  msh210 Jul 10 '12 at 15:42
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You are both correct: I was not clear. I've fixed it up a little bit (as regards the tana qama) and have written a final paragraph that makes my point more clearly than I'd made it before. Feel free to continue to disagree, of course :) –  Shimon bM Jul 10 '12 at 18:21
    
+1. I like the argument, even though "lo hishmia l'ozno" may mean his voice is drowned out. –  msh210 Jul 12 '12 at 16:47

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