Preventing Sexual Harassment and Abuse the Jewish Way

    April Passover 2006 Edition            
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Behind Closed Doors: The Safety Valve: Yichud

By Yehuda Posnick

Did you hear about a true scandal that occurred in the household of the royal family of a Middle Eastern monarchy? One of the king's sons fell obsessively in love with a half sister and very much desired her love. A friend of the prince advised him to feign being ill, and to request that this princess whom he desired be sent to attend him. The prince did just this. While the princess was busy serving him food, he ordered everyone else out of the room, in order that he may be alone with her.

After everyone left the room, he proceeded to force himself upon the young maiden. She pleaded with him that he should not disgrace himself. "Request from the King my hand in marriage—he would not deny you!" she begged. Nonetheless, he consummated his physical desire.

Having satisfied his lust, and since his attraction to her was purely physical, he grew to hate the princess. To add insult to injury, he further humiliated the royal maiden by having her thrown out of his presence.

The king, upon learning of the incident, chose not to conceal the scandal, but rather to ensure that such a thing not happen again. "If such a thing can happen in the royal family, all the more so can it happen among the common people. If this can occur with a woman modest in dress and in conduct, all the more so can it happen among the immodest!"

An edict was issued to the effect that no man should seclude himself with an unmarried woman. This decree was an extension to the existing law that forbade a man from secluding himself with a married woman (or with one of incestuous relations) behind a locked door. Seclusion here meaning: without the ability of another person to enter freely into their midst.


The royal family described above was that of King David, and the rape incident is that which is related in II Samuel, Chapter 13:1-19. Amnon was a son of King David, and Tamar his half-sister. Although the Sages debate the possibility for Amnon to marry Tamar, since the Torah prohibits a brother and sister (with even one parent in common) from marrying. The conclusion of the great medieval Talmudic commentator, Rabbenu Tam, is that Tamar was the daughter of a woman that King David took captive in war while the woman was already pregnant with Tamar (see Deuteronomy 21:10-14 for the Biblical law). There existed no real blood relation between them, and marriage could have been permitted.

This unfortunate incident was the source of an enactment extending the prohibition of yichud – meaning that a woman may not seclude herself with a man if there is no possibility of another person entering their presence.

Yichud is a decree to protect both men and women alike from negative actions as well as negative thoughts from others.

Let us understand some of the prohibitions of yichud:

According to the Torah, any consanguineous relations (i.e., those that a person is not allowed to marry, as listed in Leviticus 18:6-20) are forbidden to be secluded together, with the exception of:

      1) A mother with a son/grandson, etc.

      2) A father with a daughter/granddaughter, etc.

      3) A brother with his sister on a temporary basis (for example, if their parents left them alone in the house for a short time. However they shouldn't rent an apartment together.)

These three above mentioned couples are permitted to seclude themselves together since it is assumed that people shun such incestuous relationships.

      4) A husband and wife, even though the wife is in the middle of her menstrual period, and they may not have relations at the time. (This is permitted because it is assumed that the husband can restrain himself for the duration of the forbidden period.)

King David's decree extended the original prohibition to include any man and woman, whether Jewish or non-Jewish (with the above four exceptions remaining permitted). The Talmud states (Ketuboth 13b): "There is no assurance (or means of guarding) against immorality." No person is assumed to have such self-restraint that he may be exempt from these laws.

In all the rules of yichud, the age guidelines begin at the age of three for a female and a male above the age of nine. From this age on, they may not be secluded with a member of the opposite sex. (In a recently published biography of a famous American composer, it is related that he had his first sexual encounter at age nine!) There is sufficient evidence that even a child of age nine has achieved some level of sexual maturity and therefore cannot be "trusted".

There is no upper limit as to one's age – even an elderly man whose passions would be assumed to have subsided is still be prohibited seclude himself with a woman, and conversely, yichud of a young man with an elderly woman is still forbidden.

If a man is in the same building with his wife, there is no problem of being alone with another woman. There is also no problem of yichud of a man with a married woman as long as she is in the same city with her husband. Some Rabbinic authorities are of the opinion that if the husband is approximately nine miles distant he is considered too remote to properly ensure the propriety his wife. Other authorities say that the Sages didn't distinguish as to the size of the city where they reside.

In addition, one woman may be alone with two men of good reputation during the daylight hours in an urban setting, where there are many passersby. In a rural area or in a city at night at least three men present must be present. If the men spoken of are not of coarse character, a woman is only permitted to be alone with them if the men's wives are present.

One man should not be alone with even three or more women as long as he doesn't deal in merchandise that is particular to women (e.g., jewelry, perfumes, women's clothing. Merchants can become too familiar with particular repeat customers.

If the front door of the room in which the man and woman are together is open to the public thoroughfare, would not constitute a problem of yichud. This is when there are passersby in the street, such as during the day and early evening. Also having a door ajar or unlocked is sufficient to prevent yechud providing that others may enter freely at any moment with out knocking.

In closing, once a teacher was working on a book on the laws of niddah (the separation between husband and wife during her menstrual period). He was riding in a car with someone who asked what the subject his work. Upon hearing the subject dealt with the separation between the sexes, he responded that due to these laws, one find less sexual abuse of women among those that observe these laws. The same would apply to the laws of yichud: the Sages enacted the rules of yichud out of sensitivity towards curb sexual abuse by instilling modest behavior in the people.

Statistics show that these laws have achieved their purpose in communities where these laws are observed.

In a time of moral collapse and rabid sexual misconduct wouldn't it make sense for all to observe these protective rules in daily life? If Western society as a whole would adopt such rules, problems of abusive and immoral behavior would be considerably reduced.


from the April Passover 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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