Shame, Power, and Intimacy: An Introduction to the Yichud Sugya
I am most gratified teaching Gemara when I successfully enable a seemingly strange or distant text to speak meaningfully to my students. A number of years ago, I decided to teach the sugya of yichud to my tenth grade class. Adolescent students naturally think about sexual matters at times. Too often, though, there is no clear space to learn about and discuss sexual behavior and sexual drive, something that is so central to their being. At SAR High School, we have developed a robust and important Jewish sexual ethics and health curriculum which is studied in small groups. Nonetheless, we continue to look for other organic opportunities for our students to learn about sexual matters from a Jewish and halakhic perspective. At the end of Kiddushin, the Gemara invests more than a daf to explore how to manage one’s sexual drive. Can this Gemara speak to 21st century coed yeshiva high school students in an age of the internet and social media? I taught this sugya in order to challenge myself as well as the conventional wisdom that it is too difficult to make the Gemara speak to adolescent coed yeshiva high school students about issues that feel relevant to their daily lives.
I will focus on two aspects of the larger sugya: the Mishnah’s opening declaration of the prohibition of yichud and the verse that the Gemara brings as its textual basis. At first blush, these brief texts seem odd and distant, each for distinct reasons. Leaning into that discomfort, one can experience the joy of transforming that which is strange into that which is personally meaningful. In essence, this transformation reflects the pedagogical decisions that I have made in determining how to present these segments of the sugya. While conceptual “lomdus,” historical accuracy and practical halakha are all necessary factors for proper preparation of these texts for the classroom, my curricular decisions uniquely focus on the elements that allow the text to speak meaningfully to my students. These decisions aggregate into a particular type of content, what Lee Shulman terms “pedagogical content knowledge.”1Lee S. Shulman, “Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the New Reform.” Harvard Educational Review, 57 (1987): 1-22. A teacher must select from all of the information that is available on a topic and translate that information for meaningful use in the classroom. This exercise must be done for every sugya that we teach. Broadly speaking, our community of educators should develop a library of, and discourse around, thoughtful readings and textual “translations” of hundreds of small segments of sugyot for use in the classroom. What follows is one such example focused on the beginning of the yichud sugya.
The Mishnah towards the end of Kiddushin (80b) states:
לא יתייחד אדם עם שתי נשים אבל אשה אחת מתייחדת עם שני אנשים. רבי שמעון אומר אף איש אחד מתייחד עם שתי נשים בזמן שאשתו עמו וישן עמהם בפונדקי מפני שאשתו משמרתו
2The accurate reading of Rabbi Shimon’s view is subject to debate. See Tosafot 80b, Rif, Vilna Gaon ad loc.
A man may not be secluded with two women but one woman may be secluded with two men. Rabbi Shimon says: “Even one man may be secluded with two women when his wife is with him and he may sleep with them in an inn because his wife guards him.”
Because the Mishnah assumes that there is a prohibition for one man to seclude with one woman, it begins by raising the question of yichud in a small group. The case law of the Mishnah does not articulate the reason for the basic prohibition of yichud with one man and one woman nor what underlies the question regarding a group of three people and why there might be a difference between two men with a woman and two women with one man. Students reading the text will draw conclusions as to the halakhic reasoning; as teachers, we need to thoughtfully unpack the various aspects of the matter in preparation for engaging with our students on these sensitive topics.
Rashi (s.v. עם ב׳ אנשים) explains that בושה shame plays a central role in protecting against sexual promiscuity; a man will be ashamed to make a sexual advance in front of another man. Let’s set aside for a moment whether this resonates with our general experience regarding the behavior of men and whether we intuit that this principle should similarly apply to women. Rashi posits that shame is the driving principle of the yichud laws. Considered more broadly the halakha teaches that neither personal commitment to halakha nor fear of God nor a principled act of will suffices to ensure keeping one’s sexual drive in check. Embarrassment in front of other people בושה is essential. Shame will remain a driving concept of the entire sugya and it is an emotion that we avoid and that we also avoid discussing. From a student perspective while the specifics of the Mishnah might require extended unpacking the idea of shame and embarrassment serving as protection against compromising one’s principles makes intuitive sense. It is less certain whether students think that shame is a noble reason to avoid a particular action. Therefore we can explore the importance that the Gemara places on shame as a useful element in character development. Once we understand that shame is the guiding principle we are able to debate its application. What shapes the tannaitic dispute as to whether the situation is different among women?
The sugya opens with a question: “מאי טעמא,” what is the reason for the possible difference between men and women in this regard? Aren’t men and women both susceptible to and equally concerned about being shamed and embarrassed? In response the Gemara cites תנא דבי אליהו a citation from the Beit Midrash of Eliyahu Hanavi: “הואיל ונשים דעתן קלות עליהן,” since the minds of women are light upon them. It is a provocative statement and one that as an educator must be considered very carefully. Is it a comment on cognitive ability? Promiscuity? What precisely is the Gemara saying about women? Rashi explains “דעתן קלות עליהן” as “women are susceptible to seduction.” That too requires unpacking.
In order to teach this phrase I relate to students that this term appears one other time in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b). The context is the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (RSBY) hiding from the Romans. Each day his wife and daughter would bring him and his son food and water. Finally RSBY expressed concern that the Romans would discover them because “נשים דעתן קלות עליהן.” Presumably the concern in that context is women’s susceptibility to male power and aggression. Assuming the consistency of the phrase might open a different understanding of דעתן קלה. Rashi (in Kiddushin) explains that this means that “שתיהן נוחות להתפתות,” that both women are seducible. Furthermore Rashi says “ולא תירא זו מחבירתה,” that one will not fear the other and so both will give in to the man. It is possible to understand this as a comment on the promiscuity of women. The comparison to the story in Shabbat allows us to suggest otherwise. In our context as well the concern is not cognitive weakness or sexual promiscuity. While shame and embarrassment are factors for women as well in a male dominated world the concern is whether women can withstand male power and aggression even in the face of embarrassment.3 Seduction מפתה properly interpreted is a socially significant category that our students should learn. See for example Zev Farber Marrying Your Daughter to Her Rapist (TheTorah.com 2014),
https://www.thetorah.com/article/marrying-your-daughter-to-her-rapist. My students read parts of this essay when we study the first sugya of the masekhet. Counterintuitively a proper understanding of אונס ומפתה helps bring to light issues of commitment economics and power as factors in the Jewish institution of marriage. While the context of the Mishnah’s concern might be foreign to our students, they are certainly familiar with the problem of female submission to male sexual pressure.
Seen in this light, the sugya, in its 2000-year-old context, is demanding that we consider the roles of shame and power in the male-female sexually charged encounter.4While it is beyond the scope of this brief paper, the interplay of shame and power in the social field informs many aspects of the extended yichud sugya. Chazal are highlighting that humans often do things that they don’t want to do or, deep down, believe to be wrong, and that can occur for various reasons. Temptation and power are two such reasons raised here. People can be principled or strong-willed, but in sexual matters (and other areas as well, such as money), principles and personal will are often not enough. We need the help of others to ensure a wholesome environment in the face of our own sexual drive or the power of the drive of another.
These deliberations are extremely relevant to the social lives of our students when properly translated and made accessible. Students relate very strongly to the challenge of being alone in an intimate environment – or alone with a smartphone – and the role of shame in helping them act in accordance with their values. Furthermore, unfortunately, pressure to respond to another person’s sexual advances is common and worth acknowledging in a classroom setting. Students can also meaningfully debate whether men and women differ in their capacities to withstand that pressure.
The sugya proceeds to inquire as to the source of the yichud prohibition.
א״ר יוחנן משום ר׳ ישמעאל רמז ליחוד מן התורה מנין? שנאמר “כי יסיתך אחיך בן אמך.” וכי בן אם מסית בן אב אינו מסית? אלא לומר לך בן מתייחד עם אמו ואסור להתייחד עם כל עריות שבתורה.
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yishmael: From where is there an allusion in the Torah to the prohibition of seclusion with a woman? As it says, “If your brother, the son of your mother, entices you” (Devarim 13:7). But does only a mother’s son entice, and not a father’s son? Rather, it’s to tell you: A son can be secluded with his mother, but not with any other women forbidden by the Torah.
Rabbi Yishmael’s “allusion” derives from the extra “the son of your mother.” This interpretation is extremely difficult. These extra words do not indicate anything about yichud or a sexual encounter. In fact the verse is teaching about the prohibition of מסית (convincing someone to commit idolatry) and is not referring to sexual matters at all! In the classroom this type of drasha is often met with cynicism. As educators we must invest all that we can to make drashot like these make good sense.
In this instance, we are in good company. R. Yehoshua Falk (ad loc.), author of Penei Yehoshua, notes that he struggled with understanding this drasha for thirty years before finally arriving at his remarkable insight.
לכאורה כל הרואה ישתומם על זה המאמר וזה לי כמו שלשים שנה שהתבוננתי בזה ועניתי ואמרתי דעיקר ילפותא דייחוד מהאי קרא לאו מרישא דקרא דבן אמך אלא מכולה קרא ד”כי יסיתך” דכתיב ביה או רעך אשר כנפשך בסתר” ופרש”י ז”ל בחומש ש”דיבר הכתוב בהווה” שאין הסתה אלא בסתר ואם כן איכא למידק מדכתיב “אחיך בן אמך או בנך או בתך או אשת חיקך”…ומש”ה לא שייך בהו הסתה בסתר אלא בהנך דכתיבי דהבת מותרת להתייחד עם אביה.
It seems that anyone who sees this drasha will be stunned. I have considered this for about thirty years and eventually answered and said that the main derivation for yichud from this verse is not the [seemingly unnecessary] beginning of the verse which says “son of your mother,” but from the entire verse of “If your brother, the son of your mother, entices you” which states “or your friend entices you in secret.” Rashi in his Torah commentary explains that the verse describes what typically occurs, for there is typically no enticement except in secret. If so, it is possible to make a precise inference from the verse “If your brother, your own mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom” and because of this, there is no relation between enticement in secret [and yichud], only for that which is written, that the daughter is permitted to be in yichud with her father.
The Penei Yehoshua instructs us to read the full expression in the verse (Devarim 13:7). When we do, the idea becomes clear – and relatable to students:
כי יסיתך אחיך בן־אמך או־בנך או־בתך או אשת חיקך או רעך אשר כנפשך בסתר לאמר נלכה ונעבדה אלהים אחרים אשר לא ידעת אתה ואבתיך.
If your brother, your own mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, “Come let us worship other gods”— whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced.
The Torah goes out of its way to describe the scene: two people who are very close to each other – relatives or very close friends – have a conversation in secret that results in questioning God. That is exactly how it happens! Kids, late at night, in conversations about life and about belief, raise questions and uncertainties. The Torah is warning us: be careful at those intimate moments. They are potentially of great consequence! At the same time, the Torah hints: how can such conversations happen? With whom would one be alone in secret? With whom is one permitted to be alone in secret at such intimate moments? The verse uncharacteristically provides an extended list of relationships from which Rabbi Yishmael infers the contours of the yichud prohibition.
This insight of the Penei Yehoshua accomplishes three significant pedagogical goals: 1) Rabbi Falk has modeled the struggle and hard work that can be necessary to draw insight from a drasha, 2) we have achieved some understanding of the remez of this drasha as a source for yichud and 3) the Torah has helped us gain insight into the intimacy of those late night conversations that are so integral to meaningful living.
Making sense of the opening lines of this sugya, we find that Chazal are addressing the most basic aspects of our humanity, the factors that shape our intimate and sexual lives. With perseverance and careful preparation, we can bring these texts to life and help them speak to our students as they navigate the challenges of growing up as halakhically observant adolescents in a rapidly changing world.
- 1Lee S. Shulman, “Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the New Reform.” Harvard Educational Review, 57 (1987): 1-22.
- 2The accurate reading of Rabbi Shimon’s view is subject to debate. See Tosafot 80b, Rif, Vilna Gaon ad loc.
- 3Seduction מפתה properly interpreted is a socially significant category that our students should learn. See for example Zev Farber Marrying Your Daughter to Her Rapist (TheTorah.com 2014),
https://www.thetorah.com/article/marrying-your-daughter-to-her-rapist. My students read parts of this essay when we study the first sugya of the masekhet. Counterintuitively a proper understanding of אונס ומפתה helps bring to light issues of commitment economics and power as factors in the Jewish institution of marriage.
- 4While it is beyond the scope of this brief paper, the interplay of shame and power in the social field informs many aspects of the extended yichud sugya.