It’s hard to hear the word Yichud room and not have at least a tiny immature snicker. Like in a middle school sex ed class, it’s not so much the words being said, but the delivery from the teacher trying to stay dignified and clinical. The same words you were saying to your friends TV were boring or casual a moment ago. But from your teacher? That’s something to laugh at.
So now you can see why the room of intimate seclusion that is mandated by the stuffiest of stuffy shirts (the Orthodox) gives me a similar feeling. Or maybe I’m just immature. It’s not like anyone actually does the deed in there. Now for those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, I’ll define, elucidate, and hopefully add that practical, deeper perspective in a moment. But for my initial immature impulse, I felt it necessary to call out the subject matter before diving in. (I’m sure there’s a joke here, but I’ll leave it for more talented folks.)
An Orthodox wedding has many essential (and some nonessential) steps, as I have written about previously. But after all papers are signed, all bridal veils are checked, all rings are bared, and all blessings are given, the choson and kallah (groom and bride) are ushered off to a private room; the aforementioned Yichud room. It is an important step and without it, the marriage may not have fully taken place.
Three For the Price of One
In the olden days, there were three traditional ways to officially conduct marriage.
The first is a contract, aka the Ketubah. As I have mentioned before, Judaism is a very legalistic religion and what better way to display and act of love than with a formal and often artistic prenuptial agreement. The second way of conducting the marriage is with a transfer of value. This is what the ring under the chuppah accomplishes. That is also why if both partners exchange items under the chuppah it can be a problem. If I give my fiancee a ring and she gives me another one, it was a ring exchange, not a marriage exchange.
The third and final way is with the act of consummating. Now, just because someone may have had premarital relations didn’t mean they become halachically married. The partners needed to have the intention of becoming married with the act. Also all three of these steps need to have witnesses to attest that the acts took place. Don’t worry, no witnesses are actually observing the intimacy, as I’ll explain in a moment.
Today, we do all three acts; contract, ring exchange, and consummation at a Jewish ceremony to make sure we cover all our bases. The Yichud room is where the third act takes place. It is a private space that the couple must stay in for 8-10 minutes (depending on which opinion you go by). Now, I don’t think anyone actually has intercourse in the Yichud room, though I’m sure some do. But in Judaism, sometimes if something has the possibility of happening it is viewed legally as if it has happened. So the witnesses simply need to attest to the fact that the couple was alone for said period of time and it is as if the marriage has been consummated.
An Eye In a Storm
There is a lot to unpack about all the circumstances surrounding the ritual. Jewish or otherwise, the wedding is a stressful day for a couple. Emotions are high, tensions have culminated, and chances are something has gone either wrong or something unexpected has come up. But as the first moment as husband and wife, Judaism insists that the couple have a moment of calm privacy. A moment to check in, a moment to pause, and a moment to share feelings and the experience as a whole. It is a moment to be united, as one (which is what Yichud means.)
At many religious weddings, the couple may take on certain customs. One is fasting. The wedding is viewed as a Yom Kippur, giving the couple a clean slate. So the couple doesn’t eat food or drink. This means that the first thing the couple will likely do in the Yichud room is get their blood sugar levels back to normal. The second custom is that many couples don’t see each other the entire week before the wedding. This fuels the anticipation but also allows them the chance for some deep soul searching. It also makes for an extraordinary event when the choson is danced over to the kallah just before the chuppah. After the ceremony, this is the first moment that they can truly be together.
Making the Forbidden into a Mitzvah
Most writings on the mitzvah of Yichud don’t focus about the holiness of this room, but instead refers to the prohibition of a man and a woman (who aren’t married) from being alone in a private place together. In religious circles this is taken very seriously. There is also the mitzvah of shomer negiah (literally the guarding of touch) where men and women don’t touch at all unless they are married. Touch is a powerful thing. During the pick up artists craze over the last decade, men were advised to initiate physical interactions early and often, even in just a playful way. These dating coaches knew there was a strong link between physical touch and comfort. As if touch could short circuit the purely rational thought. Well the Rabbis knew this too and set up a prohibition to prevent it.
But once a couple is married, the privacy and seclusion becomes a mitzvah. Shomers (aka chaperones) who once guarded a couple from physical impropriety now guard the Yichud room to make sure the couple’s physical intimacy is not interrupted.
I’m not going to comment about whether one should or shouldn’t engage in physical contact before marriage. But I once heard a Rabbi say this about the view point of marriage in the secular world verses the religious. In secular dating, marriage is viewed as restrictive for the man. He is cutting himself off from all other opportunities and limiting himself to one woman for the rest of his life. However in the religious world where sexual pleasure isn’t explored before marriage, the marriage is the act of freedom and the wife becomes the liberator by which they can now explore freely. Once again, I’m not saying what one should do, but I can only imagine what that first touch in the Yichud room would be like, given what I have already said about the power of touch.
Creating the Space for Oneness
As I mentioned above, Yichud means oneness, like Echad, as in Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. When we say the shema we’re supposed to cover our eyes and shut out the rest of the world. So too, in the Yechud room, the couple must shut out all the drama, exuberance, anxieties, and any other distractions and just be together. It is a profound lesson, that no matter how crazy and hectic their lives may get, it is essential that they create and maintain a sacred space for the two of them to just be. It won’t be long before they are ushered out for pictures, dancing, more blessings, and a return to life (albeit a very new one). Making the space and time for intimacy, vulnerability, and a place that no other person on the planet can enter is not only essential for creating oneness, it is a mitzvah which by definition elevates and connects one to life, love, and God.