Business Ethics

For the week ending 24 November 2018 / 16 Kislev 5779

Yichud Issues for a Female Worker in a Male Office

by Rabbi Ari Wasserman
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Question

My wife got a new job in a third floor office of a large building. Her two male employers and one male co-worker are religious Jews; there is also one religious female co-worker.

There are rarely any visitors in the office. I was advised that the door should literally be left open in order to avoid a problem of seclusion. My wife’s employers initially agreed to this, but there is a lot of traffic in the hall and people were constantly peeking in. They have now advised my wife that they prefer the door be closed, although it will be left unlocked. Her boss told her that this is also because the office can get very cold/hot if the door is left open.

Is there a requirement that the door be left open, or are there other solutions? Her boss suggested she ask her rabbi if it helps that the door has a small window. He also stressed that people can open the door and walk in unannounced. Would it help if my wife asked people in the neighboring offices to pop in a few times a day without notice?

Halachic Background

It is forbidden by halacha for a male to be in seclusion (yichud) with any female older than three, and for a female to be secluded with any male older than nine. The only exceptions to this prohibition are mother and son, father and daughter, grandmother and grandson, grandfather and granddaughter, and husband and wife.

Yichud does not apply exclusively to one-on-one situations. The Shulchan Aruch rules strictly regarding yichud even with more than one member of the opposite gender — a woman may not be alone with several men, and a man may not be alone with several women, unless one of the exclusions (heterim) applies.

The Rema is more lenient and writes that one woman may be alone with two men if they are Torah observant Jews. But if the men are promiscuous individuals (prutzim), they are not considered to be reliable chaperones (shomrim) for one another, and it is forbidden for a woman to be alone with even ten such men.

This heter only applies in the city, where there are generally other people around, and only in the daytime. But out in a field or other desolate location, or at night even in the city, three observant men are required. Two observant men would not be enough, because one may fall asleep or walk away, leaving the other man alone with the woman.

The Rema goes on to say that some halachic authorities permit one man to be secluded with many women (at least three, or at night, four) if his profession is not related to women. A man in this profession — for example, the owner of a women’s clothing shop or the male principal of a girls’ school with a female staff — is considered to be at a higher risk, because he is constantly around women, which requires a greater degree of caution.

Response

Based on the ruling of the Rema, as long as two observant men are present in the office during the day hours, and three observant men are present at night, there’s no problem of yichud. The rationale for this is that each of the men serves as a chaperone for the other. This would be the case if the front door of the office is open, closed or even locked.

In your wife’s case, since three observant men are typically working in the office, yichud would not be a problem at any time, even at night. However, when some of the men are out for meetings, or on vacation or sick, yichud may become a problem.

However, in that case, yichud with a closed door would be permitted if people can still walk in at any time. For example, the door can be closed — but left unlocked — if there is a reasonable expectation that people can walk in unannounced. In fact, according to some poskim, the door can even be locked if a number of people who have keys or keypad access could enter at any time, or they have been specifically given keys and asked to occasionally drop in without notice in order to prevent yichud. This possibility would be considered a sufficient deterrent.

In addition, the small window in the front office door is helpful in permitting yichud, as long as onlookers from outside can see your wife. If they are not able to see your wife, there would be no deterrent effect, and yichud would remain a problem.

In summary, given that there are typically three observant men in the office, and certainly if your wife can be seen through the little window of the office door, there is no problem whatsoever with the door being closed. At times when the required number of observant men (two in the day and three at night) are not present, and your wife cannot be seen through the window in the door, she is relying on the “open door” heter and needs to comply with its requirements.

I have discussed the heter of having “a door open to the public domain” in detail in “Yichud Issues for a Male Attorney and His Female Secretary.” This particular heter is the subject of extensive discussion among the poskim. If the required number of observant men to permit yichud is not present, and it turns out that there are rarely visitors in the office (and therefore no real fear that someone could walk in at any time), I would suggest that you drop by the office unannounced every so often — on varying days and varying times during the day — to bolster the “open door” heter.

  • L’iluy nishmas Yehudah ben Shmuel HaKohen Breslauer

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