Question: Is it permitted for a man and woman to have yichud where there is a video stream recording them?
Short Answer: Most poskim prohibit yichud even where there is a camera videoing the seclusion. The poskim who do permit yichud only permit it under certain limited circumstances, as described herein.
I. Security Camera
A house or office often has security cameras or other video surveillance, essentially ensuring that any man and woman secluded inside will be afraid to do anything improper. Do these cameras remove the prohibition of yichud? Does it matter how many cameras are in the house or what parts of the house are being videoed? Do the cameras have to be recording the video or is it sufficient that there is a livestream feed?
Many recently published s’farim on yichud address this contemporary issue. A summary of their responses are detailed herein.
II. The Ohel Yaakov
The Ohel Yaakov (Rav Yaakov Skoczylas, Yichud, p. 176-180) – a product of Kew Gardens Hills – writes that because there is a machlokes between modern-day poskim on this issue, one should ask his rabbi how to pasken. Nevertheless, some poskim permit yichud if the following five criteria are met: (i) the cameras video all areas of the house; (ii) the cameras are videoing the entire time of the yichud; (iii) the videos are sharp and clear as to pick up the features of any person in the house; (iv) the videos are accessible to another person at all times; and (v) the secluded man and the woman know about the videos. In a footnote, the Ohel Yaakov cites the following poskim who address this issue.
As an initial matter, Rav Elyashiv zt”l held that the camera was not a valid leniency, as the video could be destroyed or altered. This is likewise the opinion of the Sheivet HaLevi and Rav Chaim Kanievsky (in a personal response to the Ohel Yaakov). Similarly, the Mishnas Yosef rules that a camera certainly does not work to permit a frequent situation of yichud such as at work in an office building.
Rav Nissim Karelitz zt”l writes that regardless of whether the video is live or can be viewed afterwards, yichud should be permitted with a camera, as the man and woman have the same fear as when there is a child (see my previous Article #7) in the house. However, the leniency only applies where the camera videos the entire house. He elaborates that this is stricter than the scenario of an open door to the house because here, by the video, there is a fear that the man and woman can decide to go forth with improper activity even in the room with the camera, as this is not necessarily noticeable on camera. However, when the door to the house is open, the man and woman are perpetually concerned that someone will walk in on them and will thus refrain from even deciding to move to a secluded area in the house. Finally, Rav Karelitz adds that the leniency does not apply where only the man or woman has control over the camera, i.e., no one else can view the video. Nevertheless, in a later letter, Rav Karelitz appears to backtrack on this leniency in light of the “many common problems” that likely arise in this situation.
Rav Yechezkel Roth zt”l (Karlsburger Rav) rules strictly that the video is insufficient, as there needs to be a fear to the man and woman at the time of the seclusion that they are being watched, not a fear that in the future someone will watch a replay. Indeed, even if one person is watching the video live during the seclusion, it is still forbidden, as there must be a group of people watching the video in real-time in order to make the house a “r’shus ha’rabim” (or open to a r’shus ha’rabim). And even in the case of multiple people watching the live video, it is only permitted for a man and woman who are not “libo gas bah” – familiar with each other.
On the other hand, Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg zt”l ruled that a camera does prevent against yichud where at least three people are viewing, or could view, the video. Rav Zalman Nechemia even allows yichud if the camera is not in every room in the house, as long as it is in the main rooms. There is no concern that the man and woman will move to an area out of view.
Additionally, Rav Benzion Wosner permits yichud under the watch of a camera, as it is no different from the leniency of yichud by a window facing a public thoroughfare. He even suggests that a video is better than a window, as arguably the video – accessible to all – is like “seclusion” in a public thoroughfare itself.
The Toras HaYichud, however, notes that yichud by a window is only permitted where someone standing outside the window can see into the entire house, even up till the bathroom. Thus, unless either the man or woman is confined to a bed (i.e., a sick person) and thus the camera is positioned on him/her at all times, a camera does not permit yichud. Interestingly, he adds that Skype (or another Internet video, such as Zoom) certainly may not be used to prevent yichud, as the connection often interrupts the video, leading to a yichud concern.
Rav Moshe Mordechai Karp distinguishes between two cases of the camera. Where a man and woman work together on a daily basis in an office building and are accustomed with each other, the camera does not prevent yichud, as they are “libo gas bah.” This is no different from the prohibition for a single woman to teach young boys, which the Shulchan Aruch forbids based on the concern of impropriety with her students’ fathers. Even though she is only speaking with the fathers about their children, the familiarity between them lends itself to greater restrictions. On the other hand, a one-time yichud scenario, such as in a doctor’s office, would be permitted with a camera.
III. Noam Halachah
The Noam Halachah (Rav Elchanan Vind, Yichud, p. 207) notes that while some poskim permit yichud where there is a camera videoing the room, “more” poskim are strict and forbid yichud in this scenario.
In a footnote, the Noam Halachah explains that even the poskim who are lenient only allow yichud where: (i) the camera videos the entire room; (ii) the camera is videoing the entire time; (iii) the videos are sharp and clear as to pick up the features of any person in the house; (iv) the secluded man and the woman know about the videos. The Noam Halachah notes though that the lenient opinions allow yichud in any room with a camera, even if there is no camera in the other rooms, as we are not concerned that the man and woman will move into a different room.
The Noam Halachah acknowledges the lenient opinions of the Mishnah Halachos, the sefer Mishpat HaYichud, and the Imrei Yaakov, but cites the many poskim who are machmir (as mentioned above), including Rav Karelitz and Rav Elyashiv.
IV. Other Contemporary Poskim
Rav Nachman Yechiel Michel Steinmetz, a Skver Dayan (Ohr Yisroel Journal, Vol. 67, p. 24) also concludes that one should be machmir. He explains that a camera is worse than when a man and woman have a young child in the room (permitting yichud), because the man and woman have embarrassment at the time of any impropriety when a child is present, and furthermore, the child can never be fully bribed to keep quiet (as opposed to an adult watching the video who can be bribed). Moreover, it is not entirely clear that a young child prevents yichud in all scenarios, and certainly a camera is worse, as there are many factors (as discussed above) which may be different in each case (e.g., the type of video, who is watching the video, etc.). Thus, one should be stringent by a camera.
The sefer Hilchos Yichud (Rav Reisner, p. 26) likewise rules that a camera does not permit yichud. He summarizes the reasons as follows: (i) a camera does not prevent the feeling of “seclusion” that will lead the man and woman to figure out a way to do something improper; (ii) often the owner of the camera is the one who is having yichud; (iii) a camera is worse than a human “shomer” as the shomer can always walk-in on them and prevent an improper act from happening in the first place; and (iv) because of the proliferation nowadays of cameras and other video surveillance, the man and woman are likely not thinking of the camera and it will thus not serve as a deterrent.
Next Week’s Topic: Are the laws of yichud stricter when the man and woman know each other from the neighborhood or are family friends?