Three of the greatest Sephardic authorities of the prior generation, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Rav Shalom Messas and Rav Ovadiah Hakayah, all agree that Sephardim should continue to follow their age-old tradition to defer yichud until after the wedding. According to Sephardic tradition since the time of the Radbaz (16th century), a Sephardic chatan and kallah do not retire to the yichud room for a few minutes after the chupah. This, however, is rapidly changing.
Hacham Yitzhak Yosef, the son of Hacham Ovadia and the current Sephardic chief rabbi, champions the traditional Sephardic approach in an essay printed in Techumin Volume 31. Among his arguments is that the chatan and kallah locking themselves in the cheder yichud after the chuppah is unseemly (mechu’ar). Moreover, he argues that since yichud completes nisu’in (the second portion of the marriage ceremony) according to the Rambam, Tur and Shulchan Aruch, a couple is married after yichud, requiring the kallah to cover her hair. Customarily, a kallah does not cover her hair during the wedding celebration.
However, (to paraphrase Ricky Ricardo,) Hacham Yitzhak has “a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.” The brachot for nisu’in are recited at the chupah. Delaying yichud for hours after the birchot hanisu’in recited beneath the chupah appears highly irregular. Hacham Yitzhak counters, though, that these brachot are ones of praise to Hashem for which the process need not be completed soon after their recital (unlike brachot recited over a mitzvah). Another questionable side of Hacham Yitzchak’s argument is that the brachot at the end of the wedding banquet/seuda seem out of place if yichud is not completed. Hacham Yitzhak counters that for this regard, Sephardim abide by the Rishonim who regard the chatan covering the kallah with his tallit as the completion of nisu’in.
In response to Hacham Yitzhak’s article, Rav Shlomo Levy, the widely respected rosh kollel of Yeshivat Har Etzion (and son-in-law of the eminent Rav Haim David HaLevi, the deceased Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv; I vividly recall Rav Levy from my years of learning at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1981-1983—Rav Levy made a deep impression on me and my friends as a profoundly spiritual talmid chacham who also was a hero of the Yom Kippur War) penned a respectful rebuttal that appears in Techumin Volume 32. Rav Levy defends the current trend of Sephardic couples retiring to the yichud room after the chupah. He notes the difficulties in Hacham Yitzhak’s arguments. Moreover, he offers a compelling reason to change the age-old Sephardic practice. Rav Levy notes that Ashkenazic practice does not accept such a large break between the brachot of nisu’in and the completion of nisu’in, as defended by Hacham Yitzhak. In the contemporary setting, Sephardic couples will most often wish to honor some Ashkenazic guests with the recital of one of the Sheva Brachot.
Ashkenazim, argues Rav Levy, would be unable to recite these brachot if yichud is delayed until the chatan and kallah go home after the wedding. This did not pose a problem in prior generations when Sephardim and Ashkenazim were hardly as integrated as they (baruch Hashem) are currently. A change in the practice regarding the timing of yichud enables Ashkenazim to recite Sheva Brachot at a Sephardic wedding.
In addition to Rav Levy’s point, we should note that Rav Mordechai Willig cogently argues that the obligation for the kallah to cover her hair is only after the wedding is consummated. Finally, I suggest that in our times, the chatan and kallah retiring to the cheder yichud after being escorted by their exuberant friends for their private moment is hardly unseemly. Besides the fact that everyone realizes that yichud is merely an opportunity for the couple to relax a bit before the intense celebration at the meal, the yichud room is an excellent opportunity to highlight the superiority of the Torah way of love and romance.
For Jews who honor the Torah lifestyle, yichud represents a reward for the restraint exercised by the chatan and kallah. How special and romantic it is for a couple who have zealously avoided yichud to now bask in the glory of the moment when yichud is not only permitted but even constitutes a mitzvah. The cheder yichud is a much-needed celebration of the Torah way of female/male relationships with its goal (most often achieved) of creating a lifetime bond, as opposed to the secular mode of rejecting restraint, celebrating immediate gratification and setting couples on a path of long-term instability and failure.
Yichud is our moment to bask in the glory of the Torah way of life. No wonder Sephardim in our time have, to a great extent, adopted the practice to conduct yichud immediately after the chupah.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter