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May I Shake the Lady’s Hand?

May I Shake the Lady’s Hand?

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Those of us of а certain, unspecified age may recall what our mothers taught us. We were to offer our seats to ladies and the elderly on streetcars. Gentlemen were to tip their hats, and to remove them in elevators. We were to hold doors for ladies, the elderly and the infirm. And we were taught to shake hands. Be brief. Don't pump. Grasp the hand, but do not crush it. And not like a dead fish.

When one gentleman met another, regardless of whether they knew each other, they were to shake hands. We were taught that a gentleman did not shake hands with a lady, unless she extended her hand first.

And then we learned that these rules did not apply in the world of traditional Jewry.

People of the opposite gender do not even touch each otherThe practice of the traditional Jew is different. The rule is that people of the opposite gender do not even touch each other, let alone shake hands, unless they are husband and wife, siblings, or children with parents and grandparents.

What is the rationale for the Jewish prohibition on men and women touching, let alone shaking hands?

The prohibition of touching (in Hebrew negiah) goes back to the Book of Leviticus (18:6 and 18:19) and was developed further in the Talmud. A person who observes this prohibition is often called a shomer negiаh. It applied not only to close contact such as hugging and kissing, but also to shaking hands or patting on the back. The practice is generally followed by traditionally observant Jews, both men and women, including Hassidic Jews, and those who are referred to as Haredim. It is also observed within the Modern Orthodox community depending on how traditional the person is.

The Question is: Why?

To remove any myths, it can be said emphatically that it has nothing to do with impurity, or with the social or religious status of people who encounter other people.

The reason is a rather complex, even Freudian rationale. It is felt that touching a person of the opposite gender is essentially a sexual act, or at least the precursor of a sexual act. While it is true that most handshakes between men and women do not lead to sexual relations and are not even contemplated, sexual relations always begin with touching. It is also true that a handshake does communicate feelings albeit on a superficial level.

It has been recognized however, that there are many instances in which men and women can and perhaps even should, touch each other. This would apply to saving a person who is facing a life-threatening danger. Members of the health professions may obviously touch members of the opposite gender in the practice of their discipline, as may hairdressers or physical therapists as a necessary component in the practice of theirs.

The issue that seems to have caused the most discussion is whether there is an exception to the prohibition in a business situation. Some commentators take the position that where shaking hands is in a business context, and is clearly a non-affectionate contact, it is permissible under Jewish law (Наlасhаh). The Office of Career Services at Yeshiva University, which is considered Modern Orthodox, takes this position as part of the interview process for its students applying for jobs after graduation. Haredim and Hassidic commentators do not agree.

Traditional Judaism regards touching as a highly sensual actSome commentators would allow the handshake only when one person offers their hand. Here the rationale is that to refuse to reciprocate would embarrass that person which would be wrong. Rabbi Harvey Belovski of Golders Green Synagogue in London describes this position as being that of a respected minority, but not that of the majority of halachic experts. People who describe themselves as shоmеr negiah would not shake hands even in a business context. In their view, in our society where people are trained to appreciate cultural and religious differences, a short explanation would prevent anyone from feeling embarrassed.

Traditional Judaism, unlike some other faiths, regards touching as a highly sensual act. It takes the view that it is not only an important part of marital relations, but one that is only permitted in those relations. To shake hands as a casual courtesy and nothing more is the first step leading to the desensitization of sensuality between husband and wife.

Rabbi Baruch Emmanuel Erdstein of Safed, who holds a degree in anthropology from the University of Michigan, states that "the casual touching of members of the opposite gender can only dull our sensitivity to the sexual power of touch."

А Further Thought

Quite apart from the sexual analysis of some commentators, some commentators point out that an individual's body is personal, and at times to even touch is an intrusion into one's personal dignity. According to this approach, a man should not touch a woman, nor a woman touch a man, out of respect for the space of each other as individuals—especially individuals of the opposite gender who should reserve a certain level of privacy with respect to each other.

Even if both parties wish to touch, or shake hands, that act is still going beyond the bounds of what should be respected.

This concept is also evidenced with regards to touching someone (even of the same gender) for whom one has a great deal of respect. For that reason, when the late Rebbe of Chabad was alive, his followers did not shake his hand.

This practice is not unique to Judaism. When a Texas politician put his hand on the shoulder of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, who was visiting the USA, it was regarded as a highly improper social faux-pas. It was not because the Prince was the politician's "better," but because it showed a lack of respect for the prince not only as a visitor, but as the visiting representative of another country. A similar incident took place not long ago in Europe when the American president placed his hands on the shoulders of the lady Chancellor of Germany. This was considered disrespectful towards her, both as the representative of another nation and as an individual.

The key is respectTraditional Judaism translates the showing of respect for the personal space of members of the opposite gender into the social practice of not shaking hands. The key is not the shaking of hands. The key is respect. If we once again offered seats to ladies and opened doors for each other, we may have a more sensitive, kinder and respectful society. Far better than shaking hands.

Lorne E. Rozovsky (1943-2013) was a lawyer, author, educator, a health management consultant and an inquisitive Jew.

The author wishes to thank Rabbi Mendel Samuels of Chabad of the Valley, Simsbury, Conn., and Rabbi Dovid Zаklikowski of Chabad.org, for their assistance.
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Discussion (31)
July 3, 2014
I have to agree with Dan. Not everyone knows about such customs and especially in a community like mine where there is a decline in the Jewish culture. We have a new Rabbi and I hope he will work with non Jews in the community to teach them some aspects of the Jewish culture and inform them of some customs particularly those which impact on business and social life.
Michelle
Northern Ireland
June 30, 2014
While sensitive to cultural differences, it is still an initial affront to have my friendly gesture refused without explanation or apology. A simple "I'm sorry, but I don't shake hands" would be enough, yet I do not get even this courtesy in most instances. Wise up, being shomer negiah does not mean you have to also be rude.
Dan
New York
December 18, 2013
Pre-marital sex
While I'm not shomer negiya in that I'll shake hands I am against pre-marital sex because it specifically prohibits it in the Torah. Men will claim that it doesn't because men were allowed concubines but a Jewish woman is prohibited in being such. Also in terms of pre-marital sex having sex with a woman in Nida can cut you off from the Jewish people. In the Torah, men could have sex with more than one woman but they would marry them. That is different than today's society where men and women act sexually immorally by sleeping around. There is a prohibition for both men and women against harlotry. In our secular culture, we define Harlotlry as sleeping around but it's not just that. As Jews we are commanded to be holy. Here are some sources which outline the Torah's view on pre-marital sex and prohibit it. I

Leviticus 21:9 "And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the harlot, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire."
Leviticus 21:29 "Profane not thy daughter, to make her a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry, and the land become full of lewdness."
Jeremiah 3:1 "... saying: If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's, may he return unto her again? Will not that land be greatly polluted? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; and wouldest thou yet return to Me? saith the LORD."
Jeremiah 21:4 "He shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself"
Deutronomy 22:20 "But if this thing be true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the damsel..."
Deutronomy 22: 28 "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, that is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;hen the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he hath humbled her; he may not put her away all his days. "
Deutronomy 23:18 "There shall be no harlot of the daughters of Israel nor shall there be a man who acts with sexual immorality among the sons of Israel"
Dave
Israel
December 15, 2013
Leviticus
While Leviticus is the source for some of the ideas behind men and women not coming into physical contact with each other, this article is meant to explain the practice in today's world. It is possible to debate the wisdom of this practice if that is what one wishes to do, but it is hard to argue that human nature has changed so much from the times the Torah was given over 3300 years ago to today. Certainly these are laws of social control, as any society will have, to bring out the best in its members. With the Torah there is the additional element of leading people to a holier life. That is certainly a good thing.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
Chabad.org
November 25, 2013
"offended" is a strong word
Perhaps "disappointed" would be a better choice of words, akin to when a smaller gift is received than was expected. It would be kind to respect the giver's means as well as their intentions.
Gary Davis
Canada
November 24, 2013
Learning to respect
The original article (by my cousin Lorne Rozovsky, z''l [August 2013]) was enlightening by itself, but subsequent comments added to my knowledge. From both I have learned more about how to respect the traditions and expectations of others. Although I have no personal prohibition against shaking hands with anybody, I now wait for a sign that suggests an invitation to do so. This principle extends beyond handshaking, and has led me to respect behaviours, dress, opinions and other practices and habits of people that perhaps I would have been less aware of had Lorne not written that piece. It is a lesson in the importance of education, tolerance and diversity, three words that describe Lorne Rozovsky, may he rest in peace.
Gary Davis
Saint John, NB, Canada
November 24, 2013
Re Awkward
I'm sorry you had that negative experience! As a woman I always am upfront about why I can't shake a man's hand.
Mrs. Chana Benjaminson
mychabad.org
November 22, 2013
Awkward
I wish someone had the courtesy to explain that to me...I recently visited a Jewish school and all of the teachers were women. Instead of explaining they just snubbed me and turned away when I put out my hand and just left me hanging! Talk about awkward. Have a little courtesy - when someone puts out their hand - just say something like "Oh I'm sorry due to my religious beliefs I can't shake you hand - but I am very glad to meet you." Or something along those lines. Rudeness should not be apart of anyone's cultural or religious practices!
Anonymous
Newark, NJ
November 22, 2013
Unfortunately for us, the author of this article is dead, so we won't be getting any debate from him.

Nonetheless, what we have here is an attempt to rationalize in a modern context a custom that was defined (as the author noted) when Leviticus was written, which I assume was a thousand years ago at least. As a consequence, anyone adhering to the custom of not touching someone of the opposite sex (shaking hands, saving them from drowning etc.) is not doing it for a rational reason but simply because they have been effectively brainwashed into not doing through their religious upbringing. This is just another example of how much better the world will be when religions are universally recognized for the social control frauds that they really are.
Anonymous
California, USA
November 7, 2013
So, does that mean if a Jewish male work colleague shakes my hand knowing that I'm gay, that it's sexual harassment?
Grant
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