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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.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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George Chicago August 29, 2017

Honestly, I don't care what religion people are, but if someone offers their hand to shake, you should shake it. The polite thing to do is to always avoid embarrassing the other person, even if it means disregarding your own religious beliefs. People should not have to accommodate other people's religious beliefs in social interactions and be expected to be tolerant of it. Be jewish, be a muslim, be whatever you want to be, but don't let your religion force you to behave a certain way in public.
I went to my daughter's school open house today and when I met one of her teachers, I politely reached to shake her hand, but she politely refused and put her hand on her stomach. Then I noticed she had an arabic last name and I figured it was probably because of her religious belefs. I don't care if she's a muslim, and I don't hate muslims at all, I just wish people would move on from the archaic belief of turning down something as simple as a handshake because of their personal beliefs Reply

Anonymous Korea October 2, 2017
in response to George:

I understand how you felt(seems like uncomfortable and maybe insulted). For the woman teacher, she might be embarrassed no less than you. I think we should be alert to the possibility that minor misunderstanding can lead us to major anger or enmity. To prevent that we need to learn and respect differences between cultures. In most Asian countries there has been various form of greeting but no hand shake until several decades ago. And still many Asian women feel uncomfortable when offered hand shake. And even in western civilization it has been taught that man should wait until woman extend her hand first. This is not that much archaic even though it seems to become less strict recently. Would/could you extend your hand first when you meet a duchess in the UK. If you think you would/could, you might well insist your position. If not, you might well reflect on yourself whether you have subconscious discrimination on social class. Reply

Nancy Peete Oregon August 27, 2017

What about a grandparent hugging a grandchild. Or a father hugging his daughter? Reply

Chabad.org Staff September 18, 2017
in response to Nancy Peete :

A grandparent may hug a grandchild and a father his daughter. Reply

Sara Penzak Elmira, NY August 14, 2017

I am extremely uncomfortable around my male cousins because of this. To wave at someone after not seeing them for two years (they live in Israel and we don't see them often) is so awkward, especially before they became like this. They used to be Conservative or Reform Jews, I cannot remember. But they were so loving and demonstrative. Now they are cold, distant, and very awkward. There's no way I'll ever understand it. I am sorry. Reply

Anonymous July 28, 2017

How about shaking hands with a non Jew who has no clue what shomer negia is and he offered his hand to me? I don't want to embarrass him because it's not the first and last time I'll see him. I don't want to disrespect him either. Reply

Simcha Bart for Chabad.org August 2, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

It will often surprise you how open-minded and tolerant others can be of Jewish practice. If you are polite about it - it can often turn into a learning experience. See this link for info about a woman who didn't shake the President of the United States' hand. If you would like, you can email us and we can give you some pointers about how to do this without giving offense. Reply

Sam August 13, 2017
in response to Simcha Bart for Chabad.org :

I would also like to learn more about how to politely decline a handshake? As a female muslim student in the medical community I struggle to explain that not shaking hands with the opposite gender is not something to be taken to offense, but rather because I respect them and their space. I'd appreciate any advice. :) Reply

Joseph5716 Connecticut July 7, 2017

This is difficult,no matter how I calmly explain it's an "observance",the non Jewish woman seems offended.My experience is that the woman is even more determined to try and try again despite the explaination.There must be a psychological explaination for this.... Reply

Anonymous July 11, 2017
in response to Joseph5716:

When I was introduced to my new doctor,a woman, she offered her hand and I shook it, not showing my discomfort. Before my next appointment I explained to the intern who came to get me that I was trying to be more religious and so I hope she wouldn't be offended if I didn't shake hands from now on. She was really cool about it! Reply

Anonymous June 26, 2017

The arguments used withing a Jewish context don't apply to any other culture. In societies where it is perfectly normal to walk around with no clothes on, like in some cultures in Africa, the argument of nakedness doesn't hold water. In cultures where corporal punishment is acceptable and effective, the psychological damage argument doesn't hold water. This is research based and is not just my opinion. A good read is a book called "Nurture Shock". There is a section that talks about effects and consequences within culture in regards to different discipline styles. Simply put, to not shake someone's hand because they are the opposite sex is not offensive to anyone in Western culture except us. So why don't we try to explain why it is to us and not make Non Jews culture a reference point? Reply

Anonymous Tucson June 22, 2017

I will add to my comment that no, she and I didn't sit together in stony silence. We had a fair amount of conversation. She was into strict vegetarianism and shared about that. Early on I let her know I was married and mentioned a health problem my wife had. She had a recommendation for a supplement that might help her. I think that letting her know right away I was married reassured her that I was not likely to try a move. Reply

Anonymous Tucson June 22, 2017

One time I was riding the train and a young woman was placed next to me. She wasn't offering her name, and I didn't think it would be wise to offer mine, figuring it would be taken as fishing for intimacy. We both rode from Tucson till she got off at Texarkana without exchanging names. I think she appreciated my restraint. She was free to move to another seat but never did. Reply

Gail May 25, 2017

Yeah. I was raised in a conservative Jewish family; now I remember. That's funny; I never thought about it. But women never shook hands with anyone. Reply

Anonymous May 24, 2017

I see a lot of comments back and forth about respect. Someone brought up a valid point that is worth addressing. Why is it no respectful to shake hands with the opposite gender, but it is perfectly respectful to shake hands with the same gender? Someone asked this question. If a man did not shake another man's hand for religious reasons, is he showing respect for that man? I don't think respect is a valid argument or the reasons why we don't shake hands with the opposite gender. I think people are smart enough to know that doesn't cut it, and they are smart enough to have niddah explained to them. Reply

Rochel Chein for chabad.org May 24, 2017

I usually smile and say something like, "Sorry, I don't shake hands for religious reasons. So nice to meet you!" Reply

TKG Toronto, ON May 23, 2017

Does anyone else find it strange that they can write an article about an important topic and not once even quote the relevant pasukim?

Here they are:

Lev 18:6:
No man shall come near to any of his close relatives, to uncover [their] nakedness. I am the Lord.

Lev 18:19:
And to a woman during the uncleanness of her separation, you shall not come near to uncover her nakedness.

I don't know about you but last time I checked, shaking hands didn't cause anyone to suddenly become naked. Reply

Rabbi Menachem Posner for Chabad.org May 25, 2017
in response to TKG:

Thank you for quoting the verses that are the source for this discussion. It is key to remember that you just quoted an English translation, not the original. The Hebrew word 'ervah' is often translated as nakedness or shame, which do not mean the same thing at all. In my understanding the word's true meaning seems to lie between the two. I like to think of it loosely as anything that will make you blush. Being naked in front of strangers will make you blush as will something shameful. Look carefully and you will see that this fits well with almost every time this word is used in Torah. Back to our context. A handshake is not naked, but I can indeed imagine it causing someone to blush. Reply

Jjrose May 25, 2017
in response to Rabbi Menachem Posner:

I can only imagine someone blushing at a handshake when they are thinking immaturely and inappropriately. Reply

TKG Thornhill July 11, 2017
in response to Rabbi Menachem Posner:

It sounds like what the pasukim are trying to say is that men should not approach their female relatives in a sexual manner. Reply

Anonymous america May 23, 2017

This article does not answer the question of what you say to people when they offer your hand and you can't shake it. I've run into that situation more times than I'd like to recall. It does embarrass the other person, but also me. I am unrelenting and I don't shake hands, but I'd really like to know what to appropriately say to people to ease whatever discomfort they may be feeling, and mine too! Reply

Jessie Puerto Rico May 22, 2017

Have you ever visit Puerto Rico?... It is very common in the society to shake hands plus giving kisses, 😖 Reply

Gail May 25, 2017
in response to Jessie:

Yeah, I know. I'm uncomfortable with some of the cultural norms here in the southern United States: too much hugging. Reply

Rochel Chein for chabad.org April 27, 2017

Jjrose, I agree that respect is important. As a woman, when I greet a man, I hope that my attitude shows respect and consideration, and that he understands that while I am not shaking his hand for religious reasons, I still respect him. Ideally, when a man declines to shake a woman's hand, his respect for her will be clear. Reply

Anonymous New York August 8, 2017
in response to Rochel Chein for chabad.org:

I really appreciate this manner of behaving whether it be be for religious meaning or not. I am not religious myself but have worked for many companies owned by people of Jewish faith. I find it fascinating how they carry themselves and have learned so much about respect through just being a small part of their daily life. Reply

Jjrose Centennial March 18, 2017

The point is that women and men are equal. A hand shake is a a respectful gesture - not about sex. If you men were to reach out to shake another man's hand and experience rejection - how would you feel? Perhaps a little disrespected. And yes, George I am not a man. That doesn't mean I should be treated any different. Reply

George Murrieta, Ca March 14, 2017

Respect Jjrose

You stated that you "deserve and demand the same respect as a man" yet you're not a man. You're a woman. Thank G-d for that. Reply

Rochel Chein for chabad.org March 10, 2017

A man who honors his religious convictions and greets a woman without shaking her hand, or a woman who greets a man without shaking his hand, are showing respect: respect for another's personal space, for another's privacy, for their own spouse and the sanctity of their own marriage. I encourage you to engage in dialogue with the rabbi. I am sure that you will find him to be most respectful of you as a person and as a woman. Reply

Jjrose Centennial March 8, 2017

It's 2017 & women are equal I am a single mom who is raising my two children (one is a male) without the help of a man. I am in the construction industry and work with only men and I support my family. I hold doors open for whoever is coming behind me, help the elderly anytime I can, take out the trash, fix things around the house, and make my kids feel safe. I took my children to Hebrew school recently for the first time. When I met the rabbi, I was highly offended by his refusal to shake my hand. I deserve and demand the same respect as a man. The fact that I am a female does not authorize anyone to sexualize me upon touching me. Rather, the man who thinks that way needs to reevaluate respect for others. It is 2017. Also, this doesn't even address gay men. I love my religion and Jewish people. This is just one tradition that I won't tolerate. Reply

Tony Moss England April 26, 2017
in response to Jjrose:

Hi,
I am a male charity worker and was searching for why a Jewish lady client refused to give her first name, preferring Mrs.
So, I obviously do not recognise the niceties of Judaism (even though my Grandfather was Jewish).
I do, however, like and applaud your attitude to your position in life - be strong in who you are. Reply

Jane Uk May 12, 2017
in response to Jjrose:

You sound like a formidable person JJ and power to you. A man did not shake my hand today at work and left me with my hand extended. He said he could not shake hands for religious reasons but I felt slighted and embarrassed. Reply

sholom May 26, 2017
in response to Jjrose:

Not shaking hands with the opposite gender has nothing to do with not respecting the other gender. My wife will not shake a man's hand either. In general the idea is that physical touch between genders is avoided as a boundary. It does not mean that all physical touch will lead to a sexual relationship, but a sexual relationship is almost always preceded by physical touch. To make it an effective boundary it has to be an absolute boundary. Once we start rationalizing how much is permitted and what level etc. it loses its effectiveness as a boundary. One person will say just a handshake is OK, and the next person will question why a kiss isn't permitted and so on. My wife and I definitely respect each other! However, when we were dating we did not touch each other. We reserved physical touch for once we were married. Because physical touch of the opposite gender has remained exclusive to each other, it has remained very special. Reply

sholom May 26, 2017
in response to Jjrose:

Boundaries by their definition are not in of themselves something problematic. Rather, they are there to set a line to prevent it leading to something problematic. For a boundary to be effective, it is set beyond what you want to prevent so that nothing even comes close. A handshake is not being sexualized, rather it is part of a boundary to prevent more affectionate and intimate touch. If no touching is done, then there will not be any possibility of sexualized touch. Hence it is an effective boundary. It is similar to the laws of Yichud. The fact that a male and female are not allowed to be alone in a home together does not mean that being alone automatically leads to sexual relations. Rather it means that by setting such a boundary we will prevent the encounters that can lead to sexual relations. Reply

sholom May 26, 2017
in response to Jjrose:

Respect means respecting someone else's boundaries. While you may be comfortable with a handshake, you might not be comfortable with a kiss or a hug. If you went to another country where that is the norm, you would want others to respect your boundaries and leave it to a handshake. Similarly you should respect your rabbis boundaries and not take offense.

Lastly you mention about Gay people. They are a minority and in general most laws are put in place for the common situation. We don't ban things for less common occurrences. That being said, if a person was gay it might be proper for them to avoid shaking hands and touching people of the same gender for the same reasons. Reply

George Murrieta, Ca December 28, 2016

I attended a community lighting of a public Hanukiah. The Rabbi from the local Chabad synagogue was present. As he turned towards me I extended my arm and we shook hands. My wife did the same but the Rabbi jolted back but kindly and humorously responded, "I'm sorry, I don't shake hands but I also don't bite!" I felt bad for my wife and wanted to say something but she took it in stride and laughed it off. She's a better person than I am I guess. Reply

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