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.