My family and I met with an Orthodox rabbi and his wife the other day. I noticed that the rabbi shook hands with me but not with my wife, and that his wife shook hands with my wife, but not with me. What’s the big deal about men and women shaking hands? Isn’t a handshake just a handshake?


It’s common enough that we don’t think twice: a quick handshake when meeting, greeting, parting, sealing an agreement, or offering congratulations. But what does Judaism have to say? Could a simple handshake be problematic?

When listing forbidden sexual relationships, the TorahThe Torah doesn’t simply say “don’t do it.” It says, "don’t even come close.” doesn’t simply say “don’t do it.” It actually commands us, "don’t come close” to committing these acts.1 “Coming close” means any sort of physical affection that might lead to transgression. The sages of the Talmud compare this to a Nazirite who is forbidden to drink wine or eat grapes, and as a precaution may not even enter a vineyard.2

Practically speaking, this is understood to include all affectionate touch between men and women, aside from one’s spouse and closest blood relatives (parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren3).

When it comes to touch that’s not affectionate, opinions vary. While some Halachic authorities permit such touch, others maintain that all touch between unrelated men and women is to be avoided.4 (This does not include professionals such as doctors, who are assumed to be involved in their work.)

It’s easy to understand why intimate relationships between unrelated men and women are problematic, but surely a handshake is nothing more than a polite greeting?

Or is it?

A firm handshake, a limp handshake, a hand held just a tad too long; so much can be conveyed through this seemingly innocent gesture. A handshake is just a handshake—until it becomes something more. There is a very fine line between casual touch and sensual touch, and an interaction can easily slip from one category to the other. We respect each other’s privacy and dignity and protect our own by maintaining clear boundaries.

Preserving the Power of Touch

There’s a deeper message here, as well:

That which is most precious and Touch with the right person at the right time should be a powerful experience.valuable must be protected. Judaism views touch between men and women as sacred and significant, loving and intimate. We safeguard the power of touch between man and woman by reserving it for those closest to us. We might think of a handshake as insignificant, but the Torah teaches us the level of sensitivity that we should have. Touch with the right person at the right time should be a powerful experience.

Refraining With Respect

On the other hand, the Torah also tells us to treat others with respect and to be extremely careful to avoid embarrassing anyone. In a culture where a handshake is the typical greeting, one might be concerned that refraining from shaking an outstretched hand will cause awkwardness.

So, some plan ahead, making sure to be holding a drink, a folder, or a business card during social or business interactions. Others prefer the direct approach. I find that a warm smile, eye contact, and a brief explanation work well. “I don't shake hands with menIn my experience, those I have met have respected my religious considerations and been understanding. for religious reasons. It's so nice to meet you!” In my experience, those I have met have respected my religious considerations and been understanding.

When we honor our convictions and refrain from shaking hands, we are showing respect: respect for another’s personal space and privacy, respect for the sanctity of marriage. When I greet a man, I don't shake his hand, but I try to make my respect and consideration for him clear.

See also: Why I Didn’t Shake President Bush’s Hand