Hi Jew in the City-
Why don’t Orthodox Jews shake hands with members of the opposite sex?
This is a slightly-loaded question in that it makes a number of assumptions and you’re going to meet people who may not live up to those expectations. I agree with the basic premise, though: as a general rule, observant Jews do not shake hands with members of the opposite sex.
The root of this practice is Leviticus 18:6, which tells us that no person may draw near to a forbidden relationship in order to initiate sexual congress. The forbidden relationships are already clearly delineated. What’s added by this verse is the “do not draw near” part, which is understood as a prohibition against any form of affectionate contact (derech chibah) with a forbidden relationship (Sifra Acharei Mos 9, et al.).
Rambam (Maimonides) considers the prohibition against affectionate contact to be Biblical in origin, while Ramban (Nachmanides) considers it to be a rabbinic enactment. All authorities agree that it is prohibited, but there may be some differences in extenuating circumstances depending on whether the prohibition is Biblical or rabbinic in nature.
“Affectionate contact” clearly includes hugging and kissing but does it include shaking hands? Handshaking is definitely a sign of camaraderie; just look at the way the public reacts when a public figure does or doesn’t shake hands with a political rival or unpopular world leader. In our society, handshaking is a sign of brotherhood, and that’s chibah (affection) even if it’s not romantic.
A common – but far from universal – practice is to accept a hand if offered by a person of the opposite gender who is unfamiliar with the Jewish practice. This is done so as not to embarrass the other person, which may seem curious. After all, if someone offers us non-kosher food, we’re not allowed to eat it to avoid embarrassing them! The difference is that there are a lot of gray areas in this matter. Not only is there the question of whether the law is Biblical or rabbinic in nature, there are different opinions on just how affectionate handshaking is, some authorities considering it “just business” and not affectionate at all. So while leaping straight for the handshake is not the normative Orthodox practice, there is room to be lenient in extenuating circumstances. (Although, if it’s going to be an ongoing business relationship, it’s advisable to advise the person about one’s religious practice.) It should be noted that some authorities, such as Rabbeinu Yonah, consider any form of cross-gender physical contact to be prohibited, so defining handshakes as affectionate or not would be moot in their opinions.
Here are some examples of what’s excluded by limiting the prohibition to affectionate contact: helping someone fallen to get up, helping someone who needs assistance to walk, a dental hygienist putting their hands in your mouth, a doctor or a physical therapist of the opposite gender, a lifeguard rescuing someone. Generally speaking a professional person in the course of their duties is considered non-affectionate. We see this from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sotah chapter 3), which discusses the matter of how a kohein would wave a woman’s mincha (flour) offering by placing his hands under hers and guiding her. He was definitely touching her but the contact is non-affectionate and permitted. (There may be limits to what is considered “professional services.” Getting a haircut from a member of the opposite sex is a gray area in that the need is certainly less compelling than when seeing a medical professional; ask your rabbi. We can safely say that a non-medical massage would be a step too far.)
Rav Moshe Feinstein has a well-known responsum (Iggros Moshe EH II:14) in which he addresses men sitting next to women on crowded transportation like subways and buses. He rules that such unintentional contact is not affectionate in nature and therefore permitted. He does point out one important exception: if one is doing it intentionally because he enjoys it, then it is prohibited. This is an important principle: the things that are permitted are only permitted because one does not get a sexual sensation from them. If a particular person does get a sexual thrill from sitting next to a person of the opposite sex, a handshake or a haircut, then for that person it would be considered derech chibah (an affectionate manner) even if such is not the intention of the other party.
Finally, it should be noted that if a man declines to shake hands with a woman, it’s not because they’re being sexist. This law works both ways: men don’t shake hands with women and women don’t shake hands with men.
So that’s the short form on why Orthodox Jews don’t generally shake hands with members of the opposite sex and why you may see some exceptions. There are those who consider it a Biblical prohibition and those who consider it rabbinic. Some consider handshaking to be affectionate, some consider it business as usual, and for some that distinction is irrelevant. The bottom line difference is that some will accept a hand if offered in ignorance while others will decline in all circumstances. Adherents of each practice have valid reasons to act as they do.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent