No Handshake: Don't Take it Personally
05/31/10
Special to the Jewish Week
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Q: Hey Rabbi -- I have a quick question. I met the Rabbi at the Chabad at our school. Anyways, I had a long conversation with him and when I went to leave I put out my hand to shake his hand and he politely declined. Does my hand have a disease? What's going on here? Thanks and hope everything is well.

A: No, you don't have a disease!

Very observant men might decline to have contact with women at "that time of the month," because blood is a source of ritual impurity. While they know when their wives are menstruating (sometimes via subtle hints, like an upside down glass on the kitchen table… or the beds being yanked apart) with others they don't, so they tend to refrain from all contact at all times. Some will even avoid eye contact.

It's also considered a sign of modesty to avoid unnecessary contact with the opposite sex. It’s called "Shomer Negiah," a restraining order for sexual urges. Negiah applies to women as well as men, by the way. But it usually refers more to kissing and hugging and other visible signs of affection, rather than mere touching and handshaking. In this article, you'll find that shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex has become a matter of dispute among Jewish legal scholars. Another good article on the matter can be found here, and you can see here that the New York Times’ Ethicist was highly critical of a realtor who refused to shake a female client’s hand when closing a deal.

This behavior is offensive to many, but you shouldn't take it personally. This practice may stem in part from anti-female sentiments that existed in ancient and medieval times in many cultures. But it goes beyond mere misogyny – and hygiene, for that matter. For the ancients, blood was a symbol of life and therefore the source of ultimate mystery and awe. The laws of purity are still practiced widely in traditional communities – and many think the added restrictions work wonders for their sex life - but now feminists are also finding spiritual meaning in the flowing waters of the Mikveh.

If you feel comfortable with this guy, you might want to hear his explanation. I'm sure he's used to getting these questions from students. You can then suggest that he do something that an Orthodox rabbinic friend of mine did recently on an emotional trip to Poland with teenagers, many of whom needed constant support. When a girl looked sad, he would walk over and hand her a card saying “hug” on it. The girls appreciated it (although the boys got real hugs). No reason a card can’t say “handshake” as well. And for the occasional pickup game of hoops, how about a card that says “high five” (I don’t think a flying chest bump would work, though).

And then you can cite for him this guideline from the career development center of Yeshiva University:

Shaking hands is a customary part of the interview process. Halacha permits non-affectionate contact between men and women when necessary. A quick handshake can be assumed to be business protocol. Since failure to shake hands will most likely have a strong negative effect on the outcome, it is necessary non-affectionate contact, which is permissible.

Then, to conclude your business, a simple wave or thumbs up might be the best strategy.

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Last Update:

06/20/2016 - 21:21

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How about a fist bump?

I was very offended today. After talking to a Rabbi, I offered my hand for handshake. He looked at my hand, didn't say a word, COMPLETELY IGNORED me. He didn't even say a word to decline or tried to explain...Of course I was offended. Then I did my research and found out it was because of his belief. It would have been a complete different story if he had explained that to me instead of that dead look he gave me....

The entire article is an insult to any religious jew, beyond being factually incorrect. As a charedi jew, I take umbrage at many of the insinuations made in the article. "While they know when their wives are menstruating (sometimes via subtle hints, like an upside down glass on the kitchen table… or the beds being yanked apart)"
Really, do you think my wife and I don't talk about intimate matters? I found the comment demeaning in addition to being incorrect. Dittos for the rest of the answer. From experience, as an orthodox male who doesn't shake hands with women, I can tell you that the ONLY women who get offended , are some non-observant Jewish woman. Not once did a non-jew take offense, rather-they exhibited the behavior we would like to see n all, -a sensitivity to the others' religious practices, even if it is not understood.

In Halacha(Jewish Law), all contact between men and women who are not married to each other, or have a parent-child relationship , is a Biblical prohibition-See Leviticus Chapter 18. If the woman is married, the prohibition is a Biblical extension of the prohibition against adultery. If the woman is not married, she is not allowed to use a Mikvah, and has the status of a Niddah (menstruant). The prohibition against contact with the woman is a Biblical extension of intimate relations with a Niddah, by anyone, not only her husband.

I would think that it would be far more honest and constructive to have a Chabad Rabbi explain why he doesn't shake than a conservative Rabbi speaking for him. While I'm sure it is unintended, his comments reflect a bias and misunderstanding of someone from outside orthodoxy.

shaking hands originally was a demonstration that a person carried no weapon.
the Rabbi's explanation is a little too much history and not enough today explanation.
shomer negia is just respect for the opposite sex and that we can get to know each other without touching each other. wow. what a novel thought!

I am in the medical field and there are plenty of times I do not want to shake hands for hygienic reasons. I have solved this problem by always holding my laptop in my left hand. I am reminded of Bob Dole, who had a withered left hand. He would always keep a pen in his hand. It was his way of avoiding embarrassment to people who wanted to shake hands. I would think that in a mixed religion circumstances, the Bob Dole maneuver might ward off any awkwardness on either persons part. And offer a big smile. There will be no misunderstanding of that.

I think it's sad that "very observant men" aren't observant enough to note that half our population are women and there is nothing more or less unclean about them as compared to men. Menstruation is a natural part of their biological process and need I remind you that we are all born through our mother's wombs and pass through the very same "impure" [sic] orifice.

Why do people insist on clinging to Bronze age pastoral rules and regulations as if they carry more importance and truth simply because they are older ideas? The germ theory of disease is more recent than the miasma theory, but it's sure as hell more accurate and better able to help us survive than the inane belief that sickness is borne on foul winds and incantations.

the paragraph about being "unclean" is the most ridiculous thing i have seen. speaking as charedi Jew, i have not seen such ignorance and prattle in a while.

I am not religious at all. It so happens that 95% of the people i work with are orthodox Jews. Anyways when i went to the interview i meet with the hr manager, then the office manager and finally the BOSS. In school i learned that a hand shake comes a long way and says a lot about someone. I stood up and extended my hand and the BOSS said, "Sorry i cant shake your hand". At that moment i let it go. But then i was thinking wow, am i ? does he think he is better than me? or maybe he has Verminophobia . This is why i had to do my research. Makes me happy to know that i was denied a handshake solely for religious reasons. I am no longer offended. Plus, i got the job lol.

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