Elul 5760 – Handshaking With Men, Teshuvah

1 Elul 5760

L’chvod HaRav:

I have a new twist on the old “what to do when a man tries to shake your hand” issue. See – I live in the South, and although the Civil War was fought and won over a hundred years ago, racial issues are still pretty sensitive. This summer, I’m working for a “temp”ing agency, and I’m in the position of meeting new people rather often (since I get moved around almost every week). Almost every office introduction in the non-Jewish world is accompanied by a handshake, which of course, is the part that every frum girl dreads. When it comes to male co-workers, I try to avoid the handshake, and give a brief explanation, and they usually don’t mind. However, if the co-worker/boss/manager is of a minority, then there is always the fear that he will misunderstand my reluctance to shake his hand, and think that Jews are racist. This has actually happened to people I know. What should I do? Most people I know go ahead and shake hands with people from minorities. I’m sure they received a “go ahead” from a Rav, but since I never found a source for the leniency, I wanted to personally hear a Rav’s opinion.

Thank you for your time,

Name withheld upon request
Darchi Binah 5759

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Dear Name withheld,

Thank you for your question. I’m sorry for the delay in replying, but I’ve been trying to think of the best way to answer it. I would like to preface my remarks by pasting here something that was printed in the “Ask the Posek” column a few issues ago:

“In Halacha there is a concept of “Halacha V’Ein Morin Kein”, i.e. there are certain things that are permitted, but we don’t discuss them publicly, and sometimes aren’t Mattir even privately if someone asks, because it is inevitable that people will misunderstand, and/or abuse the Hetter. Often this is done in a case where there are many details, and the Hetter hinges on one small detail, but people might not realize it and on their own apply it to cases where it shouldn’t be applied. Other times this is done in case where it is an issue about which people have a difficult time being objective, and there is a fear that if we allow this their Yetzer Hara will cause them to rationalize and they will abuse the Hetter, and apply it in cases where it ought not be applied. There are also cases where the Halacha really depends on the pure intention and thoughts of the person. In this case, although a certain individual may be able to have the proper thoughts and for him this act is permitted, how can we publicize that it is allowed when there are people who may not have this ability who will hear of the Hetter and also engage in this?”

In the case of shaking hands with members of the opposite gender, all three of the above considerations apply. As Rabbi Orlofsky shlit”a noted, the primary question here is whether or not handshaking is considered Derech Chibah – touching in an intimate manner. As I’m sure that you are aware, a doctor is permitted to touch his or her patients of the opposite gender for medical purposes – such touch is not Derech Chibah. Holding hands etc. is certainly Derech Chibah, and is absolutely forbidden by our Torah between two non-related members of opposite genders. The question that arises is whether handshakes are considered intimate touch, or there is no intimacy involved at all? Rav Moshe Feinstein Zatza”l writes in his Iggros Moshe, in response to a questioner who asks why he has seen some people with Yiras Shomayim shake hands with members of the opposite gender after they have extended their hand, “They must be of opinion that shaking hands is not Derech Chibah!” He intimates clearly there, and in other places, that in _his_ opinion it should be considered Derech Chibah, and one should not shake hands.

On the other hand, it seems to me that there are handshakes and there are handshakes – some are of a cold, perfunctory, nature, and others are warm and lingering. Because of this, it is really not correct to state unequivocally in a public forum that shaking hands is Muttar. An individual should consult their own Rav and explain their own individual situation, and he will advise them if, when, and how they might shake hands with members of the opposite gender.

There is a fourth consideration to take into account here, and, in my opinion, it is an extremely important one. Even if a person would wish to be lenient and shake hands, they must bear in mind that there are other Jews who are more sensitive to the gravity of this Issur, and may wish to be Machmir. It is very clear from the Poskim, and the Hanhagah of many Gedolim, that this is very praiseworthy. Of course, it takes extra effort to put the other person at ease, but this is very possible for someone who is truly motivated to do so. However, in many situations, the lenient person is putting fellow Jews in an uncomfortable situation, since they now have to answer the question “Well, if observant Jews don’t shake hands, how come _she_ did?!” This gives the impression that Halacha is inconsistent and can be a cause for Chillul Hashem. If it is unlikely that this person will ever meet an observant Jew again, this is not a consideration. In cities where there is a large Jewish population, this is more likely to happen.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

P.S. I would just like to share with you a message that I received from another post-seminary girl that I found to be a big Chizuk on this topic:

For the past several years I have been making a point of not shaking hands with men – this usually comes up for me during job interviews or in my work environment. Last year when I told my boss that I wouldn’t shake his hand for religious reasons, he really respected me for it. When he introduced me to others, he would proudly state that I stand by my religious beliefs and won’t shake hands with men.

This year when I had my interview for my current job, the male interviewer was told that I couldn’t shake his hand. I started my job two months later, and on the first day of work I was expecting to have to explain myself many times over as I was introduced to my co-workers. I was surprised when I found that none of the male employees offered me their hand! I later found out that the interviewer respected my wishes and before my first day they mentioned to all of the male employees that they shouldn’t offer to shake my hand! Now, although I have a good working relationship with all of my co-workers – they know that I am different and there is a certain emotional distance between us – Baruch HaShem!

I guess it may be encouraging to know that I have been refusing men’s hands for years, and as far as I am aware, I have never embarassed anyone as a result [other than myself :) ].

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L’chvod HaRav:

How does one do teshuva for something that’s not halachically wrong, but hashkafically wrong? For example, for someone who does not watch any TV, after sitting and watching one show, no matter how clean, they will feel like HaKadosh Boruch HU is disappointed with them. As if more was expected of them, and they failed. Is there a form of “teshuva” for this?

Thank you very much!

Name withheld upon request
Darchi Binah 5758

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Dear Name withheld,

Hi! Thank you for your question. I’m a bit puzzled by your use of terms in your question, so please forgive me if I don’t understand your question properly.

To my understanding, something that is Halachically wrong is something that a Jew must not do, as it violates the Ratzon of Hashem, and Hashkafah literally means an “outlook”, i.e. what the true Jewish outlook and perspective is on life and certain issues. I don’t think that a person must do Teshuvah for having an improper Hashkafah, as long as they correct it as soon as they find out that it is improper. Of course, if someone deliberately chooses to have an outlook that is in disagreement with our Torah, such a person denies that we are subservient to our Torah and must certainly do Teshuvah for that – but that would be because they are violating the Halachah to remember and believe in Maamad Har Sinai (are we confused yet? :-). In the example that you mention, I would say that it is actually a Halachic issue, because, at a minimum, it violates the Mitzvah of “Kedoshim Tehiyu”, “Midvar Sheker Tirchak”, various prohibitions regarding modesty, and Bittul Torah (for a boy) among others. This does not mean that all TV is Halachically wrong – just that there certain are many (most?) programs that should not be watched by observant Jews.

Consequently, if a person feels that there is a need to do Teshuvah for something that is not the Ratzon Hashem, they should do Teshuvah the way they would for anything else, i.e. regretting what they have done, and resolving not to do it again. Generally, we don’t find in Halacha a specific way that a person should atone for things they’ve done wrong, except for in certain specific situations. The best way to have a Kapparah is to give Tzedakah to the poor – more than you usually would. Also, helping disadvantaged people, such as tutoring a child from a home where the parent(s) can not give them proper attention, visiting residents of old age homes, and volunteering in hospitals. Bringing Shalom between parties who are at odds with each other is also mentioned in the Shulchan Oruch as a way for achieving Kapparah for things that someone has done wrong.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler