Tammuz 5760 – Shaking Hands

15 Tammuz 5760

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

I am involved in kiruv on my campus, and in terms of programming, the events are generally co-ed (Shabbos meals, shiurim, etc). My efforts on the more personal, one-on-one level are geared to girls, of course, as you recommend. However, the situation invariably arises when someone (a male) will introduce themselves and extend their hand. I am aware of the teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, about the seriousness of the prohibition of shaking hands with the opposite sex. I am not a cold, mean person and would not want, chas v’sholom, to embarrass someone in public or turn them off to Orthodox Judaism, by blatantly refusing to shake their hand. How can I realistically handle situations like these (I don’t know if saying that I don’t touch males would go over so well)?

Thank you,

[Name & seminary withheld to protect privacy]

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

I got a summer job working in an office where most of my co- workers are not Jewish, and the issue of shaking hands with male co-workers has come up more than once. It is always uncomfortable for me when I try to explain why this seemingly harmless social custom is forbidden by Jewish law, because its sort of hard to smush a three hour lecture on hilchos tznius into two sentences.

I was wondering if you have any suggestions, or any short but informative responses to the hand- shaking question that you could pass along. Thank you,

[Seminary withheld upon request]


Dear Everybody,

Great hearing from you.

Shaking hands is a big problem. So is social kissing, hugging, embracing and let’s be thankful that at this point of time that’s about it. But it’s enough. So let’s see how to approach the topic.

Let’s start at the beginning – mine is NOT a halachic column. If you want to know if you can rely on a view that says it isn’t derech chiba or anything else, please write to “Ask the Posek”. I am the lowest fellow on the JEMSEM totem pole. People don’t write to me to find out WHAT to do, but rather the best way to explain what they’ve already decided to do. So assuming your halachic authority has said no touching no way, how do we handle it?

The first problem is with family. When Uncle Harry throws his arms wide open and says (as he has said since you were two) “Come here, cupcake and give your Uncle Harry a big hug!” Or cousin Bobby (you know, cute cousin Bobby) wants to give you a kiss on the cheek, they don’t usually respond well to being told that there should be no physical contact as a geder to arayos. Guys, by the way, can sometimes pull that off. I know someone who told his elderly aunt that he can’t touch her because he doesn’t trust himself. It made her whole year. But for a girl, it is not proper or effective.

Humor and the light touch is often effective. “I’m sorry Uncle Harry, but I just came back from one of those fanatical seminaries in Israel and I’ve frummed out. But don’t worry, I’m sure it’s just a phase and I’ll grow out of it”. You’ll be surprised how if you can say something like that tongue in cheek, they’ll let you off the hook.

You can try appealing to people’s better side and asking them to respect your religious beliefs, but unfortunately, I’ve seldom found that effective.

Remember however that you are a teenage girl (or close enough to one) to fall into an emotional anxiety attack. “I CAN”T,OKAY! I JUST CAN’T! WHY ARE YOU ALL DOING THIS TO ME!” Then run out of the room sobbing and go to your room and slam the door. I have seven daughters and I know that this approach is often accepted by people as reasonable behavior.

In the workplace or a social situation, it’s actually much easier. Today, with the heightened awareness of sexual harassment, people naturally have a sense of “hands off”. It doesn’t take as much to discourage even casual physical contact. Stand with your hands clasped behind your back or papers in both hands and respond to the outstretched hand with a short bow, a nod, or a wave. “Hi, great to meet you” in a sincere friendly voice should be enough to dispel the uncomfortablness of the situation.

Ah, but what about an explanation? What if people don’t merely dismiss your quirky behavior, but appear interested. Well, we can explain that we believe that contact between the genders is something holy and not something we engage in lightly. Someone told me that a handshake doesn’t mean anything to them, and if so, they have managed to take one of the most sublime human experiences and reduce it to nothing. We think a touch is a powerful thing. I refer you to the work that has already become the classic in the field “The Magic Touch” by Gila Manelson. In fact, keep a copy by your desk and if anyone asks, lend them the book. One person used to just look at the person seriously and say “I don’t believe in pre-marital handshaking”.

As far as kiruv situations go, don’t worry. Guys are only offended if you don’t touch them, not if you don’t touch anybody. There is a fellow whose name I will not mention since he is now a famous Rabbi who was once a kid in NCSY. On the bus this new girl was on her way to her first convention and she was sitting next to this guy who was shomer negia. Not knowing anything about that (or Shabbos and Kashrus, either for that matter) she kept tapping him and got the feeling that he was cringing whenever she did. The fellow behind her (now a big Rabbi) tapped her on the shoulder and said “listen, you can’t touch him”. She looked at him like he was crazy. “Just take my word for it. You can touch me, you cab touch him and him, but you can’t touch him” . She told me the story years later and she thought it was a little strange, but it certainly didn’t deter her from getting involved.

Good luck and remember those famous words of Chazal (or was it “The Golden Crown”) no plan can succeed without Hashem’s help. Daven!

Dovid Orlofsky