Friday, June 5, 2009

Secret Handshake

There's a secret to handshaking in the frum world. An unspoken arrangement in which handshaking is (no pun intended) handled. To outsiders looking in it probably looks like we just don't bother with handshaking at all, but there's method to our madness.

It starts with the Halachic prohibition forbidding physical contact between members of the opposite sex. This prevents handshaking between the sexes in the frum community. Then once we're all accustomed to the "no handshaking with men\women," rule, we often just forego handshaking altogether.

It's all pretty simple until you take it out of the frum world where no one else is aware of this "secret" to handshaking. When a frum person is out in the secular world, they're faced with the decision of how to avoid handshaking with member of the opposite sex without appearing rude or insulting.

Most guys are fine when I tell them that I don't shake hands with men. I've only had a few instances where people have taken offense to my "no handshake" deal. I've heard of people getting highly insulted and I've never understood it. So I don't shake your hand - what's the big deal?

My sister was scolded by an employee in a store she was patronizing for not shaking hands with him. Needless to say, she hasn't gone back to that store.

I had a black guy reply, "I'm a person too, you know," when I excused myself from shaking his hand. But when I explained to him that it was for religious reasons, he seemed to feel better about it.

It occurs to me that some people might find my, "Sorry, I don't shake hands with men," thing sexist. What do you think?


  1. I don't think it's sexist; I think it is demeaning to the other person and I've seen even Satmar men shake the hand of women when extended to them.

  2. it's just a bit awkward, that's all, to leave someone's hand hanging there. but why sexist? does it discriminate against them in any way?

    Hmm... perhaps it does, if you are in a position of authority over them... by giving them the feeling that you are partial to women... so that may be something to think about. If not, then just awkward.

    i'm sure you explained to the black guy that you don't shake hands with white and jewish men either. to him, that probably makes all the difference.

  3. ps you are probably aware of the many heterim for handshakes in the business world and made the decision not to adopt them, but if not, it probably pays for you to look into it, to see if you find them reasonable.

    pps you are also probably on clear grounds when it comes to sexism, because sexism against men is generally tolerated and is not recognized as such. Least of all by men.

    Also i beleive we are in a nationwide backlash against feminism as well. but that's another issue.

  4. The no handshaking is not so much a matter of being sexist as it is one of violating acceptable business etiquette. You attend an interview where there are 6 people sitting in on the interview, 3 males and 3 females. Not shaking hands if all are standing when you come on or do so when you leave would be considered rude. Shaking only the women's hands would be considered odd. Having to make a statement as you walk in that you don't shake men's hands is awkward.

    Many a rabbi who has said, regarding BUSINESS handshakes, that when you are in a situation such as the one above you shake all hands. When the handshaking takes place in a public venue you shake all the hands. Some will draw the line at one-to-one handshakes in a private office.

    Easiest way to avoid the whole thing is to sneeze just at the point when a hand comes out to shake yours, necessitating rummaging through a purse for a kleenex, and the moment passes without awkwardness or strange looks.

  5. Yes, I have heard of heterim for this issue and no, I don't follow them. I've also heard dozens of "tricks" that people use to avoid shaking hands, like ProfK's sneezing one, and I just find them to be ridiculous, really. If you've made a decision not to shake hands with members of the opposite sex, stick to that decision for real. Don't fake your way through it. That's just lame.

    I would have to speak to a Rav about shaking hands in specific situations, such as an interview, but I'm not looking for a heter.

  6. actually, by heter, I used the wrong word: In my opinion there is no issur even l'khatchila. But obviously you have come to a different conclusion, which is your right.

  7. btw i find it more awkward to shake hands with women... to adopt such a masculine practice with another female. Think outside the masculine business world, do women ever shake hands with eachother? NEVER, they semi-embrace.

  8. How do you mean, "There's no issur even l'khatchila"? It's in Shulchan Aruch.

  9. It does seem a little too personal to shake a woman's hand, doesn't it? Like, "Why am I touching this woman?"

  10. OK, I may be wrong about that, don't have the means to look it up just now.

    In my opinion, refusing to shake hands, itself sexualizes a non sexual situation. But that's just me talking, not halacha.

  11. I have to agree with you. Once you make the decision to not shake hands, explain it and stick to it. Making excuses or faking a sneeze conveys the idea that your don't fully agree with the concept or that you're ashamed of it.

  12. First off, your statement that handshaking "starts with the Halachic prohibition forbidding physical contact between members of the opposite sex," is not quite true.

    The blanket issur is for applies only to contact that is derech chibbah, which handshaking is not. Whether or not handshaking is assur yeihareig ve'al yaavor, muttar lechatchilah, or somewhere in between is a matter of debate. As to your claim that "it's in the Shulchan Aruch," please tell me where.

    It is well known that in the Yekke kehillah of Washington Heights, men and women shake hands (though I imagine that's beginning to wane).

    When I entered the workforce, I asked my rebbe, a giant of a Talmid Chacham and respected worldwide, what to do about shaking hands with women. He was emphatic that if a woman stuck out her hand, I must shake it. If not, he said, you will surely embarrass someone, which is much worse. You won't be able to explain it to everyone.

    Incidentally, I have had women tell me that they know that some Jews won't shake their hands because they are not Jewish or because they are black. I'm not an advocate of handshaking (none of my brothers would ever shake a woman's hand under any circumstances), but you have to understand that, like most of life, a chumrah
    here leads to a kullah there.

  13. My bad. Shulchan Aruch talks about negiah, not shaking hands in particular. However:

    "The Chazon Ish has been quoted as stating that shaking hands between men and women is 'absolutely forbidden' [implying that it is forbidden under all circumstances].[23] This is also the opinion of Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky,[24] Rabbi Moshe Stern (the Debretziner Rav),[25], Rav Yitzchak Abadi[26], the Ben Ish Chai[27], and Sefer Chassidim.

    "R' Moshe Feinstein gives the benefit of the doubt to those who return a handshake, stating that they apparently hold that doing so is not Derech Chiba v'Taavah, but concludes that such leniency is difficult to rely upon."

  14. Please see

  15. I've heard of a lot of people who have your problem. I don't. For a very simple reason:
    When they stretch out their hand I say,
    "Pleased to meet you, but I don't shake hands for religious reasons."
    Nobody is insulted. Everything is aboveboard. He knows I'm not singling him out due to his race or ethnicity.

    Why is it so hard to just be straightforward? This is 21st century USA, for goodness sake. Everyone has to respect your religious hangups, like it not.

  16. L:
    That's what I say too, these days.

  17. I've had this happen to me, while I was a newspaper reporter covering an event in a local Hasidic community.

    After interviewing the rabbi's wife, she left my hand in mid-air, completely ignoring it.

    I couldn't understand WHY, and of course I was offended afterwards, because she offered no explanation.

    I would like to request that you PLEASE explain to non-Jewish people WHY you won't shake their hand, because if you simply ignore an outstretched hand (which is a gesture of friendliness, after all) they won't have the slightest idea why you're doing that.

    And that, in turn, can lead to misunderstandings, stereotypes and other ill-will.

    It doesn't take much to explain something like this, and taking a minute to explain such a custom can go a long way toward avoiding misunderstanding and avoiding offending someone.

  18. Anonymous, you are absolutely right and I appreciate your feedback.

  19. Shaking hands is a great way to spread germs that cause disease.

  20. That's why I keep Purell in my purse!

  21. I agree with anonymous. My husband is Jewish and I am not. I extended my hand in friendship to the Rabbi at my in-law's Chanukah party and it was left hanging there awkwardly. I was incredibly offended (not knowing about the custom). I was also offended because I know the Rabbi disagrees with my husband marrying outside the faith, which is his right, but also because he won't acknowledge our son. So I am on the fence about whether he wouldn't shake it due to religious reasons or because he doesn't care to be respectful to me as a person. If he had explained to me his reason it would have cleared the air, whereas right now I am incredibly miffed.

  22. He definitely should have explained himself. He didn't say anything at all?