Handshaking in Modern Society
“Hi!”, (as their outstretched hand rises towards you in greeting) “my name is Janice (or John or Jody or Jason). Nice to meet you.”
Shaking hands in modern western society is standard procedure for both social and business interactions. The handshake is commonly done upon meeting, greeting and parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude, or completing an agreement. In sports or other competitive activities, it is also done as a sign of good sportsmanship. Its purpose is to convey trust, respect, balance, and equality. If it is done to form an agreement, the agreement is not official until the hands are parted.
In addition, a study on handshakes by the Income Center for Trade Shows showed that people are two times more likely to remember you if you shake hands with them.
While traveling around the world you will come in contact with a variety of customs on how to shake hands and with whom, whether to use a weak or strong grip or whether a fist bump is preferable. There are even different customs on shaking hands with the opposite sex.
Opposite Gender Handshaking in Judaism
In Judaism we don’t have any particular custom about HOW to shake hands, but we do have an issue with Opposite Gender Handshaking. Not because of the handshake itself, but rather because it involves touching a member of the opposite gender, also known a Negiah.
The laws of Negiah were created to prevent unnecessary contact with the other gender which might lead to illicit sexual conduct. As such it doesn’t make a difference whether you or the person you touch is married or not, whether they are a neighbor, an acquaintance or a business partner. In fact any person, with the exception of your spouse and first level relatives (parents, siblings, children, grandchildren), is forbidden to touch.
The issue of shaking hands raises a simple question. Why should there be any problem with shaking hands with the opposite sex in a business environment or even in a casual passing social context? There’s no intimacy involved or even implied, or is there?
This issue is rather complex, even with a Freudian rationale. It is assumed that touching a person of the opposite gender is essentially a sexual act, or at least the precursor of a sexual act. While it is true that most handshakes between men and women do not lead to sexual relations and are not even contemplated, sexual relations always begin with touching. It is also true that a handshake can communicate some feelings, albeit on a superficial level.
Some Rabbi’s take the position that when shaking hands in a business context, and is clearly a non-affectionate contact, it is permissible under Jewish law. Other commentators allow the handshake only when the other person offers their hand. Here the rationale is that to refuse to reciprocate would cause embarrassment.
On the other hand there are many respected Halachic authorities who completely prohibit it, even when it might cause embarrassment. I’m not sure though what they would rule in cases of meeting royalty or heads of state in a public gathering. Some senior Rabbi’s accepted the offered hand and some did not.
If one goes with the more strict view then it wouldn’t make a difference whether you’re offering a weak or strong shake, a quick or lingering one (though I assume that even those who are lenient in a business situation would agree that a lingering shake is a real no-no).
Personally I was schooled with the ruling of no handshakes with the opposite sex and though I usually manage to get through it without mishap, at times it was a bit sticky.
Two cases come to mind. Once I was being interviewed for a job; one that I really wanted. The Jewish interviewer stuck out her hand and said, “Hi! I’m…”. I gave her a big smile and said, “Sorry, my wife doesn’t let me..”. There was a moment of silent limbo, when I was sure my job was gone, and then she laughed and said, “Oh, I forgot that religious people are careful with that”. I got the job.
On the other hand I once took my child to a non-Jewish doctor in Western Europe and as much as I respectfully explained my religious principles, she nearly refused to treat my child. Maybe (with hindsight) I might have had a good reason to be more lenient in that case.
Tips For Avoiding Opposite Gender Handshaking
Each one should consult with their own Rabbi if and when they may shake hands with the opposite sex, and in what circumstances. For those who have decided definitely to avoid it, here are a few “tricks” to smooth things out at the critical moment:
- Apologize and explain: “I’m sorry, but for religious reasons, I try to avoid unnecessary contact with women (other than my wife).” It may help to acknowledge that the situation is indeed awkward. Perhaps say, “I apologize for the awkwardness, but…”
- Be respectful when turning down a handshake. This shows that the refusal has nothing to do with lack of respect for women. A nice smile and lots of eye contact help too.
- Keep your right hand busy with something. Even with your explanation, it is awkward to have the other person’s arm outstretched with your hand right there not doing anything. Hold a briefcase, a purse or other item, be holding a door handle, or at least have your hand in your pocket.
- Don’t behave like you are embarrassed by the situation; a certain amount of confidence is necessary. Explain your refusal to shake hands the same way someone would explain their allergy to peanuts after being offered some by a friend.
- Pull a business card from your pocket and pass it over to their outstretched hand. You might still need to explain if they offer a hand a second time, but it shows you are business-like.
- There’s an anecdote told of Rabbi Lazer Brody who handed a Halvah bar to a woman journalist who came to interview him and offered her hand in greeting. I’m guessing that Rabbi Brody doesn’t do this every time but prepared himself because of the particular context. Check out the story here to decide for yourself.
- Put both hands on your heart and bow in greeting.
- Sometimes giving a smile and saying “I’ll take your word for it” works nicely.
- At social events it is recommended to hold a drink in one hand and a plate of herring in the other (remember to smile too).
- Forewarned is forearmed: If it’s a formal meeting or interview, Inform the person beforehand, to avoid problems. You can even send them a respectful email saying, I’m looking forward to meeting all of you. I just want to let you know in advance that for religious reasons I don’t shake hands with member of the opposite sex. I mean no disrespect at all and I hope that you understand.” (I saw this one on a Muslim website…).
- Tell her you only shake hands with women who aren’t attractive (be careful with this one if you don’t want to sound flirtatious).
- Keep your hands clasped behind your back and bow.
- Try Namaste – Namaste is a greeting commonly found among people of South Asia with a slight bow and hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, thumbs close to the chest.
- Say that your spouse doesn’t want you shaking other women’s hands. After the first reaction make sure to explain the real reason, so they won’t get the impression that you don’t decide for yourself.
- Pray for Divine Intervention !