Posted by: gruvenreuven | June 11, 2010

Achilles’ Hand

Being frum for going on 7 years now, I would say the one area of Orthodox Judaism that I still struggle with is Shomer Negilah. Negiah literally means “touch”, and is the concept in Halacha that forbids physical contact with members of the opposite sex. (Exception being one’s spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, and grandparents)

My struggle with Shomer Negiah is really only focused in one area… The dreaded Handshake. This is exceptionally hard in the business world. Meetings with vendors, meetings with clients or even introductions outside of work, all propose a dilemma. How does one explain why you can’t return the handshake without going into a long dissertation on Halacha.

Today I know I offended a woman in line at Starbucks when she extended her hand to me while asking a question. I “pretended” not to see the hand, and in a friendly tone answered her question. I could see by the look on her face that I was acting like a Jerk. Which to be honest , I think on this occasion I was. Typically in a situation like that, I explain it saying “I’m sorry, due to Jewish modesty laws I am unable to shake your hand, as touching is not permitted amongst members of the opposite sex”.

I think standing in line waiting for a coffee, that long response could have been delivered without any awkwardness. The line was 4-5 deep, I had time for the typical follow-up questions. In business meetings that plays out even more awkwardly where the handshake if often done in rapid fire with an exchange of business cards amongst a team of 5 to 10 people prior to a meeting.

In a business setting, I’ve resorted to not shaking anyone’s hand and just leading off with a business card, a greeting and moving on to the next. To be honest, this is one area of Halacha that despite my best attempts, I sometimes return the shake to avoid being rude. I hate when I do that, as there is no other area of Halacha that I compromise like that.

I feel comfortable in all areas of Halacha where I have to separate myself. In other words, I have no problem telling a client, or a Vendor, “Sorry, I can’t have lunch with you because I keep kosher”. So why do I struggle with the Handshake?

Of course all this (returning a handshake in a business setting) is a matter of Halachic dispute amongst the Rabbium from the Chazon Ish to Rav Moshe Feinstein. The Career Development Center at Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox institution, informs its students that: “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.”

So my question to you blogsphere… If you are a Frum, how do you handle? If you are not frum (or even Jewish) What could I say, that wouldn’t be offensive to you?



  1. I never extend my hand to shake, and try sometimes to stand in a non-awkward way that would make a handshake weird too…but if someone extends their hand I wont say no because that could make them uncomfortable.

    For food however there are always alternatives, you can go for coffee or something instead, so its less weird. Sometimes someone says we should grab a bite to eat, I will respond with “Oh are there any kosher restaurants there” so I am not actually saying no, I am putting it back on them.

  2. I have the same problem. It has created some really awkward situations. I have done what you did — act like I don’t see their hand and just go on talking. I guess it’s kind of rude. I usually do just tell them that I can’t shake their hand as it is contrary to Orthodox modesty. My husband is an attorney and he will usually inform his associates and whomever else there may be in advance not to offer their hand to me and explain why and all is fine. However, occasionally there will arise a situation where a new client or associate will be in a position to meet me and try to shake my hand and sometimes I just do a really brief handshake so as not to offend these people with whom he has to work. But I I really dislike doing it. As for other people, I usually just explain that I can’t do it due to being Orthodox and they usually respond positively. If they don’t, I don’t worry about it. You can’t let people make you feel uncomfortable about not compromising what you believe in.

  3. I’m frum and I follow R’ Moshe’s psak.

  4. … and I hit SUBMIT too quickly!

    Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov everyone!

  5. easiest and quickest way to handle the situation –

    as soon as u feel a handshake might be coming… “sneeze” or “cough” into your hand(s)

    most likey that person will not want to shake hands anymore!

  6. Hehehe bukin86 , so funny ya … As i would put it, the easiest way to get out of a hand shack with the hand shaker is…. To explain to them that under custom you are not aloud to shake hands with the opposite sex.

    That should be after that ackward(“awkward”) hand gesture follows. Second, try placing your hand on your heart when that happens. That may work, in other words good luck. 🙂

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