One traditional Jewish stricture I forgot to include in Jews—Stuff You Always Wanted to Know, But Didn’t Know Who to Ask is the custom of maintaining no physical contact with the opposite gender—including no shaking hands.
Note: Judaism allows and even obligates physical contact between genders in order to save a life. For example, a male must rescue a drowning female (if he can) and a female paramedic must treat a male heart-attack victim.
While refraining from any physical contact sounds extreme and unnecessary in today’s modern egalitarian society—after all, what is the big deal about a casual handshake?—Judaism is actually quite firm about this.
Here are just some of the issues with shaking hands:
It is merely a religious stricture mandated for the Orthodox Jew’s personal standards and out of respect for the Orthodox Jew’s marital relationship (or potential marital relationship, as the case may be).
Of course, because Orthodox Jews are the only Jews who still observe this law, this presents awkward situations for both Orthodox Jews and for the unsuspecting secular Jews or non-Jews they encounter,
So how do Orthodox Jews handle a situation in which shaking hands is expected?
For the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, it is paramount to avoid offending the innocent hand-shaker in any way. (Jewish Law strictly prohibits embarrassing or insulting others.) However, if despite apologies, explanations, reassurances, and candy-offerings, the potential hand-shaker still remains offended, most Orthodox Jews will feel that they have done their best and will not violate this religious stricture, despite the other's negative feelings.
Of course, this kind of thing can lead to some amusing situations like the following:
Funny Story #1
Upon meeting her male boss for the first time, a European Orthodox Jewish woman responded to his extended hand by saying, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry and mean no offense, but I’m very religious and don’t shake hands.”
Later, the boss brought his wife to the office and introduced her to this same Orthodox Jewish employee. When his wife extended her hand in greeting to the Orthodox woman, the boss said to his wife, “What are you doing? I told you that she doesn’t shake hands!”
Upon which the Orthodox Jewish woman explained that the prohibition was not against handshakes in general, but only against shaking hands with the opposite gender—at which point, she warmly shook the hand of her boss’s wife.
Funny Story #2
A young Hassidic woman found herself in a reception line to shake hands with Nixon’s vice-president in honor of some amazing community work she’d conducted.
Surrounded by cameras and faced with a very important person whom she did not want to offend, she needed to come up with the right response. Yet having been raised by a family who’d survived Auschwitz and then later maintained a quiet life infused with strong Hassidic values on American soil, compromising on her religious values was not an option for her.
So when she found herself face to face with the Vice-President, she gave him a nice head-shoulders bow and a big smile, and in her charming Southern accent, she said, “I am so sorry, Mr. Vice-President, but my religion simply doesn’t allow me to touch men.”
In response, he gave her a smile, a nod, and some friendly small talk and then just continued on to the next person in line.
So what should you do when faced with an Orthodox Jew of the opposite gender in a situation in which a handshake is the perfectly acceptable norm?
As far as the Orthodox Jew is concerned, it’s usually preferable not to offer your hand in the first place, and to make do with a verbal greeting instead. But if you do extend your hand in greeting, I hope this article will help minimize any feelings of offense or discomfort if the Orthodox Jew reacts with any of the non-physical responses listed above.