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Shaking hands – July 14, 2010

June 30th, 2011 Posted by Ask the Rabbi No Comment yet

Rabbi,

Lately, almost whenever I meet salespeople and also socially, people extend their hand to shake. As a woman I do not want to shake strangers’ hands.

Recently a car salesman approached my husband and then me. I kept my hands behind my back and smiled at the salesman. He asked, “Do you not want to shake my hand?” I said I was in covenant with my husband and do not shake hands.

However, I do NOT want to hurt people’s feelings. Do you have a polite, kind way of avoiding the handshake without going into detail? I would appreciate a ‘tool’ for this new lunging intrusion.

Thank You,

Catherine

Dear Catherine,

I am fascinated by your question. When I was growing up under the flag of the British Empire, there were definite protocols accepted by the entire society. It was a woman’s prerogative to choose whether to extend her hand to a man or not. For a gentleman to put his hand out first, reflected gaucheness and poor manners.

To this day, men about to be introduced to Queen Elizabeth II of England are warned not to extend their hands until and unless the Queen does so first.

Like you, I see that this is clearly not the case today, at least in America. And from a Jewish perspective, it is awkward for me when a woman puts out her hand to me to be shaken. Like you, my wife and I are uncomfortable shaking hands with members of the opposite sex.

If we have an ongoing relationship with that person, we describe our position and how we reserve physical contact for immediate family members. When we relate how, as our children reach adolescence, having absolute standards about members of the opposite sex not touching each other in any way helps them to have healthier lives, most people nod in agreement.

We have always been treated respectfully once we clarify our position. I can’t tell from your writing if the salesman you encountered was being confrontational or if he was giving you an opening to affirm your choice.

However handshaking, and even a social hug, are so prevalent in society today that even when we have explained our position, acquaintances we only see sporadically often forget. In addition, we frequently meet large groups of people who have the warmest intentions when they extend their hands, so we often find ourselves in the same situation as you.

Like you, we are torn between two conflicting standards, both of which are important to us. The strong desire not to embarrass anyone exists side by side with discomfort with physical contact. I’m afraid I don’t have a magic tool, though having your hands full by carrying items can help. Perhaps if enough people speak about this issue, awareness will spread so that more people will pick up on cues such as someone giving a friendly smile while keeping hands firmly at his or her side.

Your rabbi,

Daniel Lapin


        
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