Question: Is there any halachic rationale for men to shake hands with women?
Answer: It is well known that the common practice of the East European, hasidic and yeshiva worlds is to refrain from shaking hands with women. As a youth I recall it said in the name of Rav Eliezer Silver, zt”l, that he frequently told women that Orthodox rabbis consider shaking hands with them a form of ungracious behavior. “The proper Jewish way,” he said, “is to bow before them in a courtly manner.”
Yet, it is reputed that German Jewry freely engaged in shaking hands with women. In America, too, quite a large number of observant Jews shake hands and consider those who refrain from doing so to be excessively and inappropriately pious (“frumeh shtik”).
Who is right? Are they both “right,” in the tradition of “elu v’elu divrei Elokim chayim”?
The Torah states that a sotah must bring a special korban. Before offering it, a kohen must place his hands under the hands of the sotah and lift and wave the korban together with her. Commenting on this process, the Yerushalmi (Sotah 13b; also Bavli, Tosafot 19a) asks, “Is this not mechu’er (repulsive, improper)?” The Talmud responds that the kohen uses a napkin so that he does not actually touch the sotah (see Pnei Moshe).
The Talmud then proceeds to ask, “Is this not an interference?” In other words, since the napkin is not technically part of the service, it is presumably a “chatzitzah,” an object that intervenes unnecessarily between the hand of the kohen and the sotah. To this, the Talmud responds: “They bring an old kohen.” In other words, an old kohen performs the service and since he’s old, it is unlikely for sexual thoughts to arise in his mind.
The Talmud then offers an alternative answer, namely, that a regular kohen can perform the service, and we are not concerned about him touching her because the inclination to sin does not pertain in such a short period of time (see Pnei Moshe).
According to the second response of the Jerusalem Talmud, there appears to be nothing wrong in touching a married woman’s hand for a brief period of time. Thus, shaking women’s hands would be permissible since a handshake takes only a second or two. It certainly takes no longer than it did for the kohen to perform the service together with the sotah. I personally recall many years ago hearing that Rav Ahron Soloveichik, zt”l, paskened from this Yerushalmi that it is permissible to shake hands with women.
We may ask, though: The Jerusalem Talmud offers two answers. According to the first answer (that an old kohen performs the service), it would seem that only older men may briefly touch a woman’s hand; younger men, however, may not. And since the Talmud offers two answers without deciding in favor of one of them, it would seem that the final halacha is in doubt. And when we encounter doubts concerning biblical violations, we err on the side of caution (safek d’oraita l’chumra).
(To be continued)
Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, has written several books on Jewish law. His latest, “Shabbat The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas” (Urim Publications), is available at Judaica stores and Amazon.com.