Question: Is there any halachic rationale for men to shake hands with women?
Answer: Last week we noted that Rav Eliezer Silver would remark to women that a courtly bow, rather than a handshake, is the proper method of greeting a woman.
We also cited the Yerushalmi (Sotah 13b) which discusses the Torah’s requirement for a kohen to place his hands under those of a sotah offering her special korban. The Gemara suggests that an elderly kohen (who presumably will not have improper sexual thoughts) performs this function. The Gemara also suggests that a young kohen could perhaps perform this function and we are not concerned about him having improper sexual thoughts since he is only touching the sotah’s hands for a very short period of time.
Based on this second suggestion, it would seem that shaking a woman’s hand should be permitted. Indeed Rav Ahron Soloveichik ruled accordingly. However, according to the Gemara’s first suggestion it would seem to be prohibited (except for older men). Since the Gemara offers two suggestions, it appears that the matter is in doubt.
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In Hilchot Sotah 3:15, the Rambam writes that “the kohen places his hand under [the sotah’s] and lifts [the korban] up.” He mentions nothing about the kohen being older. The Torah Temimah contends that the Rambam is simply followed his general tendency to favor second opinions mentioned in the Gemara. Thus, any kohen may perform the service since he is only touching the sotah’s hands for a brief period of time.
This position also seems logical since how would we judge when a kohen becomes “old”? At what age would a kohen not have improper sexual thoughts? It makes much more sense to adopt the Gemara’s other answer so as to avoid this kind of subjective analysis.
It is interesting that the Gemara only offers two suggestions for why a kohen may touch a sotah, but doesn’t offer a third logical answer: namely, that a kohen may touch her because he is busy fulfilling a mitzvah and a person doesn’t have improper thoughts at such a time. Indeed, this is why the Shach permits a doctor to examine the body of a niddah. His mind is focused on medical concerns. This is also why people involved in raising cattle may breed animals. They are concentrating on their professions; thus, they wont have improper thoughts.
The Gemara, however, does not offer this suggestion. Hence, the fact that the kohen may touch the sotah has nothing to do with him concentrating on doing a mitzvah. Rather, it has to do with the fact that he is only touching her for a brief period of time. Hence, shaking a woman’s hand would also be permitted.
We find support for interpreting the Gemara in this manner by examining its original question. The Gemara asked, “Isn’t is repugnant for a kohen to touch a sotah?” It didn’t ask, “Isn’t it sinful?” In other words, the Gemara does not even suggest that it is prohibited for a kohen to touch a sotah in this context. The Torah commanded that he wave the korban with her and therefore it is a mitzvah to do so whether we appreciate the process or not.
The Gemara was concerned, however, for the subjective feelings of the kohen: Isn’t touching a sotah repugnant to him? To this the Gemara responds that the process is not even repugnant; there is nothing wrong at all. Why? Since the encounter is brief, improper thoughts will not arise.
A number of rabbis have told me that they do not initiate a handshake with a woman, but if a woman extends her hand to them, they won’t refuse to shake it. They reason that once a woman extends her hand, an additional factor comes into the equation: kavod habriyot. It is prohibited to shame a woman by refusing to shake her hand. This position, however, only has merit if one maintains that shaking hands with women is a rabbinic prohibition. Kavod habriyot may trump a rabbinical, but not a biblical prohibition.
The above analysis is a form of limud zechut, providing a halachic basis for those who shake hands with women and consider themselves to be shomrei torah u’mitzvot. It also is an attempt to bolster the halachic ruling of Rav Ahron Soloveichik.
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.