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When is Being “Shomer Negiah” a Halacha and When is it a Stringency?

Last week when US President Joe Biden visited Israel, there was a lot of talk about the handshake that didn’t happen. Yuval Dayan, an Israeli pop star, performed a song with another singer at a ceremony in front of President Biden and Israeli President Isaac Herzog.  Afterwards, President Biden approached both artists to shake their hands, but Dayan bowed instead.  Dayan is committed to being “shomeret negiah,” or not touching members of the opposite gender.  She apparently had informed the office of President Isaac Herzog beforehand of her specific needs so as not to offend President Biden.  While Ms. Dayan chose not to accept President Biden’s handshake, many God-fearing halachically observant Jews do accept handshakes of members of the opposite gender.  What, then, exactly is the halacha?

Among other topics, I teach the topic of “shomer negiah” to my high school students and when I do so, I emphasize that it’s important to understand what type of orthodox practice is halachic and what type of orthodox practice reflects appropriate boundaries.  In my Yeshiva high school, the presumption is that the girls observe the laws of being “shomeret negiah.”  So I ask them what they think they should do if they get a job in the business world and in that context a man extends his hand to shake their hand.  They generally respond that, on the one hand, touching a man is forbidden in most circumstances, but we shouldn’t cause a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, by not shaking the person’s hand and we shouldn’t embarrass the person, so in this case it’s permitted.  Then some of them point out that some of their doctors are male.  Some wonder about their manicurist or hairstylist who is a man.  And we wonder whether they should switch doctors or manicurists or hairstylists.

Then we read the halachic sources.  We read the Shach (Yoreh De’ah #157:10), who states that we follow the position of the Rambam that only “affectionate” touching or touching that may lead to physical intimacy is forbidden.  It seems, then, that handshaking, doctor and manicurist appointments and even tapping a teenage boy on the shoulder is not halachically problematic.

However, Rav Moshe Feinstein seems to provide conflicting halachic rulings.  On the one hand, he sees no problem with people going on a crowded bus or subway even though they may bump against someone of the opposite gender (Iggerot Moshe, Even Ha’Ezer, vol. 2, #14).  At the same, he writes that even though he has seen pious individuals return handshakes offered by women, perhaps they think that it does not constitute an affectionate act, but it is really difficult to rely on this leniency (Iggerot Moshe, Even Ha’Ezer, Vol. 1, #56).

In reality, his rulings are not contradictory.  In order to appreciate current practice among halachically observant Jews, we must differentiate between halacha and appropriate boundaries.  Halachically, any touch that is not affectionate nor will likely lead to physical intimacy is permitted.  However, the precise boundary of when a type of touch becomes affectionate is often unclear.  Is tapping someone on the shoulders affectionate?  Probably not.  What about a handshake?  A high-five?  Holding hands?  An embrace when greeting someone?  Maybe.  Rav Moshe Feinstein’s written ruling about a handshake reflects his reservations about a handshake remaining just a polite formality.  Other halachic authorities are lenient and permit shaking the hand of someone of the opposite gender in a professional context if the other person extends his or her hand first.

Interactions with members of the opposite gender require serious consideration of both halacha and appropriate boundaries.  It goes without saying that if we are not careful, we can cross the line of inappropriateness.  As such, even though certain halachic practices may be technically permitted, in practice it may not be advisable to engage in them.  I don’t think that it is technically prohibited for a teenage boy to tap a teenage girl on her shoulder solely to get her attention.  At the same time, I would not advise a teenage boy to do that because it is good practice to create boundaries of no touching without having to constantly consider is this type of touching affectionate or not.

I can understand Yuval Dayan’s boundaries of not touching a member of the opposite gender even if it may be stricter than the halacha requires.  I also commend her for alerting President Herzog’s staff of her concerns before the event so as to minimize any feelings of hurt and offensiveness.  I am well aware of the concern that refusing to shake someone’s hand can potentially be embarrassing to that person.  At the same time, I am aware that many who are strict in this area do so in a manner that is sensitive and not viewed as offensive by reasonable people.  I remember Hasidic civil court Judge Ruchie Freier speaking at our shul a number of years ago about how she successfully navigated this issue without offending other people.  I also can understand a person creating boundaries whereby he or she will only return the handshake of someone of the opposite gender but will not extend a handshake even as a formality nor tap someone of the opposite gender on the shoulder even if it is not affectionate.

It is important that when we consider the halacha and practice of “shomer negiah,” we understand two things.  First, we understand what is halachically required and what is not halachically required.   Second, we understand how important it is in today’s society to create sensible boundaries beyond what is halachically required in this area.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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