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Say you're a man in a professional setting, and a woman who isn't used to dealing with observant Jews stretches out her hand to greet you -- but your practice is to avoid shaking hands even in business settings (see here for dissection of that issue). How can this gesture be tactfully deflected? It's really awkward to start explaining, "Sorry, I'm an observant Jew, and we traditionally avoid contact with the opposite gender..." while the poor woman just stands there, not knowing what to do with her outstretched arm.

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See Shalom's answer here: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/278/… –  jake May 17 '11 at 0:47
    
@jake - you commented as I was editing the question to clarify that it's only relevant for those who never shake hands with women. –  Dave May 17 '11 at 0:55
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Shalom's suggestions are good, but still entail launching into an uncomfortable mini-lecture. –  Dave May 17 '11 at 0:57
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Go into computer programming so you never have to deal with women at work ;) –  Daniel ben Noach May 18 '11 at 5:55
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@DanielbenNoach, I've heard that software companies, or other big hirers of programmers, often compensate for their man/woman ratio by hiring more women for their administrative positions. –  jake May 18 '11 at 19:43
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16 Answers

I have heard from my father that my great-grandfather zal, when (in the 1920s) he moved to the States and got a job as rabbi in Canonsburg, Penna., was approached by the women in shul after t'fila Shabas morning with hands outstretched, and promptly acquired the custom of raising his hat.

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oo nice, stylish and classic. If you're wearing a hat... –  AviD May 17 '11 at 6:58
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of COURSE you are wearing a hat! –  Jeremy May 17 '11 at 13:51
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@AviD, well, in the 1920s, of course you're wearing a hat! :-) –  msh210 May 17 '11 at 14:35
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But indoors? Who wears a hat indoors? –  TRiG Aug 4 '11 at 21:22
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Army folk are not allowed to wear hats indoors. –  avi Dec 20 '11 at 20:08
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I personally saw that my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein ZT"L, a talmid muvhak (close student) of Rav Mordechai Gifter would shake the hand of any woman who extended her hand to him in greeting.

I never had the guts to question him on this, but my presumption is that he weighed the prohibition on touching a woman, which is Rabbinic if not sensual touch, against the prohibition against embarrassing a person (especially in public), which is a Torah prohibition.

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rav mordehai eliahu once met the queen o england, she extended her hand to greet him and he didn't. after that she apologized. also there's an similar episode with rav ovadia and golda meir. –  Avraham May 17 '11 at 13:50
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His personal circumstances may have warranted a more lenient approach, but in my (admittedly limited) experience, most people who know a little bit about Orthodox Jews will be understanding and even apologetic if the situation is dealt with properly. In any event, my question was not whether one should be stringent, but how one who is stringent should act. –  Dave May 17 '11 at 14:09
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"which is Rabbinic if not sensual touch" -- nothing about Rabbinic prohibition -- see the handshake question, according to Rambam and many other Rishonim, there's no prohibition at all! So I think it was "I can rely on the Rambam's interpretation", not "I can violate a rabbinic prohibition". Huge difference. –  Shalom May 17 '11 at 15:21
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In my and others' experience, the reaction to a refusal to shake hands varies depending on the person, from offense to awkwardness to amusement to respectfulness. Perhaps as tactful as you can get is to do the following:

  • Apologize and explain: "I'm sorry, but religiously, I try to avoid unnecessary contact with women (other than my wife)." No need to go further than that. It may help the awkwardness to acknowledge the fact that the situation is indeed awkward. Perhaps say, "I apologize for the awkwardness, but..."
  • Be respectful. This shows that the handshake refusal has nothing to do with lack of respect for women. A smile and lots of eye contact help in this regard.
  • Keep your right hand busy with something. Even with your explanation, it is awkward to have her arm outstretched with your hand right there not doing anything. Be holding a briefcase or other item, or be holding onto a door handle, or at least have your hand in your pocket.

It is important not to be embarrassed by the situation; a certain amount of confidence is necessary. Explain your refusal to shake hands the same way someone would explain their allergy to peanuts after being offered some by a friend. After that, you can only hope for the best and that she will be understanding.

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so, you're saying that you're allergic to women....? Would probably not go over so well with some people... (re the peanuts comment) –  AviD Dec 24 '11 at 21:42
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Aside from simply giving a short explanation as to why you wont shake hands (which itself can cause people to become offended no matter how polite you are about it), there is not much else you can do that isn't deceitful (claiming sickness) or just weird (bowing, accidentally missing). If you are going to follow the ruling that under no circumstances can you shake hands with the opposite gender, then this is a price that you will have to pay. Sorry.

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This added layer of consciousness of one's actions in this realm is exactly why rabanan added such prohibitions and arguably is something that should be recognized, not avoided. –  WAF May 17 '11 at 18:42
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Isn't it ironic that the author of the piece you linked to is (to judge by his last name - which, granted, isn't dispositive) himself a Jew? Like so many other things in Jewish life, it's the non-practicing Jews who are offended by things that non-Jews take in stride. (In my own experience, of the many non-Jewish women I've met in business settings, none have ever taken offense at my declining to shake their hand, whether I had the chance to explain why or not.) –  Alex May 18 '11 at 22:18
    
@Alex: And the person who wrote him the letter has a first name starting with J. –  msh210 May 19 '11 at 2:40
    
That article makes a fair point. Your religion is no excuse for sexism. But all's fair: simply refuse to shake anyone's hand, rather than treating men and women differently. –  TRiG Sep 29 '12 at 14:13
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@TRiG, there's nothing sexist about avoiding physical contact with the opposite sex if you would do the same were the roles reversed, which is the case with respect to this observance. –  Isaac Moses Jan 14 '13 at 15:43
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I am a white male, and I had this happen to me recently, where I met a woman in a business setting who politely told me, "I don't shake hands for religious reasons". I had never heard this before, but it did not faze me in the least. She was polite in every other way that she treated me. No Problem!

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Mr. 2828, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for sharing your experience! Please consider registering your account, which will give you access to more of the site's features. –  Isaac Moses May 26 '13 at 2:45
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Once meeting a potential client, the director (female) extended her hand to shake, I quickly pulled a business card from my pocket and gave it to her, it worked but when leaving she wanted to shake my hand again, I simply said I'm sorry and she quickly understood. maybe my black suit and black kipa helped (can't remember if I had my hat also). In any case people willing to understand will understand easily without much explanation.

also when meeting a bank manager she wanted to shake her hands, I simply said I'm sorry.

A rabbi from habad (meaning he works with kiruv and often meets jews with no clue) told me once a lady wanted to shake hands with him, he then put both hands in his heart and said he could give her his heart

There's no magic formula, on each situation you'll need to think quickly, in a business setting you need to be very careful to not harm the relations but of course the other side is careful too, so usually people are comprehensible and don't ask much.

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I've heard that a certain prominent Rosh Yeshiva flashes a smile and says, "Oh, that's not necessary!" This won't work for all people and in all situations, however.

Having a business card ready to hand over (as mentioned by Avraham and Ariel) is a more generally useful idea. Rav Lazer Brody reportedly uses halvah bars, as humorously recounted here.

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Sometimes giving a smile and saying "I'll take your word for it" works nicely.

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I assume you mean in response to a greeting such as "Pleased to meet you." But even there, it would come off as rude if the person is not aware of the religious aversion to shaking hands. –  Dave Apr 10 '12 at 4:32
    
@Dave rather I imagine this refers to a situation wherein a handshake seals a business deal. –  yoel Apr 10 '12 at 5:10
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I read a book for bale t'shuva (Jews who come to Judaism after some time without it) on how to deal with women's hands at social events and it recommended having a drink in one hand an a plate of herring in the other.

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BrianThatIsCalledBrian, thanks for the suggestion (which won't always work at its most literal, but I suppose one can substitute papers for herring) and welcome to Mi Yodeya. I hope you stick around and enjoy the site. Note that I'm editing your post to remove the jargon for greater accessibility. Please consider registering your account, which will give you access to more of the site's features. –  msh210 Jun 3 '12 at 14:43
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If you know that you would be in such a situation, inform the woman, who may be trying to shake hands with you, beforehand, to avoid problems.

During my service in Israeli army I attended an order where I was supposed to shake hands with one female lieutenant colonel in presence of other high-rank commanders. I informed her about my problem beforehand, and we made a slight mutual bow instead. Nobody suspected a violation of rules.

I understand that in Israel people are more informed about the problem then in other countries, but anyway, sometimes this could be workable.

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As far as the main issue brought up in the question, "while the poor woman just stands there, not knowing what to do with her outstretched arm.”, before I say anything to the woman, I wave my hand in a downward motion towards their hand. This always accomplishes my main objective to have the woman retract her hand. This works without fail as any person will instinctively pull back their hands to such a gesture (unless they have a gun and want your money....). After this is done, I usually hear “I’m sorry” and I then respond “it fine” or “no problem” and the whole ordeal is over in a matter of seconds. The other response which people dread is an awkward silence. In those situations I simply say “I'm sorry, but I don't shake woman’s hands". I leave out the religion for 2 reasons. 1. I’m not interested in a religious dispute 2. Incase another Jewish man just shook her hand or will after me then see # 1. I do this in a very polite and soft spoken tone of voice. Baruch Hashe-m, I have never had a situation that subsequently ruined my interaction with that individual thereafter. Just for the record, I have been in situations such as interviews, meetings, appointments, and I was in a team project during college that was under a woman and had another woman on my team.

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There are many who will not shake hands because they are germaphobes. I suspect that most people have been in the sitation before where the other person does not want to shake hands, so I find that hanging back with a depricating smile generally (but not always) is a sufficient hint. Where it doesn't, short "I not comfortable shaking hands," again with a deprecating smile and a shrug, should be suffient.

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Practice your fake sneeze.

If I'm with my wife and a man sticks out their hand to her, I say "I'll take that" and shake their hand (even if I've already shaken their hand).

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  • You can offer to follow the Japanese custom of bowing.
  • If you're holding an object, you can offer that, so at least she'll have something to shake (or take).
  • You can try to shake her hand, but miss. Just make it look accidental.

Ok, these may not actually work in practice. If you follow the machmir views, it will create an awkward situation. That is why many are meikel.

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In my opinion, these options all make the situation more awkward than a truthful explanation. –  jake May 17 '11 at 1:02
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There's the "oops, I sneezed into my hand"... –  Shalom May 17 '11 at 2:58
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Or Rabbi Eliezer Silber's: "Repulican or Democrat? Sorry, but I never shake the hand of a Democrat; but someone as distinguished as you, I tip my hat!" –  Shalom May 17 '11 at 2:59
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Plus the accidental miss allows for a retry. Not very good at all. –  yydl May 17 '11 at 3:34
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Or, you could just go for the hug. That way you dont touch her hand. Yes, I am joking. –  AviD May 17 '11 at 7:00
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Tell her I only shake hands with unattractive women

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This looks more like a comment (and a joke) than a true answer. If that's correct, you can add it to the comments. Otherwise, it would be helpful to flesh this out a little bit more. –  Charles Koppelman May 28 '13 at 17:48
    
@Charles I've heard a similar story, about a rabbi who didn't want to sit next to a woman on a plane. His students explained that "he finds you to be very pretty," whereupon the woman turned to her husband and said, "You never say I'm pretty!" Anyway, she'll appreciate the compliment. –  Ypnypn Mar 26 at 13:52
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"Oh, I think I've come down with something: you don't want to shake my hand."

Won't work repeatedly with the same person.

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Then you've got to do the same with the men too. –  jake May 17 '11 at 6:29
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Also, does it seem ironic to anyone else to be observing a religious practice by being blatantly dishonest? –  jake May 17 '11 at 6:34
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When they find out the real reason, it will end up being insulting –  Yaakov Ellis May 17 '11 at 8:39
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I agree with Jake and Yaakov. Isn't there a Torah prohibition against lying? –  Jeremy May 17 '11 at 13:54
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One is allowed to bend the truth to preserve peace. In this case it is to prevent the other person from being embarrassed or insulted. –  Dave May 17 '11 at 14:04
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