There is a popular custom in Israel to shake a person's hand and then kiss your own. In every single Sephardic and Mizrachi synagogue I've ever been to in the country this is the standard way of greeting (which looks related to touching the sefer Torah with your hand or tallit and then kissing said hand/tallit). Obviously, this custom precedes modern hygienic education.

Last Shabbat I was in a troubling situation. The rabbi was complaining of being sick and kept coughing throughout the morning service. When he comes to greet me, he naturally extended his hand. After he shook my hand, he kissed his own and looked at me. At this point I wasn't sure what was the correct approach:

Should I follow the custom of shaking hands and kissing mine -- with the risk of infecting myself with his germs? Or should I have made an excuse to avoid the potential cold -- thereby potentially embarrassing him?

Health vs. Embarrassment?

Of course, sources are always rosy.

  • By the way, I know of someone in Israel who has the flu now. Little babies can be at much higher risk, so if the rabbi - or anyone else - is irresponsible, that can risk the life of a little baby. It is the obligation of a person to act responsibly so as not to cause harm to others. Jan 13, 2013 at 21:56
  • It's possible (dan l'chaf z'chus) the rabbi is asthmatic or allergic to something in the air, and therefore coughing and complaining of being sick. Those are generally not communicable conditions AFAIK. (I'm not saying you should rely on such an argument and kiss your hand. I'm saying only that you shouldn't necessarily think less of him for shaking everyone's.)
    – msh210
    Jan 14, 2013 at 20:08
  • @msh210 Perhaps. However, if what he has is not communicable (e.g., asthma) and he says he feels sick, he should clarify that he has something non-communicable like asthma. Typically when someone acts sick and says they are sick, it is because they have something communicable and others should be wary to avoid coming into contact with that person. At the very least, they should be chosheish that the person truly has something that can be caught. Jan 15, 2013 at 3:34
  • 1

3 Answers 3


First of all, nowadays it is obvious that colds (and many other sicknesses) are transferred by shaking one's hand with someone who is sick and then kissing the hand. This fact is almost universally known (especially in places like Israel and the U.S.).

It is far from clear that the rabbi would be embarrassed, considering that it was obvious to the congregants that he was sick (since he was coughing through the Shabbat tefillot). It is also common that people wish to avoid getting sick by shaking hands with someone who is sick. It is the rabbi's responsibility to avoid behaviors that can cause others to become sick as a result.

Further, perhaps you should explain that you are not shaking his hand because you don't want to risk catching a cold and then wish him to feel better (Shabbat hee miliz'ok), and/or make a kissing motion towards your hand but don't actually make contact.

Remember, hakol biydei shamayim chutz mitzinim upachim (Kes. 30a). See Tosafos there who point out that people catch colds/flu out of negligence. Further, if you catch a cold you could potentially expose other people, causing them damage (and you should probably avoid shaking other hands subsequently for the same reason).

The Tosafot and Shevut Ya'akov say that public humiliation is not literally tantamount to murder and the implication from that would be that the gemara in Sotah 10b, according to these opinions, should not be taken literally Kol Torah - Rabbi Jachter.

Obviously, nevertheless, if it is possible, a person should avoid embarrassing someone, all the more so in public, a person should avoid it. However, it should be done in a way that avoids causing others harm.

Especially now with the cold (and the flu) going around. If one, due to carelessness, causes others to get sick, it would cause those other people tza'ar and to lose valuable time due to their sickness. If the sickness that is spread is more harmful to one's health (e.g., causing an elderly or weak person to catch the flu, pneumonia, etc.), it can put other people's lives at risk, possibly all because of the carelessness of one individual - a clear instance of pikuach nefesh. People have an obligation to avoid being negligent and causing damage to other people.

To reiterate, a person should try to be sensitive to other people's feelings when they take necessary measures to avoid spreading disease (as described in the third paragraph).

I would recommend speaking to the rabbi in private afterwards and explain to him that it is important that he avoid behaviors (including as you noted in your question) that can cause others to become sick (as it is a type of harm) and that he, as the rav, inform congregants that they should act in kind.

  • So besides not kissing his hand, you suggest I softly rebuke the rabbi of the synagogue about his behavior?
    – Aryeh
    Jan 14, 2013 at 20:39
  • @Aryeh Yes. Offer the rabbi constructive criticism in private while showing him respect. Softly rebuking the rabbi is in line with the mitzvah of rebuking a fellow Jew so he does not sin, as it says in The Torah הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך ולא תשא" עליו חטא" (Vayikra: 19; 17). In addition the prohibition of "לא תעמוד על דם רעך" - not standing idly by the blood of your fellow" (19; 16) also refers to protecting others from monetary loss or other harm. (See Rambam Sefer HaMitzvos - Prohibition # 297) Jan 15, 2013 at 3:49

We learn from Tamar's refusal to identify Yehudah outright that it would be better for a person to be exposed to a fiery furnace than for him to humiliate someone else in public: Sotah 10b;

Getting a cold is less of a problem than a fiery furnace so the first answer is to kiss your hand and hope avoiding embarrassing the Rav is a merit for you to avoid infection.

Alternatively, you could have tried some innovative ruse to avoid shaking hands.

  • 1
    "Innovative ruses" are given here.
    – b a
    Jan 13, 2013 at 20:17
  • 2
    Is this case really public humiliation? Who will notice this except the rabbi and perhaps one or two people in the immediate vicinity?
    – Double AA
    Jan 13, 2013 at 20:25
  • 3
    One or two people are public enough for lashon hara, so that might be enough for embarrassment too. Jan 14, 2013 at 2:03

My advice (which is practical, rather than halakhic) is to not shake his hand if it is obvious that he is unwell. The fact that he is coughing and sneezing means that it is obvious to him too, and he shouldn't have extended his hand in the first place. Now that he has, the only way to save face is to decline shaking it on the grounds that you have a cold. Just apologise and tell him that you're not well.

  • If the rabbi is shaking hands notwithstanding his having a cold (especially at the present when he has a cold), it is likely such advice would not work. Just inconspicuously explain that you don't want to catch a cold. He should understand. Jan 13, 2013 at 21:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .