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.

23 Answers 23


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 assistant 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.


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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    @ruakh well... That doesn't always work out too great either. E.g. see this slightly inappropriate video: youtube.com/watch?v=XMZIAlKFRY4 ... – AviD May 14 '15 at 19:37

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
  • There is a similar story with the Ponovezher Rav – Shoel U'Meishiv May 14 '15 at 9:37
  • This cannot be used as an example as there are exeptionally few people who are on the level of Rav Acha of which it states in gemoro ketubot 17a רב אחא מרכיב לה אכתפיה ומרקד אמרי ליה רבנן אנן מהו למיעבד הכי אמר להו אי דמיין עלייכו ככשורא לחיי ואי לא לא he would dance with the bride on his shoulders the rabbanan questioned this practice and he told them if she is like wood to you then you can do so if not then don't – user15464 Aug 20 '17 at 13:47

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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    what does white have to do with anything? – user9410 May 14 '15 at 10:32

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
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    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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    @IsaacMoses that pretty much fits the definition for sexism directly: treating people arbitrarily differently based on their gender (excluding biological issues). – AviD May 14 '15 at 19:40

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 would creep out if a rabbi i've just met tells me he'd give me his heart xD giving a card is smooth! – Yerushalmi Jan 12 '18 at 8:16

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.


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).


A related question was recently on The Workplace, and one of the answers there offered a phrasing I like. While dodging the physical interaction (more about that in a moment), you can say "I'm sorry, my religion allows me to shake hands only with my wife" (or husband, for women in this position). Or you could say "touch" instead of "shake hands with" if you need the extra bit of brevity, but in this case I think being more specific will actually be less confusing.

As the author of that answer said:

Note how I worded the explanation in such a way that it comes across as, 'this is something reserved for my wife', not 'this is something not for people like you' - the positive side, not the negative side. Pro-wife not anti-women.

Even if you're not married you can use this. If you don't want to do that you could say "future wife", but in a business setting I don't think people are likely to care about that precision. You usually don't jump to discussing family status immediately after meeting a client, after all. If somebody asks after your wife later you can clarify then.

As for the dodge, to avoid the awkwardness (and prompt the woman to withdraw her hand) you need to respond physically in some way. A nod works, or the hat-tip in this answer, or a brief non-contact gesture with your hand -- the important thing is that the physical protocol is pretty deep-seated among those who aren't shomer negiah, but you can divert the exact nature of the physical component.


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.


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
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    @Dave rather I imagine this refers to a situation wherein a handshake seals a business deal. – yoel Apr 10 '12 at 5:10

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.

  • +1 for the "I'm not comfortable". – yO_ Jan 18 '19 at 8:05

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.


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.

Generally, holding something (cup, iPhone, papers, plate) in your right hand discourages people from trying to shake your hand. While this won't work at an interview, it is a good idea at a business-social event, where you meet many people quickly and a handshake is not strictly neccesary.

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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

How about "For reasons of modesty I don't shake hands with the opposite gender- it's lovely to make your acquaintance / see you." It's the truth and it's to the point.

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    Hello, Tomo. Welcome to Mi Yodeya! Thank you for contributing to the community. – LN6595 May 12 '16 at 19:34
  • Consider registering your account to best utilize the features of the site. – mevaqesh Jan 4 '17 at 22:24

Why hasn't anybody, here, consulted a non-Jewish friend - or a Jewish person with a different belief system, at least - about how he or she would like to have their handshake declined? I would prefer a quick, "I can't shake hands, but nice to meet you" accompanied by a friendly smile.

Don't lie: "I'm sick." (Seriously? Why sin in order to observe a religious mandate?).

And, don't leave my hand hanging in pregnant silence, either. I am not a mind reader, so I had no idea that you don't shake hands when I offered mine for shaking - a very common and generally accepted custom in the US, even among many Jewish people. Be a mensch and offer an explanation to your conversational partner, so they're not startled or embarrassed.

Your religious beliefs are beautiful, compelling and inspiring. Keep them that way by treating others with kindness and respect while you conscientiously put them into action. After all, kindness and respect for you was why you got offered that handshake - be nice when you turn it down.

Yesterday, at a Shiva in a reformed Jewish household that does not observe this rule, a male mourner silently refused to shake my hand with no explanation. Ah, I realized, he cannot shake my hand. I saw that right away, and withdrew my hand. I must admit, though, that I felt awfully sorry for his sister who watched his silent rebuff -- I was fine, but she was embarrassed at his rudeness toward her Shiva caller. Poor guy.

Instead of allowing his religious beliefs to improve him (by kindly explaining) and inform me (by opening my eyes to his belief), the young man diminished us all by acted rudely. My advice: Don't be rude. Speak up: "I can't shake your hand" Show you're a mensch: "It's nice to meet you."

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    I think that the first paragraph is enough. I do not think that you need to add the end story. – sabbahillel Jan 4 '17 at 19:35
  • What part don't you like? – Anne Jan 4 '17 at 20:19
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    Anne, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for sharing your perspective here! The essential part of this answer is the advice, and the reasoning that backs it up. I'd recommend taking out the parts (including the new parenthetical paragraph) that come off as more rant than advice. I also recommend focusing on particular behaviors ("Don't lie. Do speak up.") and avoiding characterizations of someone else's state of mind or personality ("naive," "acting like an ass," "Don't be an ass."), as the latter needlessly distracts from the former. And nice to meet you! :) – Isaac Moses Jan 4 '17 at 20:23
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    As @IsaacMoses said the last three paragraphs of your answer seem superfluous. The first two paragraphs seem to be enough. – sabbahillel Jan 4 '17 at 20:32
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    I made the changes you suggested and I think my post is improved because of it. Thanks for your feedback. @IsaacMoses. – Anne Jan 5 '17 at 20:25
  • 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

I have seen that holding your hands behind your back and bowing slightly in deference usually forestalls any attempt to shake your hand. Also saying you have a cold always helps. Oh, and being honest and proud of keeping halachos of tznius


Adding to the other answers, here's a story and anecdote that might help.

The Rabbi's Candy

I recall a story, though I can't seem to find the source, that Rabbi Lazer Brody carries candy in his pockets when walking in public. If a woman goes to shake his hand, he quickly pulls out a piece of candy and gives it to her, replacing awkwardness with delighted surprise.


Some years ago I was visiting a Chabad synagogue and spoke with a nice family after service. Afterwards as we were about to leave, without thinking I extended my hand and said it was nice to meet you - to the family's grown male children..and their mom! (I'm not Orthodox, so it didn't occur to me it might be a problem.) The woman was gracious and said something to the effect of, "Oh, it was nice meeting you too" - she smiled without extending her hand. I instantly realized my faux pas, and laughed it off. It wasn't a big deal. Lesson here is, be gracious and people will often respond in kind.


Stick to your guns: more often than you think, you are not the first negiah-observant Jew to meet them.

I remember once when I felt maybe I should shake hands for some reason (I think we were wearing gloves or something). Anyways, I stalled for a few minutes. Later, the other person came to me on the side and kind of whispered, "You guys don't shake hands with the opposite gender, right?"

So I learned two lessons from the incident: 1) People can tell when you stall and 2) You are likely not the first negiah-observant Jew they met. Note that this story happened in anytown, PA, not New York City. I think it could have caused a Chillul Hashem had I actually shaken hands.


"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

Tell her "I only shake hands with unattractive women."

[The theory is that one cannot be insulted and flattered at the same time. And most people would rather feel complimented than insulted. Additionally, a joke helps diffuse potentially awkward situations.]

  • 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
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    @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 '14 at 13:52
  • @CharlesKoppelman Please see edits. – LN6595 Mar 10 '15 at 22:12
  • I heard the above eitzah as well from Rav Avigdor Miller. Not sure if he meant it seriously. Practically, I think he recommended always having the business card handy. Eizehu chochom? Ha'roieh es ha'nolad. – Mark A. Jan 4 '17 at 23:28

I'm with Tomo. @YMG, openly flirting with a woman is a risky venture, I think. Rather than shaking your hand, she may just take your whole arm and snuggle up. In other words, don't use clever quips that can be mistaken as a "come on." Speak up. Tell the truth ("I can't shake your hand"). Be socially polite and appropriate ("It's nice to meet you."). People deserve the basic dignity of receiving the truth from you, no?

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