I apologize for the title of this blog, since it is kind of one-sided; Orthodox women also do not shake hands with men. However, I felt the gender inclusive title of “Why don’t Orthodox Jews shake Hands with Members of the Opposite Gender (respectively)” was a bit too long, and I find that more often women complain about not having their hands shaken by men than vice versa (it was only in the last few decades, according to a social historian, that women have begun to initiate handshakes.)
A friend’s husband who was becoming religious told me that this was the hardest thing for him to deal with when becoming observant. He was worried that women would misinterpret his rejecting a handshake, particularly women who defined themselves as feminist, and would think that his unwillingness to shake women’s hands implied that he didn’t like women or that women were “unclean.” The reason for men not shaking hands with women has to do with men and not women. According to the Torah, men are not supposed to gaze at a woman or to touch any women except for their wives at certain times and women in his immediate family. This is to avoid any possible temptation to engage in forbidden relations.
But a handshake is innocent, isn’t it? I can only say that, from personal experience of having gone from a secular lifestyle of dinner parties and endless hugs and handshakes at social events to observing shomer negiah (avoiding restricted touch) that some of this casual touch is not so innocent. I realize this only after having become sensitized to it by avoiding casual touch, as I try to now. Most of you will know what I mean, especially women; occasionally, some guy at a party will squeeze your hand, or hold it a bit too long, or let go of it oh so tenderly, and you may think “Hmm…” Well, the advantage of being shomer negiah is that those “hmmm?” Moments are directed at other things, like “hmm? I wonder why my 3 year old is unraveling all of the toilet paper.”