I have chosen some time ago to become shomer negiah. Limiting my handshakes to men only. I feel this is propriety and humane. I find gentile women often think I am nasty to turn down a hand shake and I worry they may not consider giving me humane gain should I wish to seek meaningful employment or even run for political office. How shoulsd an orthodox jew approach this touchy issue? Overall, as I am also a physician, I would assume I would shake in patient care. I am not currently practicing yet my past was a practice experience before becoming a ba’sl teshuvah. Still in casual contact, I feel this is too intimate. I find that many ladies do understand a handshake is not warrented, but in politics where women vote today, this seems to create negative voiced blame for the lady “refused”. Could you help us feel more at ease with public life and private affairs? Many thanks.
Halachah is very meticulous in ensuring that distance is kept between the sexes (see Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-Ezer 21), and shaking hands is a form of ‘closeness’ that must be avoided.
The question of whether the handshake is formally forbidden or not depends on whether it is defined as a “manner of affection” (derech chibah or derech ta’avah) or not. The Ben Ish Chai (Od Yosef Hai, Shofetim 22) records the European practice of tightly grasping the hands of the host and hostess upon arriving in a person’s home, and states that because this expresses mutual feelings of friendship and affection, it is considered derech chibah and is forbidden.
In one place, Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim I, no. 114) writes that the modern handshake is likewise forbidden (even though it has become the standard greeting for men and women alike), and in another place he writes that it is difficult to say that this is not considered affection. Many other authorities likewise rule that one may not shake a woman’s hand: See Be’er Moshe 4:130; Az Nidberu 2:73; Rivevos Efraim 8:596:8; Avnei Yashfei 2:89:1.
Mo’adim U-Zemanim (4:316, in a footnote) goes so far as to cite from the Chazon Ish that shaking a woman’s hand falls under the category of yehareg ve-al ya’avor!
From Sefer Chassidim (1090), which is quoted by the Ben Ish Chai, it is clear that this will apply even when both parties are wearing gloves. Although Sefer Chassidim discusses a non-Jewish woman, the same will apply to a Jewish woman. See also Minchas Yitzchak 5:27.
The prohibition applies even if by refraining from shaking hands the woman will be caused embarrassment (see Avnei Yashfei 2:89:1; see also Emes Le-Yaakov Even Ha-Ezer 21, footnote 4; Beis Avi 2:121).
However, to avoid causing embarrassment, one should of course explain that one’s refraint from shaking hands is not by any means personal, but only a facet of Jewish law. From experience, the situation can always be neutralized, so that no harm or ill-feeling is caused.
For an interesting discussion of the subject, see http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%205%20Letters.pdf. In practice, as noted above from many contemporary authorities, one cannot be lenient even under uncomfortable circumstances.