What is Shomer Negiah?

To touch or not to touch

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Shomer negiah hands
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If you've ever tried to shake hands with an Orthodox Jew of the opposite sex, you might have been told, "I'm shomer negiah" or had the individual refrain from taking your hand. If you're not familiar with the concept of shomer negiah, it can seem foreign, archaic, or even counter-cultural. 

Meaning

Literally, the term shomer negiah means "observant of touch." 

In practice, the terminology refers to someone who refrains from physical contact with individuals of the opposite sex.

This observance excludes immediate family members, including one's spouse, children, parents, siblings, and grandparents. 

There are other exceptions to this rule, such as a doctor treating a patient of the opposite sex. Medieval rabbis allowed for a male doctor to examine a woman, despite the necessity to touch, according to the assumption that the doctor is preoccupied with his work (Tosafot Avodah Zarah 29a). 

Origins

This prohibition against touching comes from two negative commandments found in Leviticus:

"None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord" (18:6).

and

"Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness (niddah) to uncover her nakedness" (18:19).

The second verse, which prohibits sex with a niddah (menstruating woman) applies not only to one's wife, but to all women, married or otherwise, because unmarried women are considered to be in a constant state of niddah because they do not go to mikvah (ritual immersion).

 The rabbis extended this prohibition beyond sex to include any type of touching, whether a handshake or a hug. 

Debate

There are varying opinions about the observance of negiah even of immediate family members after the age of puberty, and there are varied levels of observance regarding step-children and step-parents.

 

The sages Rambam and Ramban considered how serious it was to touch a woman who is niddah in a well-known debate. Rambam, also known as Maimonides, said in Sefer Hamitzvot, "whoever touches a woman in niddah with affection or desire, even if the act falls short of intercourse, violates a negative Torah commandment" (Lev. 18:6,30).

Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, on the other hand concluded that actions like hugging and kissing do not violate a negative commandment of the Torah, but only a rabbinic prohibition.

A 17th-century rabbi, the Siftei Kohen, suggested that Rambam was actually referring to the hugging and kissing associated with sex in his strict ruling. In fact, there are several places in the Talmud where men hug and kiss their daughters (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 81b) and sisters (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 13a). 

Contemporary Practice

Culturally, the physical interactions of men and women have changed drastically over the past 100 years, meaning that handshakes and hugs are a common sign of welcoming and collegiality and public transportation necessitates close quarters and frequent, unintentional touching.

The 20th-century Orthodox legal scholar Rabbi Moshe Feinstein examined these modern concerns by looking at public transportation in New York where he and his congregants lived.

He concluded,

"regarding the permissibility of travel in crowded busses and subways during rush hour, when it is difficult to avoid being jostled by women: Such physical contact involves no prohibition, because it does not contain any element of lust or desire" (Igrot Moshe, Even Haezer, Vol. II, 14).

Thus the modern understanding of these types of situations it that if it is "not a lustful affectionate act," one is not held accountable for inadvertent touching. 

Shaking hands is a bit more complex. The Jerusalem Talmud says, "Even if he is young, lust is not stirred by a momentary act" (Sotah 3:1), and shaking hands is considered by many to be a "momentary act." Although the Shulchan Aruch forbids interactions like winks and pleasurable gazing, touching without intentions of affection or lust is not one of them (​Even hazer 21:1).

 

Rabbi Feinstein also responded to the issue of handshaking in 1962, saying, 

"As far as your having seen even pious individuals returning handshakes offered by women, perhaps they think it does not constitute an affectionate act, but it is really difficult to rely on this" (Igrot Moshe, Even Haezer, Vol. I, 56).

From this, it would appear that handshaking is, in fact, forbidden because of the uncertainty of intention. Rabbi Getsel Ellensen, who has written a series of books on women and the commandments says that Rabbi Feinstein is not prohibiting handshaking, but rather that he is airing reservations about handshakes being a formality. 

Ultimately, contemporary rabbis allow for handshakes in order to spare the unaware party from unnecessary embarrassment (Leviticus 25:17). However, most of these opinions do say that if you are going to be interacting regularly with an individual, you should explain the laws of shomer negiah so as to not be forced to shake hands on repeated occasions. The idea is that the sooner you explain the concept, the less embarrassed the other individual will be. 

Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, an Orthodox rabbi, explains,

"Handshaking is not counted among sexual actions (pe’ulot) or lustful actions (darkhei hazenut). Moreover ... Maimonides stresses that the negative commandment (lo ta’aseh) proscribes activities that customarily lead to sexual relations. Handshaking is not one of these" (Hakirah, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought).

How To

When approaching the sensitive issue of shomer negiah, respect and understanding are incredibly important. If you are required to interact with an Orthodox Jewish person, you might ask initially whether they're willing to shake your hand, or you could simply default to a polite nod and not offer a hand at all. Try to be kind and accepting of their observance. 

At the same time, if you are yourself an Orthodox Jew and observe shomer negiah, remember not to scold or embarrass someone who does not understand the laws and observances associated with negiah.

Use the experience as an educational opportunity!