Can't touch this!
Upon meeting an observant Jew, you may ask, "Are you shomer negiah?" before extending your hand. While the words “shomer negiah” literally mean “observant of touch”, the term refers to someone who refrains from physical contact with members of the opposite sex. Originally known in texts simply as "negiah," the practice generally excludes one's immediate family members--a spouse, children, parents, siblings, and grandparents. There is some debate, however, over the issue of touching siblings after the age of puberty.
The prohibition regarding touch is derived from two verses 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 to uncover her nakedness" (18:19). Although these verses seem to be directed towards men, women are equally bound by the laws associated with these verses, just as they are with all other negative commandments.
The second of these verses, which prohibits intercourse with a niddah (a menstruating woman), applies not just to one's wife but to any other women as well, married or not (Responsa Rivash 425, Lev. 18:19). The rabbis extend this prohibition to include not just sex, but all touching. And since unmarried women do not go to the mikveh, they are considered to be always in a state of niddah--and therefore always off-limits for sex, or physical contact with men.
Maimonides and Nahmanides, in a well-known rabbinic debate, consider how serious an infraction it is to touch a woman who is a niddah. According to Maimonides 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). Yet Nahmanides' (1194-1270) commentary states that acts such as hugging and kissing do not violate a negative commandment of the Torah, but only a rabbinic prohibition.
The Siftei Kohen (17th century) further explains Maimonides by stating that he was only referring to hugging and kissing associated with intercourse. There are several places in the Talmud that the Amoraim (talmudic rabbis) hug and kiss their daughters (Kiddushin 81b) and sisters (Shabbat 13a), and their behavior is considered permissible.
Touching in the Subway or Bus
Two contemporary issues concerning shomer negiah are shaking hands and sitting next to a member of the opposite sex when traveling on a bus or subway.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a 20th century Orthodox legal scholar, looked at the issues of public transportation. He wrote, "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). If the contact is unintentional or unavoidable, then, according to Feinstein, it is "not a lustful affectionate act."
It is clear from Feinstein's response that intention is important when dealing with shomer negiah issues.
The issue of handshaking is more complex. The Jerusalem Talmud states, "Even if he is young, lust is not stirred by a momentary act" (Sotah 3:1). It is logical to consider handshaking a "momentary act", and therefore permit it. The Shulhan Arukh forbids many types of interactions such as winks, gestures, and pleasurable gazing, but touching without intention of affect is not one of them (Even HaEzer 21:1). This might also be extended to permit handshaking.
In 1962, Feinstein responded to the issue of handshaking: "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).
According to Rabbi Getsel Ellenson, author of a series of books on women and mitzvot, Rabbi Feinstein's words do not directly prohibit handshaking, but they reflect reservations about the idea that the handshake has become just a "polite formality."
Other more contemporary responses allow for handshakes in order to spare the other person from embarrassment. Almost all of these opinions state that when seeing someone on a regular basis one should explain the laws of shomer negiah, so as to not be forced to shake hands each time.
Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, a contemporary Orthodox scholar, states: "Certainly, handshaking is not counted among sexual actions (pe’ulot) or lustful actions (darkhei hazenut). Moreover, in both Sefer haMitzvot 15 and Hilkhot Issurei Biah 16 21:1 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).
Besides touching family members, there are other exceptions to the shomer negiah rule, for example, a doctor treating a patient of the opposite sex. The rishonim, halakhic authorities who lived from the 11th-15th centuries, permitted a male doctor to examine a woman even if it involved touching, under the assumption that the doctor is preoccupied with his work (Nahmanides' Responsa 127, Tosafot Avodah Zarah 29a).
Ultimately, when dealing with the issue of shomer negiah, sensitivity and respect are of utmost importance. If you'll be interacting with someone who is shomer negiah, respect their decision and treat them graciously. If you are shomer negiah and others are unaware of the laws, do not embarrass or scold them--just explain your beliefs.
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