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Negiah: Is it Forbidden for a Jewish Man
to Touch a Woman or Shake Her Hand?
Responsa in a Moment: Volume 14, Number 3

In memory of my mother
Devorah Golinkin z”l,
who helped thousands of
people reconnect to Judaism;
on her 8th Yahrzeit
Question: It is accepted today in the Haredi world and, to a certain extent, in the Modern Orthodox world that Negiah is forbidden, i.e. that a Jewish man must not touch a woman at all, including a handshake. Is this true? Is this custom really a halakhic prohibition?

Responsum: In the 1960s, I attended a modern Orthodox day school in Washington for nine years from grades 1-9. As far as I recall, they never discussed this issue at all. When I made Aliyah in 1972 and studied in a Yeshivah in Jerusalem for one year, I began to hear from the students that they were shomrei negiah [those who observe Negiah, who do not touch women] and since then this “prohibition” continues to spread. Indeed, this is why the ultra-Orthodox invented “Mehadrin bus lines” in Israel in 1986, which have separate seating for men and women. When I began to research this topic, I did so without prejudice. I knew that the topic is not mentioned in the Talmud or in the major codes of Jewish law, but I assumed that if the custom was so widespread it must have some sort of halakhic basis. After examining dozens of sources, I can state that, as far as I know, the terms Negiah [touching women] and shomer Negiah [observing Negiah] do not appear in Tannatic midrashim, nor in the Talmud nor in the major codes of Jewish law. These are stringencies created by some late midrashim and by medieval Musar [ethical] literature that apparently slowly penetrated the world of halakhah. These customs are neither Biblical nor Rabbinic prohibitions, and there is no obligation to follow them. We shall now prove these statements, one step at a time. Since a number of Hebrew terms are hard to translate, we shall use the Hebrew terms. Ervah (plural: Arayot) refers to the list of forbidden sexual relationships found in Leviticus 18. Niddah refers to a woman who is menstruating.

I) Tannaitic Midrash
We read in Leviticus chapter 18:

v. 6. None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness [ervah], I am the Lord…
v. 19. Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness [niddat tumata] to uncover her nakedness [ervah].

As Nahmanides already proved in the thirteenth century (p. 387; see the Bibliography at the end of the responsum), “krivah” [coming near] in the Bible means sexual relations, as evidenced by Deut. 22:14; Isaiah 8:3; and Leviticus 20:16. Indeed, this is what Prof. Baruch Levine explained in our day, adding Genesis 20:4 as further proof.
However, according to a Tannaitic Midrash (Sifra, Aharei Mot, ed. Venice, 1545, Chapter 13, 2, col. 173 = Parashah 9, Chapter 13, 2, ed. Weiss, fol. 85d), the word tikrav [come near] has a different meaning:

“Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness” (Lev. 18:19). This only means that he should not uncover, how do we know that he should not come near? Therefore it says “do not come near”. I only know that one may not come near and not uncover to a NiddahFrom whence do we know that one may not come near and not uncover all the Arayot? Therefore it says (v. 6) “None of you shall come near to uncover nakedness… I am the Lord” — I am faithful to give a reward.

In other words, the author of this midrash learns from the two verses in Leviticus 18 that one must not come near a woman who is menstruating nor any of the Arayot listed in Leviticus 18. This midrash also appears in Sifra, ed. Jerusalem, 1959 with the Ra’avad and the Rash Mishantz, but it does not appear in the Sifra with the commentary of Rabbeinu Hillel, Jerusalem 1961. In any case, Maimonides did know this midrash and he based his ruling on our topic upon it, as we shall see below.

II) The Babylonian Talmud
The Babylonian Talmud apparently did not know the above-mentioned midrash. Rabbi Pedat (Eretz Yisrael, third-fourth generation) is quoted in Shabbat 13a = Avodah Zarah 17a as follows: “The Torah only forbade the krivah [coming near] of incest, as it is written: ‘None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness [ervah]’ (Leviticus 18:6)”. As the Meiri explained in his commentary to Avodah Zarah (ed. Sofer, p. 43), Rabbi Pedat was of the opinion that “coming near not for the sake of sexual relations is permissible”. Nahmanides emphasized (p. 386) that, according to the structure of the sugya in the tractate of Shabbat, the Babylonian Talmud was probably not aware of the above midrash from Sifra (but see Megillat Esther for the opposite opinion). In the opinion of Rabbi Pedat, there is no Biblical prohibition against coming near to Arayot in general, except “coming near for the sake of incest”. Furthermore, there are three or four sources in the Babylonian Talmud which teach us that the Talmud’s approach regarding men touching women was very liberal:

1. Ketubot 17a:

Rav Aha (Eretz Yisrael, third-fourth generation) [or: Rav Ada bar Ahava (Babylon, second or fourth generation)] carried [the bride] on his shoulders and danced. The Sages said to him: Are we permitted to do this? He said to them: If they seem to you like a beam [Rashi: like a beam which you don’t think about], very well, and if not — not.

The Sages in this story were apparently unaware of the above mentioned midrash in Sifra. According to Rav Aha or Rav Ada Bar Ahavah, it’s permissible for a man to put a bride on his shoulders and dance with her if it does not make him think sinful thoughts. It’s clear that there is no fear of touching a woman, even if she is married.

2. Betzah 25b

It is related there that Rav Nahman allowed his wife Yalta to go out on an alunka on Yom Tov [festivals]. According to Rashi, an alunka is a sanbuels in French, which means, according to Moshe Kattan, “a seat similar to a saddle”. In our day, Prof. Sokoloff explained that an alunka is a sedan chair (pp. 133-134) and Prof. Hauptman translated (p. 25): palanquin. In other words, according to these interpretations, there was no direct physical contact between Yalta and the men carrying her. But, as Rabbi Henkin pointed out (Part IV, pp. 38-39), according to the Meiri (ed. Lange-Schlesinger, p. 155), Yalta would sit on the arms of those who carried her. Rabbeinu Hananel (ad loc.) gave a similar interpretation. According to the Arukh s.v. alanki, she would “lean her hands on their heads and did not fall.” In other words, according to these three Rishonim [medieval authorities], Rav Nahman permitted his learned wife Yalta to sit on men and touch them. Their interpretation is probably not the simple meaning of the word alunka, but it teaches us that Yalta’s sitting on a group of men apparently did not bother those Rishonim in North Africa, Rome, and Provence.

3. Kiddushin 81b-82a

Rav Aha bar Abba [according to manuscripts and Rishonim: Rav Hanan bar Rava or Abba, second generation, Babylon] happened to come to the house of his son-in-law Rav Hisda. He took his granddaughter and sat her on his lap.(1) Rav Hisda said to him: Does not my lord think that she is betrothed? [i.e., they used to betroth a little girl and she was already betrothed]… My lord also transgressed the opinion of Samuel, who said “one does not use a woman” (Kiddushin 70a)? He said to him: I agree with another saying of Samuel: “Let everything be for the sake of Heaven”.

Since both of these Sages did not quote the above midrash from Sifra, they probably did not know it. Rav Hisda the son-in-law tries to be strict according to Samuel’s words, while his father-in-law replies “Let everything be for the sake of Heaven”. Rashi explains: “I am not [holding] my granddaughter for the sake of sexual affection but for the sake of a relative’s affection, and to give satisfaction to her mother when I show affection to her daughter”. In other words, like Rav Aha or Rav Ada bar Ahavah in the first story, Rav Hanan bar Rava says that everything is according to the intent. Since my intent was for the sake of Heaven, there is no problem to sit my granddaughter in my lap or on my knees.

4. Shabbat 13a = Avodah Zarah 17a

As the continuation of a sugya which rules that it is forbidden for a Niddah to sleep with her husband in the same bed, she in her garment and he is in his, the Talmud quotes the aforementioned Rabbi Pedat, that the Torah only prohibited coming near for the sake of Arayot. The Talmud then quotes two contradictory traditions about Ula (Babylon and Eretz Yisrael, third generation):

When Ula used to come from the yeshivah, he would kiss his sisters on bei hadayhu [the house of their chest = their dresses?] and some say on bei yadayhu [on their sleeves].

And he disagreed with himself, for Ula said: any coming near is forbidden because “go go say to the Nazir, around the vineyard do not come close”

There are a number of difficulties in this section. The first story expresses a liberal approach to kissing sisters, but it is unclear what the “house of the chest” is. Not only does this sound immodest, but no one kisses anyone in such a place. Indeed, the two words are very similar – bei hadayhu/bei yadayhu — and there are versions of the two Talmudic passages that do not include bei hadayhu [house of the chest].(2) Rashi explained in Avodah Zarah, s.v. abei hadayhu: “chest, it is the way of people when they leave the synagogue, he immediately kisses his father and mother and one who is greater than him on the arkuvah [knee?] and on the palm of his hand”. Thus, he explained that the “house of the chest” is the arkuvah, but the difficulty did not disappear. In any case, it is clear that Ula in this story was not aware of the abovementioned Sifra and saw no prohibition in kissing his sisters.

Indeed, Ula’s approach to kissing his sisters is similar to the approach of Jacob in Genesis 29:11: “And Jacob kissed Rachel” and the Sages explained in Genesis Rabbah 70:12, p. 811 (and parallels): “All kisses are frivolous except for three… Rabbi Tanhuma said: Even a kiss of krivut [coming near, or: relatives] is [allowed] ‘And Jacob kissed Rachel’, since she was his relative”. In other words, the midrash opposes various types of kissing, but not kissing relatives. Indeed, the Bible tells of kissing between grandfather and grandchildren, an uncle and his nephew, brothers, father and son, son-in-law and father-in-law, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, father and sons and daughters, and friends.(3) Thus, this story of Ula kissing his sisters is not surprising since it is similar to many stories in the Bible.

In the second section Ula is much more conservative and says that closeness must not be expressed — but it is not clear to whom. He uses a classic expression of a seyag or rabbinic fence around the Torah. It’s clear that even according to this strict version, Ula was not aware of the above-mentioned Sifra. If he thought it was a Biblical prohibition, he would have quoted the midrash and not the Aramaic proverb.

In summary, the Babylonian Talmud was not aware of the abovementioned midrash in Sifra. According to Rav Aha/Rav Ada bar Ahava and Rav Nahman and Rav Hanan bar Rava and the first story about Ula, a man is allowed to put a bride on his shoulders or a distinguished woman on his shoulders or is allowed to put a granddaughter on his lap or is allowed to kiss his sisters – all according to his own judgement. According to Rabbi Pedat, the Torah prohibits coming near to Arayot, but certainly does not prohibit touching a woman in general. According to the second tradition about Ula, it is advisable to avoid physical proximity — but it’s not clear to whom — because of a seyag, a fence, just as a Nazir is told to stay away from a vineyard. Thus, the Babylonian Talmud — which is the main source of Halakhah – does not mention the term Negiah and does not prohibit touching between a man and a woman.

III) The Jerusalem Talmud

There is one passage in the Jerusalem Talmud that is relevant to our topic:

In Yerushalmi Sotah 3:1, fol. 18c, there is a description of the Sotah ritual for a woman suspected of adultery. It’s written in the Torah (Numbers 5:25), “Then the Priest shall take from the woman’s hand the meal offering of jealousy” and we learn in Mishnah Sotah 3:1: “he would take her offering… and give it on her hand, and the Priest puts his hand under her hand and waves it.” The Talmud asks:

And is it not unseemly?! He brings a cloth [i.e., places a cloth between their hands]. And is [the cloth] not a barrier?! He brings an elderly Priest [whose evil inclination will not be aroused], and you may even say a young Priest, since the evil inclination is not found [when the touching is] for a short amount of time.

In other words, it did not bother the Torah and the Mishnah that the Priest touched the woman’s hand, but it did bother the editor of the Jerusalem Talmud. He replied that they used a cloth or they used an elderly Priest or the evil inclination is not found when the touching is for a short amount of time. In other words, the editor feared physical contact between the Priest and the woman, but he stated that the evil inclination is not found when the touching is for a short amount of time. As a rule, one does not usually make halakhic rulings based on the Jerusalem Talmud, but some halakhic authorities such as Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen ruled according to this passage in the Yerushalmi  and learned from it that a man is allowed to shake a woman’s hand because the physical contact is very brief.(4)

IV) Continuation of the liberal approach of the Babylonian Talmud in the Middle Ages

The abovementioned liberal approach of Rav Hanan bar Rava in Kiddushin continued in the Middle Ages, as stressed by the Tosafot to Kiddushin 82a, s.v. hakol: “And we rely on this now when we use women [i.e., when women serve us].” There is a similar ruling by the Ritba in Spain (died ca. 1330, in his Hiddushim to Kiddushin 81b = Ellinson, p. 51). The Rema in Even Ha’ezer 21:5 ruled according to Tosafot: “Some say that as long as he does not do it by way of affection, only his intention is for Heaven’s sake, it’s permissible. Therefore, it’s customary to be lenient in these matters”. In other words, the lenient approach of Rav Hanan bar Rav was codified by Tosafot, the Ritba, and the Rema.

Furthermore, Rabbi Shmuel b”r Baruch (Ashkenaz, late twelfth-early thirteenth century; cited in the Mordechai to Ketubot, chapter five, paragraph 182) ruled that although one may not use a woman [for personal service], “the way of maidservants” is permissible. “Therefore, it is permissible for [Gentile women] and maidservants to wash us in the bathhouse.” Rabbi Yosef Caro, who quoted this passage (Bet Yosef to Even Haezer 21, s.v. katav Mordechai, Tur Hashalem, p. 208) was shocked by this attitude and objected, but the Rema responded (Darkei Moshe ibid.): “I have seen that people act in accordance with the Mordecai and no one objects”. Indeed, this is what the Rema also ruled in Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 21:5: “And some say that all of this is only forbidden in a closed place because of Yihud [i.e., a man and a woman being alone together], but in a public place such as a bathhouse, it is permissible to be washed by non-Jewish maidservants, and so is the practice”.

Similarly, the Rashba, the greatest respondent in Spain (Barcelona, ​​died 1310, Responsa Rashba, Part I, No. 1180), was asked a question by someone from Toledo. The questioner wrote that we rule according to the second opinion of Ula, that we need to prohibit all “coming near”. “If so, we need to be careful not to bring close any woman in the world while she is Niddah and only to hand her something by shinui [i.e., in a different fashion], and if so, how will we manage each man with his daughter and sister and other relatives?” In other words, the questioner wanted to extend the harhakot [keeping a distance] that a husband practices with his wife when she is Niddah to every woman in the world who is a Niddah. The Rashba rejected this stringency, suggesting that the Sages only ruled against handing something between husband and wife when she is Niddah, but not regarding other women. And again, so ruled the Rema in Even Haezer 21:5: “And some are lenient regarding all these things, for they only forbade signs of affection with his wife when she is Niddah” (and cf. the Bet Shmuel, ibid., subparagraph 9).

V) Maimonides and those who ruled like him

Maimonides dealt with our topic in three places:

A. Maimonides’ Commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:3, ed. Rabbi Kapah, pp. 121-122:

And one who has relations with one of the Arayot via her limbs or kissed one of the Arayot or hugged her or touched one of her limbs in order to enjoy himself… such as those who rub with the hand or foot … and so too one who laughs with one of the Arayot, and the laughter and the winking are for pleasure, all this is forbidden, and whoever does them must receive lashes. And they are all included in two negative commandments mentioned in the Torah, the one is what God said “None of you shall come near to uncover nakedness” (Leviticus 18:6), as if to say: stay away from things which bring closer and accustom one to uncover nakedness, and so they explained it [in Sifra]… but one is only liable to Karet for intercourse…

B. Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandments, No. 353, ed. Rabbi Kapah (Rambam La’am) p. 325:

The warning that we were warned from deriving pleasure from all the Arayot even without sexual relations, such as hugging, kissing, and the like, which people enjoy. [The source of this prohibition] is God’s warning about this: “None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness” (Leviticus 18:6), as if He said: do not come close to them in any type of closeness which could lead to sexual relations. The Sifra says [and he proceeds to quote the Sifra quoted above]

C.     Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Issurei Biah 21:1-2 (and cf. 3-7)

    1. Whoever has sexual relations with one of Arayot via limbs or if he hugged or kissed [one of them] out of sexual desire and derives pleasure from the physical contact, he should be lashed according to the Torah, as it is written “Not to engage in any of the abhorrent practices” (Leviticus 18:30) and it is written “None of you shall come near to uncover nakedness” (ibid., v. 6). In other wordsdo not come near to things that lead to revealing nakedness.
    2. A person who engages in any of the abovementioned practices is considered likely to engage in forbidden sexual relations with the ArayotIt is forbidden for a person to make motions with his hands or feet or wink with his eyes to one of the Arayot, or to laugh with her or to act frivolously [with her]… A person who performs any of these actions intentionally should be given stripes for rebellious conduct…

These rulings of Maimonides influenced many halakhic authorities. The Semag (Negative Commandments, No. 126), Sefer Hahinukh (No. 188, ed. Chavel, pp. 267-270), and the Meiri to Sanhedrin (ed. Sofer, p. 245 at bottom) copied some of the words of Maimonides from Sefer Hamitzvot and the Mishneh Torah. Rabbi Yitzhak de Leon defended Maimonides against Nahmanides in his Megillat Esther commentary on Sefer HamitzvotTur Even Haezer 21 expanded the words of Maimonides, and the words of the Tur were copied verbatim in Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 21 (and cf. 20:1).

Many emphasized that in the eyes of Maimonides, the above-mentioned acts, are Biblical prohibitions that he learned from the Sifra. On the other hand, Nahmanides argued in his strictures to Sefer Hamitzvot that these are Rabbinic prohibitions and that the verse in the Sifra is an Asmakhta [a biblical text used as a support for a rabbinic enactment], and so wrote the Rashbatz in his Zohar Harakia.

As to our specific topic, some claim that the prohibition of Negiah, which allegedly prohibits a man from touching any woman, derives from Maimonides’ approach. In my opinion, this is both surprising and totally unfounded.

A. Maimonides did not forbid touching any woman. In his Commentary on the Mishnah, he forbade “one who has relations with one of the Arayot via her limbs or kissed one of the Arayot or he hugged her or he touched one of her limbs in order to enjoy himself… such as those who rub with the hand or foot …”. In his Sefer Hamitzvot, he forbade “from deriving pleasure from all the Arayot even without sexual relations, such as hugging, kissing, and the like which people enjoy.” And in his Mishneh Torah he ruled: “Whoever has sexual relations with one of the Arayot via limbs or if he hugged or kissed [one of them] out of sexual desire and derives pleasure from the physical contact, he should be lashed according to the Torah”. The distance between simply touching a woman or shaking her hand and the actions described by the Rambam is immense!

Indeed, Rabbi Yosef Caro thought that Maimonides was of the opinion “that touching an ervah [i.e., one of the arayot] is forbidden by the Torah” (Bet Yosef to Yoreh Deah 195, s.v. v’khatav od bi’Terumat Hadeshen) and Rabbi Henkin endeavored to explain why R. Yosef Caro thought so (Part I, No. 37, p. 124). Rabbi Yosef Karo’s opinion was followed by Bet Shmuel to Even Haezer 20, subparagraph 1; Rabbi Medini in Sedei Hemed, p. 2495a at top; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, pp. 34, 37; Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, pp. 377-379; and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow.

However, many halakhic authorities disagreed with the approach of R. Yosef Caro. In addition to the aforementioned Talmudic sources which permit a man to touch a woman, there are important halakhic authorities who informed us tangentially while discussing related issues that in their day it was permissible for a man to touch a woman.(5)

On the other hand, there are many authorities who emphasized that Maimonides did not forbid casual touching at all.(6) Here are two examples:

Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel of Cracow (1578-1648; Responsa Penei Yehoshua, Part II, No. 44, also quoted by Ellinson, p. 66) explained Maimonides according to its simple meaning 400 years ago: “Even regarding a rabbinic prohibition, the Rambam only mentioned [an action done] in order to enjoy something sinful, but he did not warn against simply touching…”.

And so Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained in our day regarding subway and bus travel: “Thus there is no prohibition, because this is not the way of lust and affection, and any prohibition of touching Arayot is – even for Maimonides who thinks that it’s part of a negative Biblical commandment of ‘do not come near’ – specifically in the way of lust, as explained explicitly in [his Mishneh Torah], and the logical conclusion is that if it’s not through lust there is not even a rabbinic prohibition, for he did not mention this”. 

B. On the other hand, there were halakhic authorities who tried to transfer the prohibition of a husband touching his wife when she was a Niddah to a sweeping prohibition that a man should not touch any woman because every woman is a doubtful Niddah. We have already seen the hint of such a trend in the question asked of the Rashba (Part I, No. 1188), but the Rashba rejected the questioner’s suggestion. On the other hand, Rabbi Yehonatan Eibeschitz (Ashkenaz, 1690-1764) and Rabbi Yosef Steinhart (Ashkenaz, 1720-1776) maintained that it’s forbidden for a betrothed man to hug and kiss his fiancee because most of the virgins had already reached the age of menstruation, or, as Rabbi Steinhardt put it: “Regarding the prohibition of Niddah, there is no difference between a married woman and a single woman.” In other words, every single young woman is a doubtful Niddah and therefore a doubtful Ervah; therefore one must not kiss or hug her according to Maimonides and those who rule like him, and anyone who does so violates a Biblical negative commandment.(7)

In our day, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef continued and expanded this trend, following Rabbi Hayyim Palache (Izmir, 1788-1868), stating: “And so how much should one be careful of this regarding all single girls and to stay away from hugging and kissing them which is a negative Biblical commandment and even touching them at all intentionally is forbidden anyway rabbinically, like touching a Niddah” (p. 37). And later on: “It is absolutely clear that even just touching all the Arayot intentionally is prohibited in any case rabbinically, and so too a single woman who is under the presumption of Niddah, it’s forbidden to touch her.” Not surprisingly, his son, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, concurred.(8)

In other words, these halakhic authorities claim that when Leviticus 18, and the Sifra and Maimonides spoke of a Niddah, they did not mean the wife of a certain man but every woman in the world, because every woman in the world might be a Niddah without the man’s knowledge. In my opinion, this is a very puzzling argument. According to this logic, there was no need to list most of the Arayot in the Torah since every woman in the world might be a Niddah. And why didn’t we hear about the prohibition of touching every woman in the world because she was a possible Niddah until the nineteenth century?! This could not be the simple meaning of these texts. According to its simple meaning, Leviticus 18:19 deals with the relationship between a man and his wife when she is a Niddah. Indeed, this is the explanation given by Prof. Baruch Levine in our day (p. 122).

Therefore, Maimonides forbade a man from doing acts such as hugging and kissing with “one of the Arayot” in Leviticus 18. The distance between hugging and kissing “one of the Arayot” in Leviticus 18 and touching any woman in the world is immense

VI) Opposition to Negiah in late midrashim and in the Musar [ethical] literature

It is possible that the practice of not touching women at all originated not in halakhic literature but a few late midrashim and in the Musar literature. The following are the sources that I have found. It should be emphasized that they are not based on any ancient source in the Sifra or the Talmud:

  1. Exodus Rabbah 16: 2 (ed. Mirkin, Vol. 5, pp. 201-202):

“Go, pick out lambs” (Exodus 12:21)… We have learned: One can cure oneself with anything, except for idol worship, and Arayot and bloodshed… Said the Holy One Blessed be He: Do not say: Even though I may not use a woman, I can [still] grab her and have no sin, or I can hug her and have no sin, or I can kiss her and have no sin – any woman who is not yours, it is forbidden to touch her at all … and anyone who touches a woman who is not his brings death upon himself…

Modern scholars believe that the second half of Exodus Rabbah (Parashah 15ff.) was edited in Eretz Yisrael between the 5th-7th centuries or not before the 9th century (see Raizel), but in light of the fact that all the sources I will cite below are from 1200 onwards, I believe that this section was added to Exodus Rabbah at that period of time.(9)

  1. Rabbi Yehudah the Hassid (Regensburg, died 1217), Sefer Hassidim, Margaliot, No. 1090 (and cf. a different version in ed. Vistinetzky, No. 1266):

No Jew should shake hands with a non-Jewish woman, nor a non-Jewish woman with a Jewish man, nor a Jewish woman with a non-Jewish man, nor a non-Jew with a Jewish woman, even if the hand is wrapped in a garment, it’s a seyag [fence] against Arayot.

This source is typical of Sefer Hassidim; it states that one must act in a very strict fashion without any basis in the sources.

  1. Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi (1200-1263) is best known as a Hassid and a moralist. He dealt with our subject in three places in his writings:

            Igeret Hateshuvah, paragraph 11, ed. Jerusalem, 1991, p. 243:

And it is forbidden to touch a man’s wife, her hands or face, or any part of her limbs, from the Torah, as it is written: “None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh” (Leviticus 18:6), and this is the clear halakhah, for this coming near is the touching of her hands or face or any part of her limbs in order to enjoy the touching, and this is among the most serious transgressions in the Torah…

This paragraph begs an explanation. This midrash does not appear in the abovementioned Sifra or the Talmud or the Rambam, and Rabbeinu Yonah interprets “do not come near” in an extreme fashion. This paragraph was quoted one generation later by Rabbi Aaron Hacohen of Lunel (Provence, ca. 1300; Orhot Hayyim, Part II, Berlin, 1899, pp. 113-114) which was subsequently quoted by the Bet Yosef (Even Haezer 21, s.v. katuv b’Orhot Hayyim, Tur Hashalem, p. 206).

Sha’arei Teshuvah, Gate 3, paragraph 80, ed. Jerusalem, 1991, p. 107:

“None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness” (Leviticus 18:6). Any coming near flesh is forbidden, such as touching a man’s wife. And “to uncover nakedness” means that coming near leads to [having sexual relations with an] Ervah. And lest you say in your heart: Where is it found that the Torah made a fence, that you say that [the Torah] forbade hand-touching to be a fence against a sin? We will reply: Here in the Nazir’s commandment… The Torah forbids him from drinking from all that is made from the vine of the wine (Numbers 6:4), and all this is a fence of distancing from drinking wine, and so said our Sages z”l in the Midrash [Exodus Rabbah 16:2 quoted above].

This section also begs an explanation. Rabbeinu Yonah says that he based himself on the above-quoted passage from Exodus Rabbah, which learns from the juxtaposition of Nazir and Sotah in Numbers that it’s forbidden to touch a woman who is not yours. In other words, Rabbeinu Yonah is learning halakhah from Exodus Rabbah, which is not a normative source for halakhic rulings. (And cf. Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:138, p. 125)

Indeed, Rabbeinu Yonah was very strict regarding matters of modesty. He writes in his Sefer Hayirah (ed. Jerusalem, 1991, p. 207) that if a man meets a woman, “whether Jewish or Gentile, whether married or single, whether of age or a minor, he should close his eyes (sic!) or he should turn in another direction (sic!) in order not to see her (and cf. ibid., pp. 217, 220). Similarly, he was adamantly opposed to concubinage, which was quite widespread in Spain in his day (Sha’are Teshuvah 3:94-95, pp. 112-113; and Ellinson, Nissuin, p. 67).

  1. Rabbi Ya’akov Ben Asher (Toledo, died 1340), Ba’al Haturim al Hatorah, Genesis 24:47. Abraham’s servant relates to Laban the story of his encounter with Rebecca:“And I put [ואשם] the nose ring [on her nose]” – the word ואשם is missing the letter yodto say that he did not touch her flesh (and not even her ten fingers) due to modesty.

It is worth noting that despite quoting this medieval midrash, Rabbi Ya’akov Ben Asher did not rule this way in Tur Even Haezer 21.

5. Eliezer ben Shemuel Halevi was a Haver and a Hassid, but not an ordained rabbi. He died in Mainz on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 1357. Israel Abrahams published his ethical will from a manuscript in 1926. Eliezer writes: “Be very very modest my sons, that you should have no business with women, neither in the bathhouse, nor in dance, nor in touching or joking with them…”.

VII) Summary and practical halakhah

We have seen above that there is no prohibition on casual physical contact between men and women in the Torah, the Sifra, the Babylonian Talmud, and among the major codes of Jewish law, such as Maimonides, the Tur, the Shulhan Arukh and Arukh Hashulhan. The Yerushalmi contains an opinion that it’s forbidden for the Priest to touch the Sotah’s hand, but allowed it since the physical contact is brief. The stringent rabbis extended the prohibition of coming near one of the Arayot in two directions — they went from hugging and kissing to all touch; and they went from the list of Arayot in Leviticus 18 to every woman in the world because she might be a Niddah. There is no Talmudic or halakhic basis for these two extensions. This stringent tendency seems to have originated in the Musar literature and a few late midrashim, not in halakhic literature. If someone wants to act stringently as an act of piety, it’s hard to stop him or her, but it’s very advisable to stop teaching and demanding that a man should not touch a woman or shake her hand, which has no halakhic basis.

Finally, if a woman extends her hand in order to shake hands with a man, the man must shake her hand because “respect for human beings overrides a rabbinic prohibition” – how much the more so does it override a custom that has no halakhic basis. In addition, “whoever embarrasses his friend in public is considered as if he had shed blood” or “has no part in the world to come” (see my book Aseh Lekha Rav, Jerusalem, 2019, pp. 23-24). ​​(10)

David Golinkin
27 Tevet 5780


  1. So explained Sokoloff, p. 589: lap, bosom. He also refers to Bava Batra 12b and 58a. For a different interpretation, see Tosfot R”I Hazaken ad loc. in the Vilna edition of the Talmud.
  2. Here are the variant readings of the two sugyot according to the manuscripts found in the database of Machon Lieberman:

שבת י”ג ע”א
כ”י מינכן 95: ידייהו/חדייהו
כ”י אוקספורד 23: ידיהו/חידיהי
כ”י וטיקן 127: ידיהו/חוייהו
דפוס שונצינו משנת 1489: חזייהו/ידייהו
דפוס וילנא: חדייהו/ידייהו
כ”י של ילקוט שמעוני (לפי דקדוקי סופרים): ידייהו (בל)
עבודה זרה י”ז ע”א
כ”י מינכן 95: חדייהו/ידיהו
כ”י JTS Rab 15, שנכתב בספרד בשנת 1290: ידיהו/בגליון: נ”א: חידיהי
כ”י פאריס 1337: ידיהי (בלבד)
דפוס וילנא: ידייהו/חדייהו
אגדות התלמוד (לפי דקדוקי סופרים): ידייהו (בלבד).

  1. See Genesis 27:26-27; 29:13; 31:28, 55; 33:4; 44:15; 48:10; 50:1; Exodus 4:27; 18:7; I Samuel 20:41; II Samuel 14:33; Ruth 1: 9, 14.
  2. For discussions of this Yerushalmi, see Tosafot to Sotah 19a, v. kohen maniah; Torah Temimah to Numbers 5:25, note 137; and Rabbi Henkin, Part I, p. 120.
  3. Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna (1180-1250), Or Zarua, Part I, end of paragraph 341; Responsa Rashba, Part I, No. 1188; Rabbi David Halevi (Eastern Europe, 1586-1667), Taz to Orah Hayyim 615, subparagraph 1; Responsa Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Posen, 1761-1837), Part II, end of No. 56, quoted by Rabbi Henkin, Part IV, p. 39 in a note.
  4. Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel of Cracow (1578-1648), Responsa Penei Yehoshua, Part II, No. 44 = Ellinson, p. 66; Rabbi Shabetai Hakohen (Eastern Europe, 1622-1663), Shakh to Yoreh Deah 195, subparagraph 20 and to Yoreh Deah 157, subparagraph 10; Rabbi Hayyim Palache (Izmir, 1787-1868), Responsa Lev Hayyim, Part II, No. 4 quoted by Rabbi Medini, Sedei Hemed, 2496a-b (but he himself ruled very strictly); Yonah Metzger, No. 52; and especially Rabbi Henkin, Part IV, No. 11 who summarized many of these opinions.
  5. Rabbi Yehonatan Eibeshitz, Ya’arot Devash (a collection of sermons from 1779), quoted at length by Rabbi Medini, Sedei Hemed, 2495a-b; Rabbi Yosef Steinhardt, Responsa Zikhron Yosef, No. 17 quoted at length in the Beiur Halakhah (in the Mishneh Berurah) to Orah Hayyim 339 and from there by Ellinson, p. 54 and also by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, pp. 37-38.
  6. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, p. 34, emphasized Responsa Ribash, No, 425. Indeed, the Ribash ruled that it’s forbidden to have sexual relations with a single woman lest she be a Niddah. This was no doubt connected to his opposition to concubinage which was widespread in Spain in his day (see Ellinson, Nissuin, 67). But a careful reading of that responsum reveals that the Ribash did not forbid touching a single woman.
  7. My thanks to my friend Dr. Arnon Atzmon who was kind enough to discuss this topic with me.
  8. Thus, I was saddened to read that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef refused to shake the hand of Prime Minister Golda Meir when he was awarded the Israel Prize in front of a large audience, and his son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef praised him for this – see Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, p. 379, end of note 25.



Eliezer ben Shmuel Halevi — Israel Abrahams, ed., Hebrew Ethical Wills, Vol. II, Philadelphia, 1926, p. 211
Megillat Esther – Rabbi Yitzhak de Leon, Megillat Esther on Sefer Hamitzvot of the Rambam, Negative Commandments, No. 353, ed. Jerusalem, 5733, pp. 90-93
Rabbeinu Yonah – many sources quoted above
Ramban (Nahmanides) – Hassagot Haramban to Sefer Hamitzvot of the Rambam, Negative Commandments, No. 353, ed. Chavel, pp. 386-390
Rashba – Responsa Rashba, Part I, No. 1188; Responsa Rashba attributed to the Ramban, No. 127
Rashbatz – Zohar Harakia, Negative Commandments, No. 10, ed. Vilna, 5639, p. 69, note 11
Ribash – Responsa Ribash, No. 425

Cohen – Orah Cohen, Tzniut Ha’ishah Ba’idan Hamoderni (no place or date), pp. 30, 34-35, 63-65
Ellinson – Elyakim Ellinson. Hatznea Lekhet, Ha’ishah Vehamitzvot Sefer Sheni, third edition, Jerusalem, 5746, pp. 50-69
Ellinson – Elyakim Ellinson, Nissuin Shelo Kedat Moshe V’yisrael, Tel Aviv, 5736, p. 67
Epstein — Rabbi Louis Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, New York, 1948 and 1967, pp. 108-112
Hauptman — Rabbi Judith Hauptman, “Why did R. Nahman permit Yalta to be transported on a palanquin on a festival? A new reading of Bavli Betsah 25b”, Zeramim II/1 (Fall 2017), pp. 17-32
Kattan – Moshe Kattan, Otzar Hale’azim, Jerusalem, 1984, p. 57, No. 876
Levine — Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, Philadelphia, New York, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 119, 122
Raizel – Anat Raizel, Mavo Lamidrashim, Alon Shevut, 5771, p. 118
Sokoloff – Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Ramat Gan, Baltimore, London, 2002

Strict Rulings
Cherlow – Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Reshut Harabim, Petah Tikvah, 5762, pp. 110-111
Halevi – Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, Aseh Lekha Rav, Part I, Tel Aviv, 5736, No. 73 (on mixed dancing); Mekor Hayyim Livnot Yisrael, Tel Aviv, 5737, 35:16, p. 147 (on shaking or kissing a hand); Responsa Mayyim Hayyim, Part II, Tel Aviv, 5755, No. 72 (on shaking hands)
Medini – Rabbi Hayyim Hizkiya Medini, Sedei Hemed, Aseifat Dinim, Ma’arekhet Hatan V’khalah V’huppah, paragraph 12, ed. Schneerson, Part 6, pp. 2494-2498
Yosef – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sefer Tohorat Habayit, Part I, Jerusalem, 5748, pp. 34-39
Yosef – Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sefer Otzar Dinim La’ishah V’labat, Jerusalem, 5749, pp. 375-383; and in brief in his book: Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, Part II, pp. 1024-1025

Lenient Rulings
Cohen — Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen, Timely Jewish Questions, Timeless Rabbinic Answers, Northvale NJ and London, 1991, pp. 26-31 (on shaking hands)
Feinstein – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Even Haezer, Part II, No. 14 (on riding a subway or bus)
Henkin – Rabbi Yehudah Herzl Henkin, Responsa Benei Banim, Part I, Jerusalem, 5741, Nos. 37-39; Part IV, Jerusalem, 5765, Nos. 11-13
Metzger – Yonah Metzger, Responsa Miyam Hahalakhah, Part II, Tel Aviv, 5748, Nos. 52, 54

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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