Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I have had serious health problems and several medical procedures that weakened me and my immune system. Thank God, I have recovered now, and I attend my local synagogue. My problem is that especially on Shabbat, some of my friends and neighbors offer me a handshake with their greetings after services.
My doctors have cautioned me about engaging in physical contact in public that could expose me to germs and diseases. So I have told my close friends that I won’t shake their hands. They understand because they know my situation. I offer some of my buddies fist bumps instead of handshakes.
Other people in shul do not know why I won’t shake hands with them. That makes me worried that they will think I am socially cold or odd.
First, am I wrong to be hyper-cautious about handshakes? Second, what should I do to explain my preference not to shake hands?
Fist-bumping in Fair Lawn
Our hands most certainly do have and transmit germs. What should we do about that?
Many people who have no urgent health issues recognize and take precautions against this. The magnate-turned-politician Donald Trump, for example, is one prominent example of a person who goes to lengths to avoid hand contact with other people.
Trump has said that he hates shaking hands. In his 1997 book “The Art of the Comeback,” he wrote, “One of the curses of American society is the simple act of shaking hands, and the more successful and famous one becomes the worse this terrible custom seems to get. I happen to be a clean hands freak. I feel much better after I thoroughly wash my hands, which I do as much as possible.” He has often referred to handshaking as “barbaric.”
Jewish religious rituals do mandate hand-washing before you eat bread, but there are no religious restrictions on ordinary handshaking (leaving out the not-germ-related ultra-Orthodox taboos against men shaking hands with women).
And let me be clear that I’m not one of those people who obsess about hand cleanliness.
But in a few weeks a new volume will be published. It is called “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World,” by Dr. Miryam Wahrman, a distinguished scientist who lives in Teaneck, is a professor at William Paterson University, writes science articles for the Jewish Standard, and — full disclosure — is my sister.
Dr. Wahrman’s work is based on many studies done by scientists worldwide, as well as her own research. She writes that throughout modern times, to combat every health epidemic, the first line of recommended defense is proper hand-washing.
Dr. Wahrman says that many people, including healthcare workers, routinely fail to wash their hands and thus put people at risk for contracting serious diseases with potentially lethal consequences. She cites investigations of hand hygiene in clinical settings, where lapses by medical professionals do lead to the spread of disease. She explains the mechanics of how microbes on environmental surfaces transmit disease. In her book, she offers urgent strategies to help decrease transmission of germs and diseases from person to person.
“The Hand Book” should be read by everyone who wants safer hands and better hygiene and health. From reading it, you will conclude that even people with normal immune systems ought to be much more careful about shaking hands.
Now let me answer your questions about shaking hands in shul, based on the science of hands carrying germs, and given the fact that a high-profile politician is unabashedly averse to hand shaking.
You can openly say to people you encounter in shul that you have health issues that make hand-shaking a risk of exposing you to germs and illnesses. Or you can say you are generally careful or even germ phobic. People now, more than in the past, will accept that not as odd, but as prudent.
Let me add some postscripts to this advice. In my lifetime of professional experiences, I had one memorable occasion when hand-shaking was a concern. When I was a young rabbi just out of rabbinical school, and a graduate student at Brown, I had a summer weekend pulpit in a small city in central Massachusetts. The senior rabbi of the synagogue told me before he left for vacation that there was one rule he observed in his congregation. After every service he would make certain to shake hands with every person who attended. I was warned that if I missed shaking hands with anyone, they might be offended.
You should note, I guess with some relief, that you live in a local northern New Jersey community that does not energetically promote friendly hand-shaking. You are fortunate that in our local towns I have observed that only a small percentage of people reach out to shake hands after the services. We have more of a big city social ethos in our area, making it less expected that we all need to press the flesh of everyone else in the sanctuary after a synagogue service.
And finally, I presume that you are not a shul rabbi, so you would not have a theoretical need to shake hands with everyone attending your services, even if you lived in friendlier small town in New England.
Post script: That was published on Friday. On Saturday night, the next day, this skit about handshaking was broadcast on Saturday Night Live:
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I recently was pulled over for speeding and argued with the police officer that I was not speeding, but to no avail. I got a speeding ticket. I can’t afford to accumulate points on my license. So I need your advice about how to avoid tickets.
Busted in Bergenfield
May I extend to you the first “Doh!” answer I have given in this column.
Doh! To avoid speeding tickets, stop speeding!
Now having said that, we all know that speed traps are set up by local police on streets where the speed limit is low and tendency to exceed it is high. Speeding ticket revenue is helpful income to many communities.
If you are caught outright speeding or you are stopped in a carefully crafted speed trap, my strong advice to you is never to argue with any officer of the law. Your best bet would be to be as abjectly apologetic as possible saying: (a) that you did a dumb thing, (b) that you should know better not to speed because you live in the community (if you do according to your license), (c) that you have a clean record and always obey the ordinances (if you do have a clean record). And if you are a dramatic enough person, (d) you might beg the officer not to give you a ticket. And, (e) actual crying has (reportedly) been known to help as well.
It appears that doing teshuva, i.e., repentance, on the spot, can be effective in avoiding a ticket, just as it can be helpful on Yom Kippur, when we are judged by the Almighty. If your record is relatively clean, the police officer may take your word for your remorse, and let it go.
But it is important to remember, dina dimalchuta dina, which means the law of the land is our law, so it is important to observe traffic laws not only for our own safety and that of the community, but because we are law abiding citizens, who respect not only the system of laws and customs of our religion, but that of the locale in which we live.
Therefore, I reiterate: Do not speed! Please, keep the streets of our communities safe!
Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author many books, including these ebooks available at Amazon.com: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers,” and “Dear Rabbi Zahavy” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.