Last week I had a business meeting with an Orthodox Jewish woman and she politely declined to shake my hand. What is the reason for this?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Maimonides cites Deuteronomy 22:13 as a scriptural prohibition against any pleasurable contact between a man and woman (other than those who are married or close relatives). This includes hugging and kissing.
Shaking hands is a bit of gray area since different situations come up and it is not always considered "pleasurable, physical contact." But suffice to say there can be sexual pleasure involved; it’s just that we are often numbed to it due to the onslaught of sexual images in today's media. We have unfortunately lost the nuance of a touch or a peck on the cheek. But the energy is there; I recall reading of a woman who, after shaking hands with a U.S. President, called it "the most satisfying full-body experience I have ever had."
As a result, the custom among most Orthodox Jews is not to shake hands with the opposite gender.
In a case where one person extends his or her hand, some rabbis are lenient to allow for shaking hands, in order to prevent embarrassing the other.
In general, it is best to avoid this situation in the first place. An Orthodox person who is greeted by an extended hand could just smile broadly and pretend not to notice. At a gathering where this situation is common, one could anticipate and arrange to have both hands full.