That is a very Jewish way to greet each other – wishing each other a peaceful Shabbat. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we greet each other over the last couple of days as the spread of COVID-19 has dominated the news and we think about how to keep everyone in our community safe and healthy. I’ve grown used to not only saying, Shabbat Shalom, but also greeting so many of you with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. These forms of greeting are so common and ingrained in our social interactions, that to politely decline a friendly kiss or outstretched hand, can feel like a personal rejection.
In the Jewish tradition, how and when we greet each other is incredibly important. In the Babylonian Talmud, (Berakhot 6b), we are told that
…Rav Huna said: One who is aware that another person is accustomed to greet him is not only obligated to return his greeting, but he must greet him first, as it is stated: “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15).
[And] If the other person extended his greeting to him and he did not respond, he is called a robber…
So, according to the Talmud, to not return someone’s greeting is akin to theft. That is a weighty statement to consider, as we think about how to change our behavior. We need to keep greeting each other, but do we need to keep shaking hands with each other? No, of course not. Even in the healthiest times, the CDC reports that up to 80% of infections are transmitted through hands.
And the handshake is not some sacred, immutable form of greeting. While evidence of handshaking appears as early as the 9th Century BCE, in an Assyrian relief and several times in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” it is most often in relation to pledges and displays of trust, not regular greetings. According to Evan Andrews: The handshake didn’t even become commonplace as a form of greeting, until the 1800s, when etiquette manuals often included guidelines for the proper handshaking technique – firm but not overly strong, and without too much shaking.
Of course, different cultures say hello in many different ways. The Maori people in New Zealand, rub noses, and in Tibet, it is customary to stick out one’s tongue. (I’m not recommending we adopt either of these at the moment). And in Japan, it is customary to bow, anywhere from a small nod of the head to a long complete ninety degree bend at the waist. I love the bow because it eliminates person to person contact, which means we are less likely to spread illness and because, it is in fact very Jewish. When Abraham was sitting by entrance of his tent and saw three men approaching, he ran from the entrance of his tent וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה and bowed down to the ground.
And when Jacob finally reunites with his brother Esau after a night of wrestling, he bows seven times to the ground, before Esau runs to greet him, embrace, and him, and kiss him on the neck. While kissing is also a very Jewish way of greeting – it’s how Joseph reconnects with his brother’s after revealing his identity and how Moses and Aaron greet each other in the wilderness – it doesn’t mean we have to adopt it.
“Be like Jacob, not like Esau. Bow. Don’t kiss.”
We are all going to have to learn new ways of interacting with and greeting each other. As a synagogue, we have spent a lot of time the last couple weeks thinking about how to keep everyone safe and healthy. We are doing our best to clean and sanitize regularly used surfaces throughout the day and we’ve added hand sanitizer throughout the building and encourage you to use it when you come in and before you eat.
But we also need your help. UPD
We know it is hard to change such habitual behaviors, but please be mindful and do your best so that we can keep everyone safe and healthy. And if you reach out your hand and someone doesn’t take it, don’t be offended, just put your hand over your heart, and say, Shabbat Shalom.
May we all see the speedy end to this virus and have the opportunity to say the words of Yehuda bar Nachmani, the secretary to the great Sage, Resh Lakish, which are recorded in the Talmud. (Ketubot 8b)
Ribon HaOlamim , Master of the worlds – redeem and save, rescue and deliver Your people, Israel, from the pestilence and from the sword, and from spoil, and from the blight, and from the mildew, and from all types of afflictions that suddenly erupt and come to the world. Before we call and You will respond. Blessed are You, Lord, Who halts the plague.