Shomer Negiah, and the Magic of Touch

Shomer Negiah, and the Magic of Touch

There is an interesting concept among Orthodox Jews known as Shomer Negiah. It’s a religious law that forbids touching and all other forms of physical contact between members of the opposite sex. By refraining from touching members of the opposite sex, you are effectively building up a profound sensitivity to the simplest form of contact.

In our society, a concept like Shomer Negiah seems very strange. Premarital sex and the like has gone from frowned-upon act that was restricted to something of a sport. People use sex to not only feel good sexually, but to feel good about themselves. They look at it as both spoils of a conquest and an ego boost that gives a superficial sense of self-worth.

Touch Exploitation

Although sex is no longer reserved for marriage, love, and intimacy, the concept of the human touch as a powerful force has not slipped through the cracks of our society. For years I’ve read about people exploiting “kino” the warmth and closeness of touch, in order to create an artificial closeness with another human being.

This is often used by people that find a person they are attracted to, in order to magnify this attraction ten-fold and create an intense bond on false pretenses. It’s also used in business and other situations in which forging a bond is of benefit to one party or the other.

I don’t see anything wrong with bonding, creating relationships, or getting close to people. I think relationships of all sorts, shapes, and sizes are what we’re here to explore and experience. However, I believe that the power of touch is so powerful that it can leave us blinded to the true nature and intention of a person, leading us to make bad decisions based on this false “information.”

Hillary Clinton on Shomer Negiah

Rabbi Jonathan Shippel once told me an interesting anecdote. A group of Rabbis had an urgent need to speak with President Bill Clinton. Unfortunately, when they arrived unannounced at the white house, the President was away on business. Luckily for them, the first lady Hillary Clinton was in the office and invited the Rabbis in to hear them out.

When the Rabbis got up to the oval office they were greeted by Mrs. Clinton. It was business as usual, and Mrs. Clinton extended her arm for a handshake, but received a response that she wasn’t expecting. The Rabbi did not give her his hand. She was a bit thrown off, but in order to not embarrass her he immediately jumped in and said “Please do not be offended Mrs. Clinton, but because of our religious beliefs, I do not hold the hand of a member of the opposite sex.”

This ignited and peaked Mrs. Clinton’s curiosity. She immediately wanted to know the nature and reason behind having such a custom. The Rabbi explained that a man saves even the simplest touch for none other than his own wife. Mrs. Clinton responded “Wow, I wish Bill knew about this Shomer Negiah.”

Touching Correctly

In the concept of Shomer Negiah, there is a way to touch correctly; meaning with the best intentions, and with the best goal in mind. This goal is to make each touch more special, more profound, and more exclusive, so that each time you touch you’re enabling a connection on a powerful spiritual level.

  1. Dating. Don’t touch during dating. You’ll just manipulate yourself, and drown in the extacy of oxytocin hormones swimming through your bodies, blinded to the fact that you may be dating someone that is less than an ideal fit (or even worse) for you. Date by getting to know if you can relate to the person, if you click, if they’re kind, and if your long term goals align (see non-negotiables of dating).

    Touching not only desensitizes you but actually limits the time that you spend discussing what you really do need to know about your significant other because you inadvertently begin to deem some things unnecessary. The physical connection will feel good regardless of compatibility anyway, and you may experience clouded judgment and make the wrong decision for you. Besides, if you are one who worries about testing the engine before committing, you should know that it is much easier to train a person in sex(the way you may want it), than to turn a perfectly unsuitable spouse into a great one.

  2. Business. The most you can do is be conscious, meaning keep a watchful eye, for people that are overly touchy-feely during business encounters. If there are two equal deals, why do you pick one person over another, and why would you pick a lesser deal with one person (touch perhaps?).

    Physically proximity may give you the impression that you have a bond with this person, though no such thing really exists. You can do something more, by limiting your handshakes to people of the opposite sex only. Make sure you don’t offend them, and send them over to this article if you need to for explanations, or just tell them what you learned here.

  3. Marriage. Shomer Negiah coincides very well with the idea of family purity in Judaism. During the week of a women’s menstrual flow, and the week after, the couple does not touch. This allows for the human need for withdrawal/reconnection to happen monthly by creating a small physical space. No sex, no touching, and if you have a small bed you can sleep in separate ones.

    This allows the reconnection, after two weeks, to feel a honeymoon all over again.I’m not saying you can’t have a perfectly healthy relationship without this rule, or that with this rule everything will be perfect in your relationship, but it does solve a very important issue. Everyone lives by withdrawal/reconnection as sure as there is gravity, and some couples tend to create spiritual, intellectual, and emotional distance, or create fights just so there can be a makeup session. By creating this small physical space, you can enjoy each other, and grow closer at the same time.

The Magic Touch

I recommend reading The Magic Touch: A Candid Look at the Jewish Approach To Relationships by Gila Manolson (Link 1Link 2). The book goes into great detail into to the “why” of Shomer Negiah and brings these concepts to life with not only her personal story but stories of her students, as well as biblical examples. I’m looking forward to meeting Mrs. Manolson in Har Nof, Jesusalem if the opportunity should present itself.

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Posted by in Featured, Relationships, Spiritual Growth | August 26, 2008 | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumble | Print | 12 comments

  • http://www.warriordevelopment.com Jarrod – Warrior Development

    Thanks for the information, I’ll look to increase my awareness about the internal affects of proximity (and touch).

  • Nate

    Note that most Modern Orthodox Rabbis will allow a formal handshake between people of the opposite sex–in Jewish law (halacha), the consequences of embarrassing someone are worse than violating Shomer Negiah. (A violation of shomer negiah in the strictest sense refers to sensual touching. Most Rabbis expand upon that to include nonsensual touching–as a safeguard.)

    Double check with your Rabbi before you start refusing handshakes.

  • Your sister

    Just to make a small correction. According to laws of family purity you’re actually required to have two separate beds during times of separation.

  • Ahmad

    Its very interesting. In the Islamic world the same concept of Shomer Negiah is applied and practiced by Muslims. To not touch a woman that is not your sister, mother, daughter is a commanded by Islamic texts, although discompensations are made where the intention are pure, often in business dealings and to avoid offending someone – by some scholars. Often one has to explain to the opposite sex in a kind manner that it is a religious practice and not one to offend anyone.

  • http://www.alexshalman.com Alex Shalman

    @Ahmad I guess that when you’re in an Islamic community it makes this practice easier, without the consistent need to explain yourself. Same as in Judaism.

  • http://alexweber.tumblr.com Alex Weber

    Very interesting. I’ve studied Kino a bit myself, and I actually think there’s something to be learned here… When you use touch sparingly, it has more value. Not touching someone can charge the space between you.

    Thanks,
    Alex

  • Ahmad

    Alex, actually I’m not in an ‘Islamic’ society, I live in the UK, London particularly. Although Muslims you meet may understand you, often others do not and one does need to explain themselves a lot – but from our point of view a little bit of explaining does wonders for communication and dialogue.

  • John of Indiana

    I must be doing this wrong, Alesx.
    I don’t touch people, people don’t touch me, and I feel empty and miserable, not enlightened.

  • Louche

    I don’t get the part about handshakes with the opposite sex only. Even with your assumption that everyone reading your article is heterosexual, I can’t tell what you’re talking about. Also, why do 90-95% of straight people still to this day assume that everyone they’re talking to is also straight? I don’t get that either.

  • james chicken

    i was wondeering what about purely incidental contact such as tapping a girl on the shoulder to get her attention or ask hersomething if i had never met her before.

    to give a scanario you are a jewish girl or women, i tap you on the shoulder to ask you something and get your attention, would that be acceptable or would it put your back up so to speak

  • http://www.alexshalman.com Alex Shalman

    @james – in general it’s considered rude to poke people. It really depends on the situation, how strict someone is etc. I think in general they would be understanding if they thought you didn’t know or did that by accident. I’m sure things like that happen all the time. If you were in some kind of ultra-religious neighborhood, i think it would be even less acceptable, because you’d almost be expected to “know the law of the land”.

    I’d recommend saying “excuse me miss” instead of tapping people. ;-)

  • leslie

    I am a non jewish female (african american) and live in a strictly orthodox jewish community in williamsburg bklyn. I have live there most of my life (approx 30yrs). I do understand the need to keep members of the opposite sex separate but I struggle everyday to not feel offended when jewish men are in the elevator with me they turn their back or if i walk past them they sheild their faces…i thought that part of jewish culture (or any for that matter) is to treat others as you would have them treat you? I especially have a hard time trying to explain this to people who visit me. Also, on another note, my nephew is 4 and at that age they are loving and playful. At the playground he doesn’t know jewish from whatever…it breaks my heart to see him want to play with another boy and have that child run away or just stare. I try to explain to him about “strangers” but its just difficult. Can you give me a better understanding of these things? Thank you!