Monday, June 28, 2010

Hand-to-Mouth: Honor, Trust or Something Else?

When I was in Kerem b’Yavneh, I had a Yemenite friend who would shake hands and then, after releasing your hand, raise his own hand to his mouth and kiss it.

I never asked after the meaning of the gesture (does anyone know where I can find Tomer Isaac these days?), but I assumed it was a display of honor: “I recognize that you are sacred, a pure soul, created in the image designated by Gd, a living, breathing sefer torah, and so I kiss my hand after touching you.” I was impressed; I felt this showed great respect to the other party. I began to incorporate the hand-to-mouth into my own behavior, and it became second nature.

Eventually I entered the rabbinate, and realized I needed to subdue the trait somewhat; it sort of weirded people out, this bearded rabbi putting his hand to his mouth, especially when I was among people who didn’t know me. Then the whole hand-kissing thing became doubly problematic with the advent of swine flu; why not just go ahead and sneeze on other people, while you’re at it? And so I trained myself out of the practice, for the most part.

Fast-forward to this past Shabbos, which I spent as a speaker in Ottawa, enjoying incredible hospitality (Hi, Bram!) and a great shul at Machzikei haDas. I received a truly warm welcome, and despite being away from my family I really felt at home - so much so, apparently, that I fell back into my old practice of shaking and then kissing my hand…

…until one person approached me about this hand-kissing, and presented a new explanation for the practice: The gemara (Berachot 62a) states that because one uses his right hand for eating or for various religious purposes, he should only use his left hand to clean himself in the washroom. So my new friend suggested that the idea of putting one’s hand to one’s mouth after shaking someone’s right hand is to display confidence that the other party is civilized, and would not have used his right hand to clean himself in the washroom.

Wow, was that different.

I mean, trust is good, and displaying trust is good, but still... the hand-kissing practice is kind of yuck, all of a sudden.

So here’s my question: Have you heard of this hand-to-mouth practice? And do you know its origin?


  1. I've seen many people of עדות המזרח origin (and many modern religious hippie-types) do it, and always just assumed something along the lines of your first explanation.

  2. I second Steg's comment.

    My neighbour, G'veret Baadani, would sort of put her hands out in my direction, then draw them back and kiss them.

    This is a sweet, deep, and respectful behavior.

    You are aware, I presume, that kissing the hand of the local hacham was not uncommon. I remember when I was in yeshiva, people would kiss Rav Ovadiah Yosef's ring/hand at weddings and such. If a woman approached to do so, he didn't pull away; so as not to embarrass her in public. That was an important lesson for us when we were young.

    I never tried it North America. I only do it with hevra that were in Israel, and already understand it.

  3. Steg, R' Mordechai-
    No one will ever confus me for a hippie (and forget sweet and respectful...), but thanks!

  4. isn't there a gemara in Shabbos that you can only wipe yourself with the hand that does not wear tefillin - which, for most of humanity, means you wipe with the right hand?

  5. Anonymous-
    Close; that's the gemara in Berachos that I referenced in the post, and it's about the hand you use to tie the knots - the right hand, so that you should wipe with the left.