Jewish Modesty At The ER On Friday Night

Male Doctor Extends Hand
Male Doctor Extends Hand


You know that moment, when someone shakes your hand and holds it for a second too long? I asked a group of 20-year-old girls about that moment -- and they broke out in laughter. We've all experienced it: it's creepy; it's awkward; it makes you crinkle your nose.

Last Friday night, my husband Shaul and I had the opportunity to take a long frosty midnight walk. It sounds romantic -- and maybe it was -- but with four small children it's certainly not the norm.

It started when my son Shmuel began screaming on Friday night. Shmuel will be 3 just after Passover, but sees himself as an invincible, age defying, warrior. He slipped, fell and needed stitches. Since this happened on Shabbat, we made careful consideration to respect the sanctity of the religious laws while making sure not to jeopardize our son's health in anyway whatsoever.

For starters, we were able to knock on the door of a neighbor, Alex, who is an EMT and is a volunteer for a local ambulance service, Hatzolah. We were able to get an expert diagnosis without having to use a telephone, which is forbidden on Shabbat. (Of course, if such a convenience is not available one should certainly use the telephone.)

Our neighbor suggested that we take our son to the emergency room to have his chin stitched. Our house full of Shabbat guests turned out to be a tremendous blessing! Ben, David and Ariella cleaned up the meal. Gela, Terry and Shoshanna watched the other three children. Shaul and I bundled the baby in the stroller and walked a mile down Main Street to the E.R.

The doors of the E.R. are electric. We knew that Shmuel's stitches could not wait until after Shabbat but we also knew that we were not racing against the clock. We waited outside for just an extra moment until a non-Jewish family came and made use of the electric doors. We followed them in, thereby not igniting the electric doors which is forbidden on Shabbat.

The staff at N.Y. Hospital Queens were amazing. They checked us in and asked that we sign on the dotted line. My husband explained that it's our Sabbath, and we are not allowed to write. Without skipping a beat, they told us that it wasn't a problem and we could have a seat in the waiting room.

Before we knew it we were speaking with the doctor. She confirmed that indeed Shmuel needed stitches and that she actually stitches up about seven or eight little boy chins every day. I began to think that perhaps G-d makes beards grow on the chins of grown up boys because G-d knows that many of them will fall and scrape up their chins. "He'll have a beard one day," I told the doctor with enthusiasm.

Shmuel was doing pretty well -- until he saw the needle. His chin was numbed but his screams were not. The doctor did a fantastic job. As a mother, I still can't wrap my brain around the fact that she stayed perfectly calm and focused while Shmuel was screaming and trying his best to escape.

Twelve-thirty a.m. and the entire procedure was finished. The doctor extended her hand toward my husband. Distracted by his own questions about Shmuel's care, he hardly noticed her hand and didn't take the time to explain that in accordance with the laws of modesty men are not allowed to shake the hands of a woman. I noticed the faux pas, and with deep gratitude for her masterful care to our son I extended my hand to shake hers.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said to me, "was I not supposed to shake your hand?"

"No," I explained, "it's just an issue of men and women -- nothing more."


Then she moved on to her next patient in the Emergency Room.

"Oh"? I wondered. That's it? Oh? Nothing more. Nothing less.

Is not shaking a person's hand because they are the opposite gender, the same as not shaking someone's hand who subscribes to a different belief system? Do both actions get the same flat reaction: "Oh"?

I would say that one who will not shake the hand of people who look different, act different, believe different and live different is a racist. One who will not shake that hand of someone who is of the opposite gender is modest.

So we returned from the E.R. to our lovely babysitters with a sleeping baby and a deep question: Is the difference between being racist and being modest so arbitrary? While a male-female handshake might seem meaningless at first glance, just think about how you feel when someone holds your hand for one second too long.

Human touch is meaningful, and the Jewish laws of modesty are meant to preserve that meaning -- not to disengage outsiders.

Thank G-d, Shmuel is doing well and rambunctious as ever!