June 19, 2024
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The Custom of Kissing the Hand of an Elderly Person

This summer, my congregation had the opportunity to host the YU Summer Kollel for six weeks. In one of my talks with the kollel members I shared a Sephardic custom of women kissing an elderly man’s hand—and vice versa, men kissing an elderly woman’s hand—as a sign of reverence and respect. In this article I will share the sources for this custom.

The Talmud (Brachot 24a) teaches

כׇּל הַמִּסְתַּכֵּל בְּאֶצְבַּע קְטַנָּה שֶׁל אִשָּׁה, כְּאִילּוּ מִסְתַּכֵּל בִּמְקוֹם הַתּוֹרֶף.

Anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her nakedness.

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Isurei Biah, 21, 2) records this halacha but adds a couple of words that clarify the Gemara.

וְהַמִּסְתַּכֵּל אֲפִלּוּ בְּאֶצְבַּע קְטַנָּה שֶׁל אִשָּׁה וְנִתְכַּוֵּן לֵהָנוֹת כְּמִי שֶׁנִּסְתַּכֵּל בִּמְקוֹם הַתֹּרֶף

And one who gazes even at the little finger of a woman intending to derive sexual pleasure is comparable to one who looks at her nakedness.

The Rambam teaches that if a person does not have any sexual intentions while gazing at a woman, it is permitted.

The Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer, 21:1) writes exactly the same words as the Rambam and records it as the halacha.

Therefore, it seems like women kissing an elderly man’s hand out of respect is permissible.

In fact, Rav Yosef Haim (Od Yosef Chai, Shoftim, 22) writes:

חכם וזקן שהנשים נושקים ידיו, אין צריך לסרב לדחותם להשיב פניהם ריקם, חדא כי זו הנשיקה שעל גבי היד אין זו דרך חיבה… ועוד אלו הבאים לנשק ע״ג של החכם מוכחת מילתא לכ״ע שעושים כן לכבודה של תורה וכוונתם למצוה כמו שנושקין לספר תורה.

Women who want to kiss the chacham’s hand or an elderly man’s hand, [the rabbi or the elderly man] should not refuse or push away those women, firstly because in this, a kiss on the hand is not considered affectionate in any way… secondly, the people who are coming to kiss the chacham’s hand are doing it for the honor of the Torah and their intention is for a mitzvah exactly like kissing a sefer Torah.

Rav Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini (שדה חמד מערכת הקוף כלל ז) writes ומנהג זה דנשיקת יד הגדולים הוא מנהג קדום, הוא מנהג קדום

Kissing the hands of an elederly person is an ancient custom.

I would like to add one point. The Talmud (Brachot 45a) teaches פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר—go out and observe what the people are doing. One of my fondest childhood memories is seeing both men and women coming to kiss elderly womens’ hands including my grandmother’s, z”l, hand, out of sign of reverence and respect.

Later on in life I had the zechut to observe one of my mentors, Chacham Shlomo Maimon, a”h. Women and men alike often came to kiss his hand out of kavod laTorah, as well as Grand Rabbi Meir Zini, a”h, who was the chief rabbi of the 18th district of Paris; women and men alike kissed his hands out of reverence.

Conclusion

The custom of women kissing an elderly man’s hand and vice versa, men kissing an elderly woman’s hand out of respect, is a holy custom based on the ruling of our chachamim.


Rabbi Ilan Acoca is the rabbi of Congregation Bet Yosef, The Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee.

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