By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times
It is now described as “the slap seen ‘round the world,” where Melania Trump slapped the president’s hand away when her husband reached for hers as they arrived in Israel.
It happened as the couple disembarked from Air Force One in Tel Aviv and strode over to meet waiting dignitaries.
One theory behind the rebuff was that the president had felt bad at rushing the First Lady while she was putting on makeup on Airforce One. They were late and needed to get out on the tarmac. The president tried to make it up to her by reaching out to her hand, but she was in no mood for reconciliation.
Perhaps there is another theory.
Melania could well have been reading up on the proper protocol in how to conduct oneself in the Holy Land. It is the land of the Jewish people, and the Jewish people follow Shulchan Aruch.
The Ramah in Even HaEzer (Siman 21:5) cites the halachic opinion that forbids public displays of affection between a man and his wife. The source for it, according to the Vilna Gaon, is the Talmudic passage in Bava Basra 58a – where Rav B’na’ah asked Eliezer what Avrohom Avinu and Sara were doing, and he refrained from entering when he heard that Sara was examining Avrohom Avinu’s hair.
Hand-holding, according to many communities, is deemed a public display of affection that is inappropriate. The example used in the Ramah is that of head-lice checking. Apparently, searching the husband’s scalp for lice or nits is considered too public a display of affection in public and should rather be done privately. The RaN extends the Gemorah’s example to other types of public affection as well.
Perhaps the First Lady felt that while in the Holy Land, it would be wise to observe the higher level of conduct that is referenced in the words of the Ramah.
Why would she consider hand-holding a public display of affection? Perhaps it is only the search for lice that is forbidden – because there the husband could be resting his head on the wife. The Beis Shmuel, however, refutes this idea. He writes (EH 21:12) that it would be forbidden in all situations – even if he is merely sitting and his head is not resting anywhere. Indeed, he proves this from a responsum of the Rashba (#1188).
THE LENIENT VIEW
What then was President Trump thinking?
We must realize that although the Rashba forbids lice checking even when the husband’s head is not resting anywhere, the Drisha does not agree with this Rashba. The Drisha holds that it is only when his head is leaning on her that it is forbidden – but the lice checking in and of itself is permitted. Even still, however, the Drisha’s view would not back up the view that hand-holding in public would be permitted.
Perhaps he was taking an extremely lenient position that would hold that hand holding is not a public display of affection. Indeed, there are some who actually advocate this position (see Bnei Banim Vol. I p. 118) – although virtually all mainstream Poskim disagree with this view.
Why do people do it? According to a New York Times article by Margot Slade, the couples may do it because they want to flaunt the strength of their relationship, because they want to mask the weaknesses in their relationship or because, as several psychologists put it, they are affectionate people who are very much in love.”
What is the reaction engendered in people?
The NYT article continues:
Psychologists offer a range of explanations for such reactions. In very simple terms, Dr. Hill noted that public displays of affection force people to become an unwilling audience. And that, he said, is discomforting.
According to Keith E. Davis, a social psychologist at the University of South Carolina who has examined friendships and love relationships, ”Affectionate behavior confronts some people with the unsettling reality that they are alone.”
Then, too, he said, some people have strict standards of propriety. ”Witnessing a public display of affection can be a threat to their standards,” he said. ”They may reason that if you do it, other people will begin to do it.”
The TaZ in EH (Siman 21) seems to say that it may lead to improper thoughts on the part of the onlookers. However, other Poskim disagree with the TaZ. It could be that those who disagree with the TaZ are of the opinion that certain standards need to be kept while in public or we can begin to fall down a slippery slope.
Some would argue that there is no way that Melania Trump was aware of this Ramah, notwithstanding that her son-in-law studied in the Yeshiva of Frisch. The author would agree. Purim was also a time of Matan Torah, and however far-fetched this explanation of the episode may seem, the point is that we can use it as a learning experience. There is a proper place for everything.
The problem is particularly acute with photo albums in weddings. If a wedding album is being shown to others – then certainly the photos should not include public displays of affection.
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