On January 21, 1986, Kevin Zaborney of Clio, Michigan, created “National Hugging Day”. It is observed annually on January 21st. Zaborney felt that “American society is embarrassed to show feelings in public” and felt that his new hugging holiday would change that.

The root of the Hebrew word for hugging is chet.bet.kuf (ch.b.k). A brief perusal of uses of this root throughout the Jewish Scriptures can be instructive and insightful about hugging.

The Torah’s first two huggers are infamous characters, for whom the sages read negative ulterior motives into their hugs. When Rebecca became aware that her son Esau desired to kill her favored son Jacob, she sent Jacob away to the far-away home of her brother Laban. Soon after arriving in Haran, Jacob encountered his future wife Rachel and fell in love with her at first sight. Rachel ran home to inform her father, Laban, about Jacob’s arrival. The Torah records that Laban “kissed Jacob, brought him into his home, and hugged him” (Genesis 29:13.) The rabbis interpreted Laban’s outward display of affection as a way of checking whether Jacob had traveled with hidden valuables in his pockets.

After residing for several decades with Laban, Jacob finally returned home and immediately learned that his long-estranged brother, Esau, was marching toward him with an army of 400 men. The impending confrontation was a source of great anxiety for Jacob. Eventually, when the rendezvous took place, Esau “ran towards him, hugged him, fell on his neck, kissed him and both men wept” (Genesis 33:4). Here too the sages are reluctant to view Esau’s emotional metamorphosis as legitimate, and ascribe ulterior motives, some even suggesting that Esau attempted to kill Jacob.

Yet the very same verb is employed to describe Jacob’s embrace of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe, as he blessed his two grandsons (Genesis 48:10). No ulterior motives are attributed to Jacob in this context. A similar usage is found regarding the prophet Elisha (Kings II 4:16) where he promises a barren woman that within one year, she will be “hugging” a son. The Zohar identifies that very boy as the prophet Habakuk, whose name is based on the aforementioned Hebrew root ch.b.k.

So, on this “National Hugging Day,” know that the Torah seems to tell us that a hug, when legitimate, can serve as a wonderful expression of one’s love, and is a very effective and desired way to display affection. But beware of those who use hugs to feign love and respect by simply embracing another person while harboring evil thoughts in their hearts.

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