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Establishing the Greeting

 

Contrary to common opinion, the traditional Jewish greeting of “Shalom aleikhem” is not a wish for peace. It is a fulfillment of the ancient enactment to greet others with God’s name, using the appellation of Shalom to refer to God. The Mishnah (Berakhos 54a) describes the establishment of this practice but leaves its origin ambiguous, resting in my opinion on a single letter in the text.

Many commentators assume that Boaz, the character from the biblical book of Rus, enacted this practice. Among them are Malbim (Rus 2:4) and Maharatz Chajes (Mevo HaTalmud ch. 10). However, I suggest that this historical attribution is based on only one of two posssible readings.

The Mishnah states that “they” enacted the practice of greeting with God’s name. The next statement in the Mishnah cites the verse in which Boaz greets his workers with “God be with you” (Ruth 2:4). Some read this as implying that Boaz was the first to establish this practice. However, this is not necessarily the case.

The Rivan (Makos 23a sv. u-she’eilas) offers two explanations for this enactment: either it established an obligation for this otherwise permissible practice or it established permission for this otherwise forbidden practice. According to the latter approach, it is forbidden to say God’s name in vain. However, due to concern for interpersonal harmony or in order to decrease the amount of theft by bringing God’s name into regular conversation, “they” established that people use it in formal greetings as a proactive measure to prevent loss of Torah. This would explain why the Mishnah continues with the classical exegesis permitting violating the Torah in order to preserve it.

According to this reading, the Boaz precedent is highly significant. He would have been violating a prohibition if not for this emergency enactment. Additionally, it seems likely that the Bible mentions this curious behavior–otherwise forbidden–to teach that Boaz was the one to enact this behavior.

However, the Rambam, in his commentary to this Mishnah, reads the text differently. The Rambam posits that saying God’s name in a greeting is entirely permissible. The verse about Boaz is cited as proof that this activity is unproblematic. (And the subsequent discussion of violating the Torah in order to preserve it is really about the importance of enactments in general.) The Rambam seems to follow the Rivan’s first interpretation. Greeting with God’s name is always permissible and this enactment turned it into a requirement, not for any emergency reason but because it is simply a good thing.

According to the Rambam and the Rivan’s first interpretation, we no longer have any indication that Boaz instituted this practice. If anything, the Mishnah implies that this happened after Boaz’s time because otherwise we have little proof from his actions about the base law. Then who enacted it?

I speculate that perhaps this was among Ezra’s enactments. Rashi (Berakhos 54a) states the previous enactment in the Mishnah emanated from Ezra’s court. There are two versions of the introduction of the greeting enactment. Some texts have it “and they enacted” and some have it without the prefix meaning “and.” If the “and” truly belongs, then the Mishnah implies that Ezra’s court also instituted the greeting enactment.

The Vilna Shas has the “and” but the Kaufman manuscript does not. R. Yosef Kafach, in his edition of the Mishnah with Rambam’s commentary, indicates that some manuscripts he used has the “and” but his grandfather’s did not.

If not Ezra then some post-Judges era court enacted that we greet each other with God’s name. Thousands of years later, “Shalom aleikhem” is still a frequently heard greeting in traditional Jewish communities.

(Note that R. Yehudah Assad (Responsa Yehudah Ya’aleh, Orach Chaim no. 9) assumes that Ezra and his court instituted this enactment but he has a very different way of explaining the texts.)

 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

19 Responses

  1. Ephrayim says:

    I am not following your line of thought. You started with Shalom and then progressed to YKVK without indicating so. And then return to Shalom as if you had been discussing it the whole time; very misleading. Shalom as a name of God seems to me as a late invention, which later had the god connotation appended to it.

  2. Laura says:

    Thank Shalom for yet another example of the Rambam’s common sense. Thanks for researching this interesting topic though I am a little skeptical of any court enacting words of greeting. Approving seems more sociologically realistic.

  3. ba says:

    You basically are saying:

    Before the time of Boaz, they were not permitted to greet each other with “Shalom aleichem” because “Shalom” is a name of Hashem. Afterwards, “they” allowed it.

    This implies that once they allowed it, they only allowed it for greeting. So is it forbidden to say “Shalom” now for no reason? “Y-ah” can be modified to “Kah;” “Tzevaos” can be modified to “Tzevakos;” but I see no way to change “Shalom.”

    Also, the Shu”A (I think) in the laws of K”Sh allows saying “Shalom” in a bathhouse when speaking to someone named Shalom, if I am remembering correctly.

  4. Moshe Shoshan says:

    First of all the practice of greeting with shalom goes back to Biblical times, see
    2 Sam 18: 28, 29 I kings 2:13
    Furthermore I dont understand how you know that the greeting of shalom is connected to the practice of greetingin God’s name. The Gemara in Brachos talks about the importance of greeting onese fellow without any reference to the divine name. Rather as the Rav explains it is precisely the bein adam l’chaveiro that makes this important.

    In short, you need to defend a whole bunch of assumptions if this is to fly.

  5. Hirhurim says:

    Ephrayim: As the Rishonim (Rashi, Rambam) explain, Shalom is one of God’s names.

    ba: This implies that once they allowed it, they only allowed it for greeting. So is it forbidden to say “Shalom” now for no reason? 

    In the context of God’s name. It obviously has another meaning which is entirely permissible.

    Moshe Shoshan: The Gemara in Brachos talks about the importance of greeting onese fellow without any reference to the divine name

    Look it up. Mishnah 54a and Gemara 63a. I suspect what you are quoting in the Rav’s name is really Rashi on the Mishnah. There’s more than one way to read this sugya (see Rivan on Makos 23b, Ritva and Meiri on Berakhos 63a).

  6. Chanokh says:

    I had always understood that this sugya was referring to greeting specifically with Shem Havaya (as we still say when having an alya: “Hashem ‘imakhem”.
    “Shalom ‘aleihem” predates, I think, the episode with Boaz: see Bereishit 29, 6 & 43, 27.

  7. Shlomo says:

    (as we still say when having an alya: “Hashem ‘imakhem”.

    Except that we say “Hashem”, not “Ado(shem)”, and certainly not the shem mefurash.

  8. Chanokh says:

    Because we’ve somewhat backed up from saying “Adonai imakhem”, and the Shem Havaya even moreso. But the clear intended meaning is still “Good morning gentlemen”.

  9. Ephrayim says:

    Gil, you didn’t pick up on my sarcasm in my last comment so I’ll state it more bluntly this time.
    You can’t trace the ‘shalom aleikhem’ to Boaz because Boaz used YKVK. Most likely in the biblical period the name was pronounced as it is written. The Mishnah that allows greeting with the sheim presumably refers to Adonoy as it was read since late second temple times. It is not known whether the author of the mishna realized the incoherence in his words. It is entirely possible that he did, but still saw Boaz as the historical precedent to the then current custom of using Adonoy in greeting ones friend. To be clear, although the mishna says התקינו שיהא אדם שואל את שלום חברו בשם, shalom here only means greeting and is not necessarily the words used. Using the word shalom as part of greeting had preceded the Boaz incident by thousands of years simply because shalom was the normal way of greeting whether one did or did not invoke god’s name in the process. The practice of using shalom in greeting ones friend is no way jewish and similar expressions are found other near east languages, up until our very day, the arabic ‘salam alaikum’ (which BTW is also one of god’s names according to islamic tradition). What seems to have happened is that the use of Adonoy is now also defunct. I suppose that the mishna in Brachos was superimposed on current practice whereby shalom acquired the status of the name of god. At least this is what you are trying to do. The actual transition seems to be played out in Shabbat 10a-b were the braisah says there is no sheilot shalom in the bathhouse. The gemarah in commentary to the braisah explains this is because Shalom is God’s name. This forced explanation seems have developed because in the middle of the amoraic period in Babylonia it was not longer common to invoke god’s name in greeting.

  10. Anonymous says:

    According to this s-l-m shouldn’t be a greeting in cognate Semitic languages. Or, if it is, and they are using it in the sense of “peace, wellness,” then what is the meaningful difference between how we use it and they?

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Moseh Shoshan-see Rashi on Brachos 54a on the Mihsnah s.v. Sheyieh Adam Shoel Lshalom chavero, as well as Ritva on Brachos 63a, and Rashi on Makos 23b s.v. Ushealas Shalom-who both posit that the usage of what would otherwise be a Shem HaShem in that context is not an unnecessary use of Shem HaShem. Your point in the name of RYBS is reflected in the second explanation quoted by Rashi in Makos 23b.

  12. Ephrayim says:

    “According to this s-l-m shouldn’t be a greeting in cognate Semitic languages.”

    Not at all. Y-H-V-H as well as E-L and others were names of god(s) in semetic languages. Just because it is a name of God in hebrew does not preclude it from being the name of god in cognate languages.

  13. Moshe Shoshan says:

    berachot 6a

    וא”ר חלבו אמר רב הונא כל שיודע בחברו שהוא רגיל ליתן לו שלום יקדים לו שלום שנאמר (תהילים לד) בקש שלום ורדפהו ואם נתן לו ולא החזיר נקרא גזלן שנאמר (ישעיהו ג) ואתם בערתם הכרם גזלת העני בבתיכם

    See RYBS “Community” Tradition 1978
    on this gemara
    “What does the message of
    “Shalom” convey if not encouragement and solace to the lonely and distressed”

    I dont think it could be more clear.

  14. Nachum says:

    Ephrayim: El is certainly “god” in other Semitic languages. “Adonai” is used as a substitute for Tammuz. But YHWH? In which language?

  15. Y. Aharon says:

    Nachum, there is an interesting possible cognate to the tetragrammaton in a non-Semitic language, Latin. The head of the Pantheon among Romans was the deity popularly called Jupiter. That actually means “Jo”, the father (with “J” actually having a “Y” sound – as was the case with English prior to more modern times. The full name of the deity was “Jovi” (again with a “Y” sound). Could that be one factor that induced the sages to refer to the Romans as descended from Esav (another was their interest in law), i.e., brothers – although enemies?

  16. Nachum says:

    Ephrayim, that’s pretty underwhelming.

    Y. Aharon, “Jo” is derived from an Indo-European root meaning “shine” that also gives us Zeus, deity, day, etc. Nothing to do with YHVH, whose root means “be” or “create.”

 
 

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