Jewish history, from biblical times to the present, is marked by struggle and by the yearning for peace. It is not surprising that shalom is a key word in our language and our tradition. The wish for shalom al Israel 'peace upon Israel' (Ps 125:5) resonates national and individual aspirations for security and tranquility. It is to the word 'shalom' I wish to direct our attention to.
Shalom appears 237 times in the Bible in various meanings. In most of the references shalom means 'tranquility,' 'security,' 'peace,' and 'wellbeing.' However, shalom also means 'health,' 'welfare,' 'completeness,' and 'safety.' Scholars disagree as to the root of the word. Some claim it is related to the Aramaic verb sh'la meaning 'be quiet,' 'be at ease,' 'tranquil,' and even 'thoughtless' and 'careless.'
They point to the Hebrew word ash-la-ya meaning 'deception' as a concept derived from the same root. Other scholars connect shalom with the verb shalem meaning 'complete' or 'whole.' It is the same root from which the words 'tash-lum'-'payment' and 'shi-lu-mim' -'reparations' are also derived and allude to the completeness of a transaction. It is interesting to note that although the Hebrew shalom and Arabic salaam have a similar origin, meaning, and sound, the Hebrew emphasizes the meaning of wholeness and in Arabic it resonates the word Islam which requires surrender.
Many are the Hebrew phrases in which shalom is at the center. Shalom or shalom alay-chem, 'peace be upon you,' and the greeting mah sh'lom-cha "how are you (for a man) and ma sh'lom-ech (for a woman), are probably the most recognized Hebrew greetings. We should also mention the expression de-ri-shat shalom a way to send greeting to someone which literally means 'ask for someone's welfare' (Deut 23:7).
In the common phrase ha-kol yavo al me-ko-mo be-shalom, meaning 'all will settle peacefully at the end' shalom is used to express optimism, assuring a positive resolution to an issue (Ex 18:23). We should also mention the phrase sh'lom ba-yit, 'peace in the house' referring to a harmonious household (Shabbat 23) and the peaceful greeting Shabbat shalom on Shabbat day. Last but not least, the phrase alav or ale-ha ha-shalom, literally 'peace upon him (or her),' is a respectful saying to remember the dead.
In closing, our tradition teaches that three principles assure the survival of a civilized society: din - 'law,' e-met-'truth' and shalom-'peace' (Abot 1:18). It is not surprising that the prayer o-seh shalom bim-ro-mav, 'The One who makes peace in His heights' (Job 25:2) is repeated time and again in the Jewish liturgy. For it expresses the endless hope that Hu ya-a-seh shalom a-lay-nu ve-al kol Israel, 'He will bring shalom upon us individually, and shalom to all of Israel, collectively. And let us say: Amen.
Professor Rachel Zohar Dulin teaches Hebrew and Bible at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.