What is Shalom?

Image: The word “Shalom” in Hebrew letters, in blue. Public domain.

Shalom.” It is often the first word a Hebrew student learns to read. It is the Hebrew word the most non-Jews are likely to know. If you ask for a definition, most people will tell you “Peace, Hello, or Goodbye,” and they won’t be wrong.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Shalom is a positive value, far more than just the absence of war. It signifies wholeness. One can be not-at-war and still be miserable. However, a miserable person by definition lacks shalom.

Like most words in Semitic languages it is based on a root of three consonants: shin, lamed, mem.  From that root we get many words: shalam, complete; nishlam, finished; l’shalem, to pay a bill; meshulam, repay; shlaymut, wholeness. What they have in common is a sense of integrity, of nothing missing or awry.

When I greet you with “Shalom!” I am wishing you wholeness of body and spirit. When I use a related greeting, “Mah shlomkhah?” the literal translation is “How is your peace?”

Shalom is not an abstract. It depends on real conditions in the world. A hungry person, a fearful person, or a hurt person cannot have shalom. Shalom includes bodily needs as well as spiritual ones. When we deny the needs of others, we deny them shalom.

Shalom also requires participation. We deny ourselves shalom when we bear a grudge. We deny ourselves shalom when we mistreat our bodies so that they get sick. We deny ourselves shalom when we tell ourselves we need something we cannot have, or when we refuse things we actually need. We deny ourselves shalom when we sin and choose not to make teshuvah.

At the close of the Kaddish, we pray for peace:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleynu, v’al kol Yisrael, Veyimru: Amayn.

May the Maker of peace on high, make peace upon us, and upon all Israel. And we say: Amen.

When we say these words, it is both a prayer and a commitment to action. We are saying, “Please, God, give us shalom!” while at the same time saying, “I am ready to do what it takes to make shalom!”

Are we?



Blessing the Volcano

Image: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Eruption of Kilauea Volcano. 11/14/59. Public Domain, USGS photo.

My friends know that I have a special place in my heart for the Big Island of Hawaii. I spend most of my vacation time there. It is hard for me to articulate the reasons I love that place so much. Some of it is the aloha that I feel from nearly every local person I encounter.  Some is the sight of the ohia lehua flowering shrubs that grow in the most barren-looking volcanic stone. Some is the song of the ‘apapane, a scarlet songbird that nests in the ohia. Some of it is the taste of the delicate flesh of fresh ono, a delicious fish.

All those are a part of my fascination. And yet the centerpiece that brings them all together, that draws me back and back to that island, is the terrible vision at the heart of it: the volcanoes.

Hawaiian myth talks about Madame Pele, she who “devours the land.” So do the locals today, even those who will tell you that they “aren’t religious.” The reason they speak of Pele the way they do is that seeing a live volcano is a holy experience. When I look into the crater of the volcano, when I see the glow of lava and smell the stink of volcanic gases, I feel yirat haShem, the fear of God. I feel wonder and awe and terror at the might of Creation and the Creator.

Certainly it is possible to look at the volcano with a scientific eye, to analyze the composition of the lava and the gases in the air. But even the most cold-eyed volcanologist will tell you that a volcanic eruption is powerful beyond imagining and profoundly dangerous. They will also tell you that they cannot control the volcano: once it is erupting, they can observe it, but when the lava flows, the only rational response to it is to get out of the way. Seeing an eruption takes us to the edge of life and death, to the primal forces that shape our world, and for many of us, it is a religious experience.

Volcanologists will tell you that the volcano (in this case, Kilauea) is death and life in one huge messy package. When we see the flow of lava, we are watching the process of creation, new land emerging from the earth, destroying everything it touches, and then cooling to begin the long, slow process that will in millennia become arable land. After the lava cools, tiny ohia seeds will ride the wind over the lava field and fall into the cracks where moisture collects. They are not bothered by the sulfur dioxide air; they put out their tiny roots and begin the work of transforming the lava rock into fertile soil. Ohia is a miracle. The volcano is a miracle: a giant, terrifying miracle.

There is a blessing for the sight of a volcanic eruption:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haOlam, sheh-ko-KHO ug-vu-rah-TOH mah-LAY oh-LAHM.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-is, whose strength and power fill the world.

This blessing is only for the times when we witness in person a powerful display such as a volcanic eruption, a horrific storm, or an earthquake. There are other blessings, softer blessings, for the gentler wonders of nature, but this is the blessing for natural events so powerful they can kill us. This blessing is for those moments when nature forces us to acknowledge our fragility in this world.

I am a Jew. I worship only the one God, the God of Israel, but I recognize God’s creation when I see it. The Hawaiians give this experience of God the name Pele. I whisper the blessing, and tremble in awe at the Holy One.

*At this writing, almost 2,000 people have been displaced and many have lost their homes. Here is an article about ways we can help those suffering during this eruption of Kilauea.


Prayer for Baseball Trades

Image: PacBell Park, San Francisco, summertime. (350543/Pixabay)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-That-Is! In Your wisdom You commanded the orderly progression of night into day, and set the planets in motion with a word. Grant seychel to the baseball team managers as they set our players in motion from team to team, from franchise to franchise. May they achieve the perfect harmony they seek. Amen.

Give comfort to the players in motion and their families. May their new home be a good home, and may they be greeted with enthusiasm wherever they go. Amen.

Console the fans, O God of Compassion, as they mourn the departure of favorite players. Give them open hearts to receive the new faces, the bats and gloves of new players. Give them patience for a period of adjustment. Amen.

May the bats be mighty and the pitchers wily. May the green diamonds overflow with the joy of the game, and may all players and fans alike end each game with gratitude for what went well, and energetic discussion of what lacked.

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

* A rabbinical note: The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although certain skeptical Wissenschaft types insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit

Image: A large display of fruits and vegetables. (Photo via MaksPhotography/Pixabay)

It’s spring! Every week new fruits and vegetables become available, depending on where you live.  The appearance of these new goodies offer us a great opportunity to take on the practice of saying blessings for our food.

Saying the blessings causes us to pause for a moment and NOTICE what we are doing. We stop, we say the words, we hear the words acknowledging that this is a special product of the earth, and then we eat it. It is both a mindfulness practice and a way of reminding ourselves that the produce doesn’t grow at the store: it grows in the earth, watered by the rain (and maybe irrigation) and it passes through many hands on its way to us. Here are the blessings:

A blessing for vegetables and things that grow from the ground:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, borei p’ree haAdmah.

Blessed are You, Eternal, Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, Who creates produce from the ground.

A blessing for fruit from a tree:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh HaOlam, borei p’ree haEtz.

Blessed are You, Eternal, Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, Who creates fruit from the tree.

It is perfectly OK to say the blessing in English. That said, if you are interested in learning Hebrew, memorizing blessings and prayers is a great beginning.

Enjoy the springtime!

Thanksgiving for Recovery from the Flu

Image: A woman walks along a path across a green meadow. (silviarita/pixabay)

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of all that is: all we can see, all we cannot see, all that has come before, and all that will come to be. You sat with me in my time of trouble. You listened to each cough, You felt each shiver. You walked with me through the valley of bad dreams, and You woke with me on the windswept hills of cold sweat. Eternal God, You play with the monster Leviathan and know the tiny viruses by name. You accompanied me on this journey through sickness back to health.

Thank You  for the resiliency of this human body. Thank You for this reprieve from the mystery that is death.

I know that not everyone rises from their bed; who lives and who dies is a mystery to me. Help me to see purpose in the life that spreads before me like a broad landscape; guide my steps towards goodness and light. Having experienced trouble and pain, help me to feel compassion for those in trouble and pain. Help me to turn that compassion to action to relieve the suffering that plagues so many in this world.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Creator of all that is.

Blessing for a Poppy

Image: A California poppy, eschscholzia californica. Photo: (Hans/Pixabay)

Today the first California poppy in my garden bloomed.

They are like little cups of sunshine; they glow in the greenery. In a few weeks they’ll carpet my garden, because they volunteer everywhere. If they weren’t so pretty, they’d be weeds. They are one of the wonders of California.

For me, this is the promise of spring.

So to greet the first one, I always say the blessing for fragrant flowers and herbs. California poppies are not hugely fragrant flowers, but there is an earthy green freshness that is unique to them.

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, 

Melech ha-olam,

borei isvei v’samim.

In English:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God,

Ruler of the Universe,

Creator of fragrant flowers and herbs.

Spring is still a long way off, but with this little golden promise in my garden, I will keep up hope.

In case you are wondering, it is fine to pray in English if Hebrew is a barrier. It is also fine to bless in your own words if something wonderful comes along and you don’t have a book with you. If you have a smartphone, check out this article: There’s an App for Blessings!


Blessing for Natural Wonders

Image: The moon just before totality in the early hours of 1/31/18.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu,
Melech haolam,
oseh maaseih v’reishit.</i>

Praise to You, Adonai our God,
Sovereign of the universe,
Source of creation and its wonders.


There is debate among rabbis as to which blessing among several possibilities is the correct blessing. This one is my choice for the occasion, a blessing upon seeing a wonder of creation.

Did you see the eclipse?

…The eclipse ended, the sun sinks in the west glowing pink in the dawn light.