Image: A row of tiny houses labeled “Home Sweet Home” by Diana Parkhouse.
Shalom bayit is a Hebrew phrase that means “peace of the home.” The Jewish home is ideally a place of shelter from a stressful world. It is a mikdash me’at, a “small sanctuary” where special effort is made by all participants to live the values of Torah in a kind and loving way. A home that truly practices shalom bayit is a place of peace and beauty.
Unfortunately, shalom bayit took on other meanings and uses in our imperfect world. When there is a problem with domestic violence, often “shalom bayit” has been used to shame victims: “Don’t say anything, you’ll disturb the shalom bayit,” or “Don’t report domestic violence to the police, shalom bayit – don’t bring the cops into what is a private matter!”
Domestic violence is a crime. Child abuse is a crime. While there was a tradition in the past to keep secular authorities out of the Jewish home, we’ve learned that in cases of domestic violence and abuse, that approach leads only to more violence. It is wrong to use the phrase “shalom bayit” to protect a perpetrator of violence. The perpetrator is the one who violated the peace of the home. It is laudable for members or friends of a troubled family to seek assistance to protect the vulnerable and so that true shalom bayit can be restored.
One of the arguments used against those who report crimes to the authorities is the Jewish concept of mesirah, “turning over.” The concept derives from times and places where secular government was abusive towards Jews. Jewish communities were rightly concerned in some places that a Jewish defendant could not get a fair trial or treatment from the authorities. Before modern times, when Jews were not citizens of the countries in which they lived, secular authorities generally expected the Jewish community to regulate itself, and rabbinic courts handled such matters. In modern times, the civil law enforcement and courts have taken over law enforcement.
The concept of mesirah was never intended to provide a shield behind which a criminal could hide, especially when the crime is violent. All halakhic authorities agree that in the case of violence in our day there is only one choice: report to civil authorities.
Shalom bayit is a Jewish value in which the home is considered a sacred place. The home is the site of many mitzvot: keeping Shabbat, observing the holidays, Torah study, and so on. When our homes become places of strife it is important that we remedy that by engaging with one another with chesed (lovingkindness) and emet (truth, honesty.) If we are not able to do that, then it is time to seek help. There should be no room for cruelty, bullying, or any manner of physical, sexual, or emotional violence in a Jewish home.
Shalom bayit is a principle that has preserved the Jewish people through centuries of persecution. Whether your household has only one person in it or a dozen, I wish you shalom bayit, the peace of the home!
Shalom Bayit is also the name of a wonderful organization in the San Francisco Bay Area whose mission is “to foster the social change and community response necessary to eradicate domestic violence in the Jewish community.”