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!”