I have noticed that when some Jews meet each other, they greet one another with the phrase “shalom aleichem.” What is the meaning of that phrase, and why is it the greeting Jews use?
That phrase means “peace unto you,” and has been the traditional Jewish greeting for thousands of years, as we find in various places in the Tanach/Bible. (Interestingly, it’s been adopted in Arabic as well as the traditional Arabic greeting of “salaam aleikum.”)
The word “aleichem” is actually in the plural, although one is only addressing an individual, as the plural reference in Hebrew is used as an expression of respect. This is a fulfillment of the rabbinic injunction to always receive another with warmth and respect.
This greeting of “shalom aleichem,” or the shorter version of “shalom,” is truly much more than just a greeting. It is a blessing that peace should be upon the other. Peace is considered the greatest good of all. The Talmud declares that peace is the “vessel that contains everything within it.” This means that the benediction of peace contains all others within it; when one is not at peace, it is difficult to feel or receive other blessings. For this reason, many prayers we recite end with the blessing of shalom. In the Torah itself, the prayer/blessing recited by the Kohanim/priests to bless the Jewish people, containing all physical and spiritual benedictions, ends with the blessing of shalom (Numbers 6:22-26). The Amidah/silent prayer recited three times a day ends with “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who blesses His people Israel with peace.” The Kaddish, recited numerous times daily in our prayer services, concludes with: “May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life upon us and upon all Israel; now respond, amen. He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel; let us respond, amen.” Even the Mishnah, the work comprising all of Jewish law, ends with the message that shalom is the vessel which holds everything.
A deeper understanding of this is that Shalom is one of the Names of G-d. It is unique among the other Names in that it is not considered a Name of G-d when written; hence, most authorities permit it to be erased. Only when it is uttered between two Jews, when a Jew wishes shalom to another, the Name of G-d, the Shechinah, rests between the two of them as a result of the peace between them. That is why the Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred among Jews: When there is no shalom between Jews there is no Shechinah in klal Yisrael, and no place for the Temple, the dwelling place for the Shechinah.
A well-known story is told of a great scholar and sage, Rabbi I.Z. Meltzer, who was invited to Jerusalem from Europe to become the dean of a prestigious yeshiva in the early 1900s. As he was riding his donkey up from Motza toward Jerusalem, a distinguished group of leading rabbis rode down to meet and greet the sage, followed by many hundreds of Jerusalemites. When they met up, each rabbi greeted R’ Meltzer with the traditional “shalom aleichem,” which he returned warmly.
When one rabbi, with a long, white beard, gave his “shalom aleichem,” R’ Meltzer automatically replied with the verse, “There is no shalom, says my G-d, to the wicked” (Isaiah 57:21). The rabbi was terribly embarrassed, and R’ Meltzer apologized profusely, not knowing what had come over him to give such a response. This caused quite a buzz among the crowd, and an investigation was conducted on that rabbi, who later was discovered to be a hidden missionary! The Al-mighty, whose Name is Shalom, wouldn’t allow such a great sage to utter the blessing of shalom upon a wicked man!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel.
Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.