Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought , edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.
The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is derived from a root denoting wholeness or completeness, and its frame of reference throughout Jewish literature is bound up with the notion of shelemut, perfection. Its significance is thus not limited to the political domain‑-to the absence of war and enmity‑-or to the social-‑to the absence of quarrel and strife. It ranges over several spheres and can refer in different contexts to bounteous physical conditions, to a moral value, and, ultimately, to a cosmic principle and divine attribute.
In the Bible, the word shalom is most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs, one of well‑being, tranquility, prosperity, and security, circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect. Shalom is a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace.
In inquiring about the peace of one’s fellow, one inquires as to whether things fare well with him. (In a borrowed sense, we read: “Va‑yish’al David…li‑shlom ha‑milhamah“; “David asked of him…how the war prospered” [II Samuel 11:7].) The usage of the term is thus not restricted to international, intergroup, or interpersonal relations. It signifies a state of prosperity, of blessed harmony, on several levels, physical and spiritual.
Of course, shalom also denotes the opposite of war, as in “a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8), for the absence of war, too, suggests an orderly, prosperous, and tranquil state of affairs. In several scriptural passages the word peace refers to a value, and is used in the sense of equity, or loyalty (cf. Zechariah 8:16; Malachi 2:6).
In the rabbinic texts, shalom primarily signifies a value, an ethical category‑‑it denotes the overcoming of strife, quarrel, and social tension, the prevention of enmity and war. It is still, to be sure, depicted as a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace, but in a great many sayings it appears in a normative context: The pursuit of peace is the obligation of the individual and the goal of various social regulations and structures.
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