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Shalom: Peace in Hebrew

Along with truth and justice, peace is among the most hallowed Jewish values.

The Hebrew word for peace, shalom (שׁלום) 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.

Biblical Usages

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 Davidli-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).

Rabbinic Morality

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.

The majority of passages on the subject of peace are concerned with family or communal life, that is, with internal peace among the people, and only a minority are concerned with external relations between Israel and other peoples, between nations and states.

Nevertheless, the two realms are not always differentiated from one another, and at times they appear to be continuous; we read, for example: “He who establishes peace between man and his fellow, between husband and wife, between two cities, two nations, two families or two governments…no harm should come to him” (Mekhilta Bahodesh 12).

Peace Now sign in Hebrew, Arabic, and English

The series of regulations ordained by the Sages “in the interest of peace” (mi-pene darkhei shalom) were also meant to affect relations both among the Jews themselves and between the Jews and the Gentiles.

The Sages went to great lengths in their praise of peace, to the point of viewing it as a meta-value, the summit of all other values, with the possible exception of justice.

Peace was the ultimate purpose of the whole Torah: “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace” (Tanhuma Shofetim 18). It is the essence of the prophetic tiding — “The prophets have planted in the mouth of all people naught so much as peace” (Bamidbar Rabah Naso 11:7) — and of redemption, “God announceth to Jerusalem that they [Israel] will be redeemed only through peace” (Deuteronomy Rabah 5:15).

Shalom is the name of the Holy One, the name of Israel, and the name of the Messiah (Derekh Erez Zuta, Perek ha-Shalom), yet the name of God may be blotted out in water for the sake of peace (Leviticus Rabah 9:9). Other sayings in the same vein are numerous.

Rating the Value of Peace

Nevertheless, alongside this sort of expression the Sages discuss the question of the relationship between peace and other competing values, of situations in which different norms might conflict with one another.

For instance, peace was opposed to justice: Rabbi Joshua ben Korha taught that “where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no strict justice,” and he consequently instructed the judge to “act as an arbiter,” that is, to rule for compromise, which is justice tempered with peace (see Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 1:5; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 6b; the opposing view is “let justice pierce the mountain,” that is, justice at all costs).

On another level, peace was contrasted with truth: It was said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Simeon that “one may deviate from the truth for the sake of peace” (BT Yevamot 65b); in an even stronger formulation, it was said, “All falsehood is forbidden, but it is permissible to utter a falsehood for the purpose of making peace between a man and his fellow” (Derekh Erez Zuta, loc. cit.).

In all of these instances, even where peace is given priority and tips the balance, it is viewed as an individual, partial value that must compete with other values.

In contrast with this dichotomous approach, however, we also find another approach that attempts to harmonize the separate values and make them complement one another: “By three things the world is preserved, by justice, by truth, and by peace, and these three are one: if justice has been accomplished, so has truth, and so has peace” (JT Ta’anit 4:2). Here, not only is peace made among men, but also the competing values are reconciled.

The Obligations of Peace: A Special Category

Olive branch. Peace Symbol.Similar photographs from my portfolio:

Drawing upon a fine distinction between the terms used in several scriptural expressions, one rabbinic saying proposed an interesting differentiation between two types of obligation.

The first type is that which arises from a given situation, that is, man’s obligation to respond in a particular way to a given set of circumstances. The second type, on the other hand, demands that one create situations and shape them in such a way as to bring the obligation upon himself. The first group includes all of the commandments, the second the pursuit of peace alone:

“Great is peace, for of all the commandments it is written: ‘if [emphases added] thou see,’ ‘if thou meet’ (Exodus 23:4, 5), ‘if [there] chance’ (Deuteronomy 22:6); that is, if the occasion for this commandment should arise, you must do it, and if not, you need not do it. In relation to peace, however, [it is written]: ‘seek peace, and pursue it’ — seek it in your own place, and pursue it even to another place as well.” (Leviticus Rabah 9:9)

It may be asked, to be sure, whether peace alone should be included in the second group. Nevertheless, the distinction itself draws our attention, and the need to clarify it conceptually and to determine its outlines is an open invitation to the philosopher.

God as Peacemaker

Finally, several sayings concerning the power of peace go beyond the social-ethical realm to enter the domain of the cosmic: The Holy One makes peace between the supernal and the lower worlds, among the denizens of the supernal world, between the sun and the moon, and so on (Leviticus Rabah, loc. cit.; Deuteronomy Rabah 5:12; and see Job 25:2).

Most of these passages in fact acclaim yet more ardently the pursuit of peace among men, in an a fortiori formulation: “And if the heavenly beings, who are free from envy, hatred and rivalry, are in need of peace, how much more are the lower beings, who are subject to hatred, rivalry, and envy” (Deuteronomy Rabah, loc. cit.).

Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from  Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought , edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

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