On Root / Peace Be Unto the Schlemiels

Jeremy Benstein
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Jeremy Benstein

Barely a day goes by without the Israeli papers reporting on the status of negotiations and various governmental positions, ours and theirs, right and left, regarding what else? Peace – shalom.

"Shalom" is probably the single most familiar Hebrew word the world over. This is not only due to peace in the Middle East being such a central geopolitical issue, but because shalom is also used as a greeting and a parting – both "hello" and "goodbye." It's the first lesson in Hebrew 101.

President Bill Clinton famously used it in his moving two-word farewell to assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, saying in Hebrew "Shalom, chaver" – "Farewell, friend."

Various forms of the underlying root, sh-l-m, which at its core means "whole" or "complete," are ubiquitous in Israel, even in common Israeli given names.

What's your peace?

Using a word meaning "peace" as "hello" makes perfect sense : the idea of a greeting is to express warm feelings, to assure the 'greetee' of our peaceful intentions.

Hebrew takes it one step further, with a common conversation opener being "Shalom - mah shlomcha?" literally, "Peace - what is your peace?" or more colloquially, "Hello, how are you?" The second use of the root sh-l-m there refers to a person's "wholeness" or health – just as the phrase to "hail" someone originates from words meaning hale, healthy, and whole.

Continuing the conversation, having inquired into your interlocutor's shalom, now you want to send regards to the spouse. In Hebrew, you ask to convey dash. Dash is an acronym for derishat shalom, meaning "ask after (their) shalom" - asking after their well-being, as it were.

And even the most secular of Jews greet each other on Friday night and Saturday with shabbat shalom!, "a Sabbath of peace!"

Perplexing paradoxes of perfection

Shalom as peace is a vision of perfection and wholeness, shlemut. A striving to be whole, shalem, should result in achieving some sort of peace.

But it ain't necessarily so: the territorial vision of Eretz Yisrael Hashlemah, "the Greater" – i.e., whole - "Land of Israel" isn't exactly a recipe for Shalom Achshav, "Peace Now,", as one of the peace movements calls itself.

Salem, a transliteration of shalom/shalem, wasn't the most peaceful village for the women tried and burned there for ostensible witchcraft. And the fact that according to some theories, the name Jerusalem, Yerushalayim (also spelled in the Bible "Yerushalem"), should be understood as "city of peace, or wholeness" is indeed one of the ironies of our time. (Though other interpretations think the "shalem" part of the name originates with the Canaanite god of dusk.)

Well, nothing is mushlam, "perfect."

Shalom by any other name

Interestingly, the root sh-l-m appears in a range of personal names in Hebrew. While naming your child "peace" in English would certainly brand you a hippie flower-parent, Shalom as a name is common – as in Shalom Hanoch, the aging rocker, popular novelist Shalom Auslander, or Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem (which is actually a pen name; his real name was Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich).

Solomon in Hebrew is Shlomo, "his peace," and there are also names Shlomi, Meshulam, and the female names Shlomit, and Shulamit – this last was my mother's name, aleha hashalom, "peace be upon her."

From godly to inept

On a different note, another name is the Biblical Shelumiel, the son of Tzurishaddai (appearing in Numbers 1:6).

While the name means "God is my peace," and though he was leader of the tribe of Simeon, his name is not at all common among Jews, for it will forever be associated with its Yiddish incarnation as schlemiel, an "awkward bungler" or "inept, luckless loser." Even now, to do something in "Shelumielesque" fashion in Hebrew means to be hopelessly, pathetically inept.

It's not clear why this name was chosen for that characterization, but its popularization beyond Yiddish was due in part to being chosen as the name of the hapless hero of Adalbert von Chamisso's German fable "The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl" (1813). In true eponymous fashion, the personality has become a complete cultural type, as documented in Ruth Wisse's The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (University of Chicago Press, 1971).

We've come a long way from shalom, and like many Hebrew roots, the many variations and uses make it hard to know whether you're coming or going. It's exactly then that a word that means "hello, goodbye and peace" comes in especially handy.

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

ROAD TO SHALOW PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS: Faithful holding posters to form the word "Shalom" (with an upside-down 'm') to greet Pope Francis at the Vatican May 18, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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