While not expressly found as a biblical commandment, the greeting of others is given space in several places in the Torah’s narrative. R. Menachem Kasher considers the reference to Moshe’s welcoming of his father-in-law Yitro, at which time “each inquired about the other’s well-being,” as the most explicit indication that this behavior is to be imitated. Other such recorded instances include Yaakov’s inquiry concerning Lavan: “and he said to them, ‘Is it well with him? [hashalom lo] and they answered, ‘It is well’ [shalom]”; as well as Yosef’s words to his brothers upon their arrival in Egypt: “and he inquired after their welfare [vayishal lahem lishalom], and he said, ‘Is your elderly father, of whom you spoke, at peace?”
If the biblical references are not phrased in the imperative, it may nonetheless be that an obligation exists from a comparable source. The verse in Tehillim states, “Ask for peace, and pursue it [bakkesh shalom virodfeihu].” According to R. Yitzchak Abohab, this verse constitutes and obligation to greet others, bearing the status of a commandment midivrei kaballah, “from tradition.” This designation identifies commandments that are found in the Bible, but in the Nevi’im or the Ketuvim rather than the Chumash, the Pentateuch. These precepts are essentially rabbinical, in that they do not stem from a Divine utterance, but their scriptural source raises their status. According to some, mitzvot in this category are, for certain purposes, treated with the severity of biblical commandments. It should also be noted that it seems from the commentary of Rabbeinu Asher that one who takes an oath not to greet another places himself in violation of “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.”
In any case, the Talmud is unequivocal in relating to the proper greeting of others as an obligation. “R. Chelbo said in the name of R. Huna: whoever knows that his friend is in the habit of greeting him, he must precede him initiating the greeting, as it states, ‘Ask for peace, and pursue it’; and if the other does greet him first, and he does not return the greeting, he is called a thief, as it states, ‘It is you who have ravaged the vineyard, that which was robbed from the poor is in your houses.’ ” Rashi explains the inference: as the poor have nothing to be stolen from them, the only “robbing” that is possible is their unreciprocated greeting.
Thus, the Talmud seems to identify two manifestations of recommended greetings: the ideal of initiating the salutation, and the indispensable act of returning one. The first appears to be a laudable trait rather than an obligation, as it is not recorded as such in the halakhic codes. However, the implication of the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 415:1) is that greeting a friend who returns from a journey is a “mitzvah”. The Mishnah Berurah understands this as a fulfillment of the commandments of “asking shalom” and of “k’vod habriyot” (human dignity). The Rambam does include the habit of taking the lead in the amenities among the qualities required of a Torah scholar; the Meiri notes further that scholars make it a practice to offer greetings of substantial length. Indeed, one such scholar, R. Yochanan b. Zakai, is singled out for praise in the Talmud because “he never allowed anyone to precede him in initiating a greeting, not even a heathen in the marketplace.” Although the Talmud introduces the concept of initiating the greeting in reference to one who “knows that his friend is in the habit of greeting him,” R. Yisrael Ya’akov Vidavski suggests that this need not be interpreted solely on a personal level. Rather, any environment in which all comers are customarily welcomed automatically is subject to these guidelines. The Yalkut MeAm Loez writes that when one encounters an individual who is wont to greet him, beating him to the punch is an obligation; to all others, such behavior is not mandatory but is praiseworthy. R. Shmuel Edels recommended emphasizing the first group, because a stranger may fail to return the greeting, and thus risk being labeled “a thief.” R. Moshe Rosmarin suggests that even this concern may only be in effect if some reason exists to believe that the stranger will not respond. In addition to the goodwill engendered by initiating the greeting, this gesture is understood by many commentators to also be indicative of modesty; as the pleasantries will be exchanged anyway, not waiting for the other to come to him is an act of humility.
R. Yehudah Loew of Prague, the Maharal, writes that the obligation to offer warm greetings extends especially to a wicked person, lest this individual become hardened in his ways further. True, some reluctance is found in sources regarding the amiable welcome of wicked people; however, it appears from the Talmud Yerushalmi that this refers specifically to the moment a transgression is taking place, when such a gesture may be misinterpreted as encouragement. However, very often the opposite reaction may be more likely; the friendship extended by an upstanding citizen may inspire repentance. Indeed, the Derekh Eretz Zuta identifies this practice as the method of Aharon HaKohen in inspiring righteous behavior in others.
II. The Format of Greetings
In regards to responding to the salutation, the Talmud indicates that using a double language is appropriate. The Midrash implies that the purpose is to maintain some element of initiative even when returning a greeting. In this spirit, R. Yisrel Bruna records the custom of using a more inclusive expression, such as responding to “Good Morning” with “Good Year.” To the phrase shalom aleikhem, the well-known response is aleikhem shalom. While the reason for this may be purely grammatical, the Ta’amei HaMinhagim quotes other explanations. One of these is so that it should be clear that the second party is responding and not beginning the process, so that an onlooker who hears only the second should not suspect the first party of refusing to answer.
Whatever the format, it seems that a greeting may not be ignored. Even in those instances when salutations are inappropriate, as discussed further on, some response is still necessary to one that is offered, albeit in a hushed and subdues manner. All other times, however, the response should be commensurate with the enthusiasm of the greeting; as R. Ephraim Greenblatt and R. Shlomo Aviner observe, a bland nod or an uninterested grumble may not be considered sufficient reaction to an effusive welcome. The Iyyun Ya’akov remarks that the existence of strife among acquaintances is no excuse for failing to initiate a greeting and certainly not for refusing to respond to one. R. Tzvi Elimelekh of Dienov comments that on the contrary, in such an instance it is all the more necessary to take the first step in offering greetings in order to hasten reconciliation. However, this does call into question the youthful behavior of the brothers of Yosef, who “could not speak with him for shalom.” R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch therefore suggests that any overtures would be negatively interpreted.
III. Greetings in the Name of God
The Talmud relates that it was decreed that greetings should be made using the name of God and that the Heavenly court agreed to this. Whether this took place at the time of Boaz, whom the Talmud identifies with this practice, or was later enacted by the Hasmoneans, is a matter of some analysis. R. Yehudah Assad assumes this to have been instituted by Ezra. The Meiri explains that the reasoning behind this innovation was to make clear from whence all peace comes. This was especially necessary in light of the erosion of faith caused by the activities of the Sadducees, apparently the motivation for the enactment. This preceded considerations of the inappropriate use of God’s name; as the Mishnah cites, “It is a time to do for God, they have nullified your Torah.” Rashi, however, implies that the fundamental concern was the spreading of peace in this era, a goal apparently encouraged by the emphasis provided by the use of God’s name.
The scope of the enactment is not immediately clear. Rashi presents two possibilities as to whether it became obligatory to use the Divine Name in salutations, or just that one who does so need not fear that he is taking God’s Name in vain. In either case, empirical evidence will immediately indicate that modern practice does not usually involve pronouncing God’s Name in the normal mode of greeting. This discrepancy between talmudic law and modern custom is explained by the authorities in one of two ways. The first is that the enactment was temporary and is no longer in effect; in fact, the lack of reference to this notion in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is accordingly noted. This is the position of R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai and others. The second approach is that the essence of the enactment is fulfilled when care is taken to use the word shalom, which itself has Divine connotations. Additionally, R. Yechiel Moshe Epstein offers a more homiletically oriented take on the entire concept: the enactment was not primarily that greetings should be offered with the Name of God, but for the sake of the Name of God. That is to say, it must be realized that greeting others is not a mere social ritual but a profound religious act.
By such process the greeting of others became akin to pronouncing the Holy Name, in particular when the word shalom is used. This affects the treatment of greetings in halakhah in a number of ways. For one, it is forbidden to pronounce shalom in any place deemed inappropriate to say God’s Name. R. Yosef Engel raises the question of whether this is because the act of offering greetings is now a sanctified act or because the very word shalom itself is considered holy. Relevant to that latter possibility, the Tosafot consider the word to possess the status of a name that may not be erased, although Rabbeinu Asher apparently disagrees. R. Assad notes that the latter position is also that of the Rambam. The Rama recommends that an incomplete spelling be used when writing letters, to avoid problems of disrespectful treatment. R. Shabtai HaKohen records that most are not of the custom to be careful for this stringency. Some authorities were hesitant to allow using shalom to greet a bareheaded man, as he will then respond despite his lack of the necessary attire to do so; nonetheless, R. Ovadiah Yosef and R. Aharon Rosenfeld are lenient, fearing such reluctance will be misinterpreted as unfriendliness. So, too, R. Moshe Shternbuch feels that strictly speaking, there is no reason for concern. The Talmud Yerushalmi recommends distinguishing between greetings to Jews and to non-Jews in usage of the word shalom, and idea apparently rejected by the Talmud Bavli.
IV. Prohibitions Related to Greetings, and the Lessons Within
In spite of the tremendous emphasis placed on providing proper greetings, there are numerous occasions when salutations are inappropriate. An understanding of these instances and their significantly varying applications, as well as other details of this area of halakhah, necessitates an analysis of the conceptual makeup of the phrases and the multiple functions they serve. To this end, R. Joseph D. Epstein identifies several elements that are present, or may be present, when a salutation is expressed.
When the effort is taken to welcome another individual, this person enjoys an elevation of status, a boost in his personal estimation. On the most basic level, as R. Shlomo Aviner points out, taking the effort to say hello to someone conveys the message, “I have time for you.” In a more elaborate formulation, the greeting process can become a display of honor toward the recipient. It is in this vein that offering a greeting to a human being before praying to God in the morning can be considered inappropriate. Accordingly, this behavior is criticized primarily when one goes to the house of another to offer greetings, an overt act of homage, before prayers. This is explicit in Rashi’s language: “When one is supposed to be involved in the honor of Heaven, it is forbidden to become involved in the honor of humans.”
However, it should be noted that another element exists to this prohibition, that of avoiding the danger of forgetting to pray altogether. For this purpose, the Ra’avad advocates utilization of alternative types of greetings, to serve as a reminder that prayer still awaits. The length of time devoted to the greeting may also be a factor. This topic must be carefully analyzed, for, as R. Shmuel Baruch Ohayoun observes, one who is unnecessarily stringent in this area may violate the aforementioned prohibition of rejecting a greeting.
Nonetheless, once prayer has begun, various personal considerations do allow interruptions for the sake of greetings. These factors differ in weight and, consequently, in the nature of interruption that is allowed, as far as the point in the prayer service and whether the greeting is an initiation or a response. The first such recognized consideration is yirah, normally translated as “fear,” which allows greetings even in the middle of the Shma. Rashi interprets this factor as fear for one’s life; others disagree, noting such a concern would permit any violation and merit no special mention here. As such, the Rosh translates the term as the halakhic mora, or “awe,” accorded to parents and rebbeim. R. Yoel Sirkes argues, noting that such awe is generally passive in nature, and upholds the position of Rashi, which is shared by the Rambam. The Meiri modifies it slightly to mean fear for any kind of harm. The other consideration is kavod, “honor,” which justifies interrupting between blessings; Rashi understands this as referring to a dignified individual, while the Rambam applies it to halakhic recipients of kavod, such as parents. Despite these dispensations, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan notes that current social understandings generally obviate the need to interrupt prayer for greetings.
Another detail of the element of offering respect with a greeting is that it must be done within certain conventions. Not every manner of addressing a distinguished individual is suitable; the Talmud warns that greeting one’s rebbe in a cavalier manner may be inappropriate. Thus, the Shulchan Arukh places certain limitations on tone and style to be used.
Another function of exchanging shalom is the concurrent increase in the sense of friendship and peace among men. It is in this sense that the mention of God’s Name is most called for, as per the words of the Meiri cited earlier, in order that the source of all harmony be apparent. The verse observes, “As face to face in water, so does one man’s heart to another.” Rashi explains, the attitude of the first is reflected by those he encounters; an enthusiastic welcome will receive an equivalent response.
Depending on the intent, the objective of a greeting may go further than a general contribution to social unity, and is more specifically geared toward the deepening of particular bond joining two individuals. It is this type of inquiring of shalom that a man is enjoined from proffering toward a married woman. Consequently, when there is a reason to believe the woman is not well and a genuine investigation into her health is intended, the Responsa Avnei Mishpat feels there is no prohibition. In modern contexts, halachic authorities have assumed that in general, greetings offered to women are devoid of romantic intent.
Another element present within the unsolicited salutation is perhaps also relevant to the previous instance, that of endearing oneself to the recipient. The Rambam explicitly notes this as a goal of initiating greetings: “so that people will be satisfied with him.”
Additionally, a greeting offered contains an aspect common to an act of kindness; one returned is part of the courtesy of gratitude. Thus, a person who is known to greet the other deserves, by rights, to have the same done to him; and when a salutation is offered unsolicited, it constitutes an act of generosity toward the recipient. It is with this perspective that the possibility that an out-of-the-ordinary welcome to one who has lent money to the greeter may be considered a form of nonmonetary interest.
Attention to the phraseology used by the Talmud reveals a basic duality inherent to the exchanging of shalom. On the one hand, the gesture serves as an inquiry into the person’s welfare; hence the term sh’eilat shalom, “asking” shalom. Additionally, the phrase notein shalom, “giving” shalom, is also found. The latter phrase has the connotation of bestowing a blessing on the recipient, offering him one’s best wishes for happiness and success. R. Eliezer of Papo writes that when pronouncing the word shalom, one’s intention should be, “It should be His will that peace be with you.” A very real manifestation of this concept is found in the Talmudic recommendation for an individual who has dreamed he was excommunicated and fears the ominous implications. He is to sit at the crossroads and offer shalom to ten passersby. Rabbeinu Nissim explains the value of this course of action: “And through that they will respond to him, shalom, this will protect him from affliction.”
Identifying these components is important in considering the prohibition of sh’eilat shalom to a mourner, or to anyone on the fast of Tisha B’Av, when all Jews are in a state of mourning. To a tormented individual, freshly anguished by a painful loss, an inquiry into his shalom can only be inappropriate; as the Talmud states, he is far from being sharui b’shalom, “in a state of peace.” However, an offering of wishes for happier times, or an expression of a social convention, may not be uncalled for; a distinction between certain modern greetings and the Talmudic sh’eilat shalom is evident already in the Rama. Along these lines, R. Tzvi Pesach Frank allows a handshake and a blessing for long life, as does R. Raphael Evers. However, many authorities take a different approach and forbid all greetings. Additionally, R. Avraham Weinfeld suggests that during the initial shivah period, and imperative of “silence” is applicable, warranting stringency despite the nature of the greeting.
Far from being a mere social convention or an instinctive grunt, the words expressed upon meeting another are packed with multiple levels of spiritual significance. Each greeting carries the potential to affect the balance of holiness in society in countless ways. The Derekh Eretz Zuta records God’s promise, that “he who loves shalom and pursues shalom, offers shalom and responds with shalom, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will bequeath to him this world and the next.”
- Honest Conversations with Self and Others ... and Four Reasons to Feast: Inyanei Aseres Yemei Teshuva and Erev Yom Kippur