Glamour of Grammar: Shalom aleichem

Related to shalem ("complete"), the greeting 'Shalom' includes hopeful notes of tranquility and completeness.

Shalom. That ancient Hebrew word, variously meaning "hello," "good-bye" and "peace," seems a fitting way to inaugurate this column on the glamour of the grammar. Related to shalem ("complete"), the greeting includes hopeful notes of tranquility and completeness. The root of the word, sh-l-m, also gives us l'shalem, "to pay," because you complete a (legal) transaction by paying for what you have taken; and l'hashlim, "to complete," or, as high-school students know, to make up missed work. The official hourly Hebrew news broadcasts from the Voice of Israel begin shalom rav, that is "great peace," but also "hello." (During the Second Lebanese War, some broadcasters dropped the word rav in a subtle nod to the violence and to the national state of unease that it caused.) A more traditional greeting is longer: shalom aleichem, "peace be upon you." It comes ready made with a built-in response: aleichem shalom, "upon you be peace," or the slightly more formal va'aleichem hashalom, "and upon you be the peace." But when Israelis greet one another on the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, it is not shalom or a longer variation of it, but rather the colloquial ahalan that is most often heard. Ahalan, borrowed directly from Arabic, comes from ahal, one of many words for "family." (The cognate Hebrew word, ohel, means "tent," that is a place where a family lived.) What better greeting could be offered to a weary desert traveler than to be welcomed into the protective shade of a tent or the warm company of family. Indeed, Abraham is known for his generosity in welcoming strangers into his family tent. And though tents are now rare in Israel, the cordial greeting pays homage to a form of ancient hospitality. Some speakers add wasahlan, "and to the plain," perhaps contrasting with, say, rocky mountains, and therefore alluding to a place of comfort. A loose translation of the pair might be, "make yourself at home" and "make yourself comfortable." Saying good-bye is more difficult. While the traditional shalom is one possibility, much more common is the Hebrew equivalent of au revoir, l'hitra'ot, "to see each other." There's no "re-" prefix in Hebrew, but the point is clear. It's like a more formal version of "see ya." Curiously, this expression is used even on the radio, a medium that does not allow people to see each other. In this regard the radio is like the telephone, but that device has its own set of niceties. The most common response to a ringing phone is the somewhat vague alo - that's AH-lo, unlike the European ah-LO - though shalom is on the rise, particularly in business settings. What about ending a phone conversation? The formal shalom is still a possibility, but, surprisingly, l'hitra'ot is insufficient. It is almost always followed by the redundant bye: l'hitra'ot bye. And of late, a more urgent phrase of departure has taken hold: yalla bye. Yalla, also from Arabic, means roughly "let's go," or, with a more stern intonation, "get a move on." Its introduction to the traditional end of a phone conversation in Israel is akin to concluding with, "Well, it's been nice, but enough of this jabbering on the phone. We both have more important things to do. Bye." Correspondence presents its own set of vocabulary. The formal greeting in a business letter is lichvod ("to the honor of"), which has as little to do with honor as "dear" has with endearment in English. Even a letter accusing a scoundrel of corruption begins with "to the honor of..." The most common written conclusion in Israel nicely matches the opening: b'chavod, "with honor." But, again, it's an expression; it really just means "my name comes next." Diaspora Jews, though, like the idea of beginning and ending with peace. "Shalom so and so" is a fine way to start. B'shalom, "with peace," might be a fitting conclusion, but the Babylonian Talmud (Moed 29a) warns that b'shalom is only to be used of the dead or dying and that l'shalom is to be preferred for the living. (It's a long story.) So traditional Jews are stuck with l'shalom, which, frankly, sounds a little silly in modern Israeli Hebrew. And what about the proper way to end a newspaper column? Surely something elegant ought to be available, but I've already overrun my 700 word limit. Ciao. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.