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Book Review: Shalom Aleichem

Author: Rabbi Shiloh Ben-David. Book: Shalom Aleichem: A Collection of Halachos, Aggados, and Anecdotes about Greeting People.

ISBN-13: 978-9657599136; 217 pages; Publisher: Self-Published; Price: $23.95. Rating: 2.5 * out of four.

The 20th century Orthodox scholar and philanthropist Irving Bunim, in his monumental study on Pirke Avoth, makes a profound observation about the significance of an ordinary greeting.

  • “There is many a person whose petty conceit will not permit him to recognize anyone unless he is recognized first. The other person must make the first move. This is his way of establishing and maintaining his ‘dignity.’ Others will hesitate from a sense of insecurity to be the first to extend a warm greeting to those they meet. They are afraid to give a token of friendship and receive only an icy stare in return. They will therefore insist on waiting until the person they meet takes the ‘emotional risk,’ while they ‘play it safe.’ Whatever the reason, such behavior is wrong. Take the initiative, says our Sage. Do not seek a sense of importance, or an illusion of security, at the expense of another’s feelings. Give him a friendly greeting with a warm smile, and inquire of his welfare.”[1]

With this thought in mind, I shall now introduce a fine new book written by Rabbi Shimon ben David entitled, Shalom Aleichem: A Collection of Halachos, Aggados, and Anecdotes about Greeting People.

The first part of the book details the practical application regarding greeting someone with respect to mourners, interrupting prayer to greet a parent, a teacher, or even a potential enemy, such as a Roman King.  However, the author points out that even greeting someone has its limitation. For example, during prayer it is considered in appropriate to greet someone while the Cantor is leading a service. Modern synagogues could probably benefit from less socializing and more focused prayer. The author’s knowledge of the Halachic sources is impressive; he carefully annotates the legal discussions on the bottom of the page in Hebrew so that scholars might look into the Responsa literature that is written on the subject.

While most people would not think twice about the propriety concerning greeting a woman, the author mentions that many rabbis see nothing wrong with simply being polite. Yet, among the Ultra-Orthodox, such social niceties are considered “sinful.” Many of today’s Ultra-Orthodox rabbis fear that it might lead to a relationship (or possibly mixed dancing?).  Moreover, many scholars assert that a man is not even allowed to hear the voice of a woman (pp. 39-41).  Such reasoning only proves why there is such a degree of dysfunction in the Ultra-Orthodox world whenever it deals with gender interactions. This is very sad because young Orthodox people objectify the opposite gender.  Even making eye-contact with the opposite sex is considered “sinful.” Yet, we must not forget that when Jacob greets Rachel for the first time, the Torah tells us that he kissed her![2]

The author weaves many stories how rabbis of the past—from ancient to modern times—taught their followers about the importance of greeting a fellow-human being. Examples include:

  • Take care to greet one another with “Shalom”[3] (p. 109).
  • Anyone who greets another is as though he has given that person food and drink (p. 110).
  • R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: If one knows that his friend is used to greeting him, then he ought to greet his friend first, for it is said: Seek peace and pursue it (Psa. 34:15). Should his friend greet him first, but he does not return the greeting, such a person is called a robber, for it is said: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses (Isa. 3:14).[4]

There is one quote from Rabbi ben David’s book Shalom Aleichem that I really liked from Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein.

  • A person might belittle this simple act. He might think that nothing is accomplished by simply saying “Good Morning” respectfully to someone he passes on the sidewalk instead of looking the other way as if he does not exist. You never know, however, how much that person is looking forward to a warm greeting from another human being (p. 123).

Although the author is correct in pointing out that there is a vast literature on greeting people in Jewish literature, this reviewer feels the author did not systematize his book properly. There should have been a section dealing with the various biblical examples of greetings culled from the different books of the Bible. The rabbinical literature is a total hodgepodge that was very hard to follow any particular theme. The anecdote section was nice but missing several excellent illustrations such as Yaffa Elliach’s Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust [5] and her inspiring story of Herr Mueller. The bifurcation of greeting Jews and Gentiles seemed unenlightened—especially since every human being bears the image of God—not just Jews.  Didn’t Shammai teach us, “Shammai said: “Greet every  human being with a pleasant countenance”?[6] Note that Shammai did not distinguish whether a person is a Gentile or woman.



[1] Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai – A Wide-Ranging Commentary on Pirkei Avos (New York: Feldheim, 1964) , 587. 

[2] Actually, greetings vary from culture to culture; in many places, kissing on the cheek is a way of expressing friendship, congeniality and relationship. This is evident in the Torah when Jacob kisses Rachel—an act that has surprised Christian and Jewish moralists for millennium. To the chagrin of Christian pietists like Calvin, Jacob kisses Rachel when he first met her (Calvin argues that Jacob first introduced himself—and then he kissed her!). Josephus says that there was no kiss between Jacob and Rachel. Rather, it is Rachel who weeps, while Jacob is overwhelmed by the lovely maiden’s beauty; Rachel immediately embraces Jacob with her arms (Antiquities 1.288–91). In many cultures around the world—ancient and modern—kissing on the cheeks (a.k.a. “a peck”) is a way of affirming the bonds of fellowship and family (as noted by Ramban in the 14th century in his Torah commentary).

[3] Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan 29:7.

 [4] BT Berakhot 7a.

[5]New York: Avon Books, 1982. Pages 129-30.

[6] Mishnah, Avoth 1:15.



Discussion

  1. Dr. Michael Samet  August 10, 2015

    The first review posted here is excellent.
    A great little book, available in both Hebrew and English.
    However, the author’s name is Rabbi Shiloh Ben David, not Rabbi Shimon ben David.

    MGS

    (reply)

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