difference between l’shalom and b’shalom

Before I begin, a little request:

Since I wrote this back in April (it’s now February 8, 2011), 397 people have looked at this. (And as of today, April 19, 2012, it’s up to over 2400 total views!) It basically turns out that 4 or 5 people daily look at this one blentry, more than any other that I’ve written. Obviously, people are interested in this topic.  I am curious to know what you, too, were looking for and whether I answered your questions or raised others.  Can you let me know?

Thanks:). And now to the topic at hand:

I will admit that certain things bug me that are not really anything.  I’m no tzaddik, I readily admit.  But one thing recently has bothered me that I figured I’d investigate a bit to find out is it me or is it them?

This is why people sign a letter “L’shalom”.

I usually sign mine “Kol tuv”, since this is what I wish people, “all the best”.

So the conflict between l’shalom and b’shalom is the same thing, right?

I’ll quote the whole thing here, why not:

Rebbi Levi bar Chaisa teaches that when one parts with the deceased, he should not say, “Lech l’Shalom” (“Go towards peace (peacefully)”), but rather, “Lech b’Shalom” (“Go in peace”).

In contrast, when one parts with his friend, he should not say to him, “Lech b’Shalom” (“Go in peace”), but rather, “Lech l’Shalom” (“Go towards peace (peacefully)”).

The VILNA GA’ON (quoted by the Pardes Yosef) points out that Rebbi Levi bar Chaisa’s teaching explains the verse that describes the brothers’ enmity towards Yosef: “And they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully (l’Shalom)” (Bereishis 37:4). Out of their contempt for Yosef they could not bring themselves to bless Yosef with the word “l’Shalom” as one speaks to the living, but rather they preferred to treat him like a dead person.

This raises a question in a different verse. If one is not supposed to bless his friend with the word “b’Shalom,” then why did Yakov Avinu ask Hash-m to return him “in peace” (“b’Shalom”) to his father’s home (Bereishis 28:21)?

(a) To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the reason for why one should bless the living with the word “l’Shalom” and not with the word “b’Shalom.” The SEMICHAS CHACHAMIM (to Berachos 64a, by the author of the MEGALEH AMUKOS) explains that a living person must always seek to grow spiritually and avoid stagnating on the same spiritual level. A dead person, in contrast, can no longer grow and achieve; he remains at whatever spiritual level he attained in his lifetime. For this reason, the blessing given to a living person is, “Go towards peace” (“l’Shalom”) — towards a greater level of spiritual wholeness (“Shalom” from the word “Shalem,” whole). In contrast, the blessing given to the deceased is, “Go in peace” (“b’Shalom”), since his soul leaves this world at the level of spiritual accomplishment that he achieved in his lifetime.

This explains why Yakov Avinu did not use the prescribed terminology in his prayer. Normally, one blesses another person that he should grow and rise higher. Yakov Avinu was about to embark on his journey to the house of Lavan, a place full of wickedness and impurity. He prayed, “May I return in peace” (“v’Shavti v’Shalom”) — “may I return from the house of Lavan on the same spiritual level at which I am now, unharmed and uninfluenced by the perilous environment there.” (KOHELES YITZCHAK to Parashas Vayetzei)

(b) The RITVA and CHIDUSHEI HA’RAN give another explanation for the difference between “l’Shalom” and “b’Shalom.” When one says to his friend, “Go in peace,” he implies that he friend should have peace only while traveling. He does not include in his blessing what will happen once his friend reaches his destination. “Lech b’Shalom” is a blessing only for a peaceful journey, and not for a peaceful arrival. It is an incomplete blessing to give to the living. Besides blessing the traveler that his journey should be peaceful, one should bless him that he “go towards peace” and arrive at his destination in peace and suffer no harm there.

In contrast, “go in peace” is an appropriate blessing to the deceased. His destination (the World to Come) is certainly peaceful; it is only the journey there which is fearful (as the Gemara earlier (28a) describes).

According to this explanation, perhaps the Gemara’s teaching applies only when the word “Lech” (“go”) is used with the word “b’Shalom.” The word “Lech” implies that the ordeal of the journey alone should be peaceful. When Yakov Avinu said, “I should return b’Shalom,” without the word “go,” he meant that his arrival back home should be in peace. In the context of his prayer, the word “b’Shalom” was appropriate.

(c) Alternatively, perhaps Yakov Avinu used the word “b’Shalom” because his prayer indeed included a request to be returned to his father’s house after his death. Yakov Avinu prayed that Hash-m allow him to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah alongside his father. (This wish was granted to him when Esav accepted all of Yakov’s wealth in return for his portion in the Cave; see Rashi to Bereishis 50:5). (M. Kornfeld)

So, am I convinced?  Isn’t this the same thing as wishing someone “kol tuv”?

I think my rankles are up because it seems to have been adopted by the Conservative movement (see here).  I wish it were because they’ve all learned what the Gemara says or even what the rabbis say.  I fear that they say it because they say it.  Because they’ve taken it on as a PC kind of thing to say.

So, I guess, it ends up being a question of form and format more than anything else.  Does a valediction (thank you, Jane, for drawing my attention to my mistake calling it a salutation) refer to you or to the addressed?  When you write “Sincerely yours”, you are obviously referring to yourself.  And so when I write “kol tuv”, am I wishing it through myself or to myself?

Postscript–September 20, 2011–I’ve updated this here. Take a look, if you’re still looking.


25 responses

  1. Pingback: continuing in the ways of shalom; are you in or just on your way? « But Mostly Hers

  2. It seems to me that those who know no Hebrew are trying to be cute or feel that it is fancy to express themselves in Hebrew. Unfortunately they do it in an abbreviated style which is at least improper or totally incorrect. Whether you sign your letter with b’ or l’shalom is meaningless. By itself it means nothing and as you mention, it may refer to either the writer or to the addressee. Even Kol Tuv which is an Israeli abbreviation is incomplete. If you mean to say “Have kol Tuv” write it or write Kol Tuv Lecha, which is the Isarelis mean.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure they’re trying to be cute–I think most people are just following people whom they admire, jumping on bandwagons. I agree that most things are fairly meaningless, but I wish that when people take something on, whatever it is, they should do it out of knowledge and not just for style.

  3. Pingback: 231 people have found my l’shalom/b’shalom « But Mostly Hers

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  5. I don’t think this is about cuteness at all. Salutations are, in any language, fairly formal and standard in the expression of a professional yet sincere sentiment. Best wishes, sincerely, warm regards are all English versions of the same thing, and it seems entirely appropriate that one would duplicate this when conversing in another language.

    The similarity of use is typical of a salutation, and you’re often going to write what you see most often written. That’s exactly what I do, especially because I don’t know what’s proper in Hebrew, and so rely on the experience of others to guide me.

    • First of all, thank you for commenting! I think you are absolutely correct in terms of English and standards, and I also agree that it is reasonable to look for examples from others about the appropriateness of terms in different languages. Not being an Israeli and not having Hebrew as my mother tongue, I also look for others for what they do and that’s how I got started with this whole thing, since I saw it (the “l’shalom” phenomenon) as becoming very commonplace. The difference with Hebrew and other languages that I know of is the reference points. Since Hebrew has as its root holiness from the Bible and subsequent Jewish texts, then it’s going to have built-in reference points that we should be aware of. Maybe not; maybe that’s the normal secularism of language of today. An interesting example of that (the one that I know of) is the Hebrew word for electricity–chashmal. Apparently, many people would not use that word, since it refers to a fiery angelic being, not to be mentioned in day-to-day conversation. I don’t know of anyone, including kabbalists, who don’t use the word casually today. And to get back to my point, by just following someone in this case is not taking grammar or convention into account.

      I am feeling like the correct salutation is “bvrachah” lately, anyway!

  6. Hebrew is not my native tongue, so I am still in the learning process of all of this. One of my biblical studies instructors noted that when Jethro said farewell to Moses he used the phrase “lech l’shalom” and what followed was the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. He further noted that when King David parted from Absalom he used the phrase “lech b’shalom” and what followed was the death of Absalom. In speaking with others much wiser and knowledgeable than I they tend to agree that “lech b’shalom” is reserved for the deceased and caution should be used when using this as a salutation or or parting comment to the living. I’m still trying to get a better grasp on this and learn more of the Hebrew language and it’s proper word meanings.

    • I applaud you in your attempt to find correct meaning of words and phrases. What bothers me the most is when people latch on to actions of all kinds without really knowing what they’re doing. It seems that people accept other’s ideas and use them, not realizing that they are not using things (even words) correctly. This does not bode well for society at large, as we see with so many actions or inactions.

      Hebrew is not my native tongue, either, and I also am just trying to figure out my way in the world, but with meaning!

      Thanks for writing.

  7. This is great! I searched found this site by searching “l’shalom b’shalom” because I had picked up the use of “l’shalom” from someone I admire and really appreciate but lately had seen a lot of people using “b’shalom”. So I wanted to know what the difference was. Based on reading this, I admire my friend who taught me “l’shalom” even more and appreciate him even more for the scholar that he is. Now I know wha kol tuv means too, but I’m going to keep on saying “l’shalom” as I think it’s beautiful and poetic. Thank you.

    • Actually, my conclusion is the opposite. It is fine to say that we should be wishing people to go towards peace, l’shalom, but it doesn’t make sense when used in a letter as a salutation. But you should definitely still hold your friend in high esteem, as you should for all your friends!

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Here it is 2012 and I’m among those searching for the distinction as well. I don’t think the previous posters meant that they would use “l’shalom” as a salutation, but rather as a signatory or closing address. I have also read that, whatever the denotation, “b’shalom” can inadvertently connote “drop dead” (rest in peace, literally). Since I don’t want incur the wrath of friends or associates, I have been using l’shalom (without the “lech”) 😉

        Like most of the posters here, I seek to be informed in my non-native Hebrew usage.

        Thanks for your thoughtful blog.

      • Thank you for writing in, Jane. I think I made a mistake about the use of salutation! Apparently, I meant “valediction”, now that I actually check it out…I will correct my post, etc. to show that.

        I see what you mean about the inadvertent “drop dead” idea. That’s perhaps another way that being PC has gone too far, to assign such thoughts to people simply writing a letter…

        But my point is that a “valediction” is not the place for such points! It is a wonderful piece of Torah and a wonderful lesson, but not the correct place to use it! At the end of a letter, or whatever you’re writing, you are not saying to someone “Go in Peace”. Now I just looked at Wikipedia says. Of course, I don’t know who wrote this, but it is telling:

        Hebrew (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valediction#Hebrew)

        Formal letters in Hebrew often end with “b’chavod (rav*)” (Hebrew: בכבוד *רב, lit: with (great*) honor) or somewhat less formal “bivracha” (Hebrew: בברכה, lit: with blessing). The informal ones may use “kol tuv” (Hebrew: כל טוב, lit: all the best). For an intimate, you might end a letter or email with “mitga’ageah” (m) or “mitga’aga’at” (f) — missing you. Jews in the United States often use “B’shalom” or “shalom” (Hebrew: בשלום, lit: in peace) within Jewish circles, for example, from a Rabbi to his or her congregation. This is an American Jewish usage, rarely heard from native speakers of Hebrew. “B’shalom” is incorrect, as it is religiously tantamount to wishing death on someone. Indeed, the Talmud says: “In bidding farewell to the living one should not say, ‘Go with peace’ [lech b’shalom], but ‘Go to peace’ [lech l’shalom], because [King] David said to [his son] Avshalom, ‘Go with peace’, and he went and was hanged; whereas Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go to peace’, and he went and succeeded.” [Talmud, Moed Katan 29a]

        So back to “kol tuv” it is!

  8. Pingback: the impossibility of kol tuv « But Mostly Hers

  9. I regret that I can’t address you by name. It seems to me that if you had the courage to speak in you own voice, and to publish your thoughts on the internet, you should have the courage to take a name. That is, either to give you own name, or to give yourself a name. When I was a younger man, and started a business, I had to give a name to the business. And in doing so, I gave another name to myself, which was a real name… and changed somewhat, my relationship to the world around me. The name my father gave me was Shimon, and I am completely at peace and appreciative of the name. chazal said that the giving of a name is the last incarnation of prophesy until Jerusalem will be rebuilt. The second name, the one I gave to my company, was צלם אנוש.

    Before I read this article, I read something else that you had written, about words losing their meaning when they are said over and over. And I applauded your understanding that it is wise to change the words occasionally, to think afresh every time we open our mouths, and even when we are in prayer. I agree with you completely. And so I wonder that you would spend so much energy on choosing between two possibilities, and believe that what others understood might be a directive relevant to yourself. Perhaps you were influenced by what the conservatives say. But if I am not mistaken, you are orthodox, and not conservative. So why bother yourself with what they are saying. Let them say what they wish. It makes no difference. Their intention, certainly, is to remind themselves that they are still Jews, and such an intention can only be blessed.

    And if I may add something to your discussion of the two possibilities, let me begin with an explanation that Or Hachaim gives to what is a blessing. He says, that a blessing has to detect something that is existent in the person being blessed, something that has the potential of being good, and then the blessor strengthens this characteristic in the blessed person. There has been much discussion of what a blessing is in the literature, but I am just sharing with you a very little bit… that happens to be the comment I love the most. In any case, as you already know, b’shalom indicates the journey. And l’shalom, indicated the objective. There are some cases, where ones intention is the journey. This does not exclude necessarily, the objective. And the reverse, if one blesses peace at reaching the objective, one doesn’t mean to deride the possibility of peace on the journey… it is just that sometimes this is not plausible, unfortunately.

    You have to remember too, that sometimes, in Hebrew, words are passed with one eye… sagi nahor, that is meant to be understood in reverse. And who knows what was the kavanah of Josephs brothers… though we wish them well, for they were our ancestors.

    I hope you will forgive me for this long comment. I do not read booklets on etiquette, and so would not know that it was uncool to call the rabbi after ten/ what’s more, I myself have been called at all hours of the day (and night), and so, who knows if a comment this long is not a transgression of basic etiquette. And if it is, I apologize in advance. With best wishes for constant growth, constant learning, the warmth of loved ones close to you, and peace. Shimon

    • I’ve been taking a long time thinking about how to respond to your comment. First of all, thank you for writing! I also will admit that if I were to write the article over now, I would do it differently. My main opposition to the term for signing letters is my wariness of groupthink. And yes, even though the message of the dvar Torah is a positive one, I have seen that most people who sign on (sorry) to using the term, do it strictly by following others. And so I would hope that people make themselves more knowledgeable. And ironically, the same people who reject tradition are often very quick to take on new rituals. If only people would be as invested in learning the sources as they are in taking on new things…and in that regard, if I came across too harsh, then that does not help.

      And in terms of why I blog anonymously, I agree that it would be easier in some ways not to. But I do feel that I need to protect myself and my family a bit from TMI. So I stay guarded in that direction. Of course, my family and friends do know my identity and that for me is enough. For now.

  10. When I began to study Torah intensively with a small group, I saw that many of them signed messages with kol tov. When I felt I understood it well, I started signing many of my own messages this way. I do wish the recipients all the best, after all. After time, things became somewhat turbulent in my own life, our community, and internationally. I long for peace as I am sure others do. I began to sign messages with B’shalom. A rabbi explained to me that, while it is not incorrect to say, ‘I am sending this message in peace,’ it has morbid associations, like a Catholic signing a letter with “Ashes to ashes.” Since then, I use L’shalom on everything but formal correspondence. All of my friends and family recognize “shalom” and many have told me that they appreciate this sentiment. I think it is not a fashion, but a reaction as so many people are striving for peace.

    • I appreciate your thoughtfulness about the need for all of us to do our part, even in how we address people. My problem, really, is the form. If you are signing a letter, the correct form is ב; like באהבה, בידידות, בכבוד רב,בברכה. So if the form is to have that connecting letter, then the proper form is to use בשלום. Since there is a few different learnings about the use of the term, then people legitimately should avoid it. Fine. But morbid associations? I think that’s going too strong. If you want to use the l’shalom, then at least use the full form “lech l’shalom”. But clearly, that doesn’t sound reasonable, because you’re not saying to them that they should go anywhere. So the whole thing, as a valediction, does not make sense. This is what I’ve learned about the whole thing. But good luck, and thanks for responding! Shavua Tov and Chodesh Tov!

  11. Pingback: photos for the next two lines | Learning from the Learned

  12. וואו! היה לי מושג שיש כל כך הרבה בלבול בנושא צר מאוד, ובעברית, לא השפה האם שלי! עבודה נהדרת! זה מעניין איך ה ‘שם בעץ חיים שלנו, או נתיב ש. תמשיך את העבודה נהדרת!

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