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Perhaps this resulted from situations in which it was unclear whether one was addressing one or more people. In the New Testament, which is contemporary with early rabbinic Judaism, Jesus is quoted as telling his disciples, “And when ye come into a house, salute it. And if the house be worthy let your peace come upon it.”
What he is actually saying is, “When you enter a house, say ‘Shalom aleykhem’” — and indeed, when opening the door of someone’s home, one doesn’t know how many people are inside. Using a plural form would be natural then.
Shalom aleykhem, translated by the Greek New Testament as Eirene humin, and by the Latin New Testament as Pax vobis, was also Jesus’ way of greeting his disciples. The phrases entered both the Greek Orthodox and Catholic liturgies and is also used by the Episcopalian and Lutheran churches. In the Latin mass it is reserved, as Pax vobiscum, for the use of bishops; ordinary priests say “Dominus vobiscum” or “God be with you.” The congregation’s answer to a bishop is not, however, “Vobiscum pax,” but rather “Et cum spiritus tuo,” “And with thy spirit.”
An inverted answer, as Mr. Sislen point out, does take place in Arabic, where “Aleykum as-salaam,” “And upon you be peace,” is the standard reply to “Salaam aleykum.” It is possible, though by no means certain, that it was the inversion in Arabic — throughout the Middle Ages, the language spoken by most of the world’s Jews — that influenced a similar usage in Hebrew, for which there is no clear evidence in ancient times.
Yet the shalom aleykhem/salaam aleykum greeting in itself existed in both languages long before they came into significant contact and probably goes back to an ancient Semiticism that may have existed in other Middle Eastern languages as well.
In contemporary Arabic, salaam aleykum is not a greeting used for one’s everyday encounters (for those, there are more informal alternatives), and this is even truer of shalom aleykhem as it came to be used by Jews. In Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, it was an emphatic greeting generally reserved for either someone met for the first time or not seen for a long time, and it was not used with the family members, neighbors, friends or acquaintances seen on a regular basis.
Today, its use is even rarer, since among secular Israelis it is almost never heard at all. In both Israel and elsewhere, it is limited to Orthodox (although not necessarily Yiddish-speaking) Jews, and although a hearty “Shalom aleykhem” is still an expressive way of saying “Where have you been?” or “Pleased to meet you,” the average Jew can now go a lifetime without saying it or having it said to him.
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