Berel Lang of Wesleyan University writes to ask if I would “consider tracing the genealogy of the Hebrew Sabbath greeting ‘Shabbat Shalom’ — specifically, when it entered popular discourse.” And he continues: “My hunch is that it is a) modern and b) secular, that is, deriving from the generally nonreligious world of Zionist pioneers in 20th-century Palestine, and from the problem that religious traditions posed for them. (The phrase is not, after all, a translation of the traditional Yiddish greeting, a gutn shabbes, ‘A good Sabbath!’) I’ve asked a number of Jewish studies scholars about this, but have so far drawn a blank.”
Berel Lang’s hunches, it so happens, are both wrong. The expression “shabbat shalom,” literally, “Sabbath of peace,” is neither modern nor secular in origin. The one thing Mr. Lang is right about is its being Palestinian, since it originated in the Galilee, in the city of Safed, in the mystical circle of renowned kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1582) — also known by an acronym of his name, forming the Hebrew word for “The Lion,” as Ha-Ari.
Luria and his disciples had many unique practices, the best guide to which can be found in the Hebrew book “h.emdat Yamim,” “The Adornment of Days,” written in Jerusalem in the 17th century. Although its anonymous author was not, as he was once reputed to be, Nathan of Gaza, the “prophet” and apostle of the false Messiah Sabbetai Zevi — he apparently was, besides being a follower of Lurianic customs, a Sabbatian sympathizer. In a chapter on Sabbath observance, he declares that after leaving synagogue at the end of the Musaf service Saturday morning, a Jew should “go directly home in great joy instead of meandering here and there [to visit friends or neighbors] and say in a loud voice when he enters [his home], ‘Shabbat shalom u’mevorakh,’ and sit down at the table dressed in white like an angel of God.”
The word u’mevorakh, which means “and blessed” in Hebrew, is puzzling in this context, inasmuch as, a grammatically masculine and singular form, it is not clear to whom or what it refers. It cannot be to the Sabbath, since shabbat in Hebrew is feminine, as is the traditional image of the Sabbath as a queen or bride; yet neither can it be to the members of the greeter’s family, in which case it would be u’mevorakhim, in the plural. Perhaps it refers to the good angel who, in kabbalistic belief, accompanies every Jew during the Sabbath and is here being welcomed to the greeter’s home, just as the Sabbath angels are welcomed in the hymn Shalom aleykhem, mal’akhei ha-sharet (“Welcome in peace, ministering angels”), that is traditionally sung around the Friday night table. Perhaps the answer lies in some other Lurianic precept.
In any case, shabbat shalom u’mevorakh was a Sabbath greeting that spread from Lurianic circles in Palestine to other Sephardic communities in the Middle East. It came to be used during the entire Sabbath, not just after the Saturday morning prayer, and was eventually divided into a greeting and response, the first person saying “Shabbat shalom!” and the one responding, “Shabbat shalom u’mevorakh!”
To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Lang is right about shabbat shalom (or, in Ashkenazic Hebrew, shabbes sholem) never having been used in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, even though there were Eastern European Hasidim who adopted what was known as nusakh Ha-Ari, the Lurianic liturgy and prayer book. Indeed, when late 19th-century Eastern European Hebrew fiction writer Mendele Mokher Seforim wished to put a Sabbath greeting in the mouths of his characters — that is, when he had to translate the Yiddish a gutn shabbes into Hebrew — he never used shabbat shalom. Nor did he literally render a gutn shabbes into Hebrew as shabbat tova. Rather, he resorted to the Aramaic equivalent of shabta taba.
If we think, then, not of the origins of shabbat shalom but of its adoption as a standard Sabbath greeting, first in Israel and subsequently in much of the Diaspora, Berel Lang does, I think, have a valid point. Secular Eastern European Jews who came as Zionist pioneers to Palestine and encountered shabbat shalom among Sephardim preferred it to shabta taba or shabbat tova, both for its own charm and because it did not reverberate with the Eastern European religiosity against which their Zionism was a rebellion. In this sense, their adoption of shabbat shalom may be said to have had similar motives to their adoption of Sephardic pronunciation, or what they took to be such, for the Hebrew spoken by them in the early Zionist colonies.
Today, with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, who continue to say “a gutn shabbes” or “gut shabbes,” the greeting of “shabbat shalom” is heard all over the Jewish world. There are however, different responses to it. One is the traditional Lurianic “shabbat shalomu’mevorakh.” Another is “shabbat shalom u’verakha — “shabbat shalom and a blessing” — which is perhaps an attempt to get around the lack of clarity of u’mevorakh. A third is to reply in kind, answering someone else’s “shabbat shalom” with a “shabbat shalom” of one’s own. All are acceptable. Feel free to use whichever you like best.
Questions for can be sent to email@example.com.