Talmud of Traffic

‘Sa l’shalom,” said the policeman who had been about to give me a ticket for a traffic violation. (In the end he didn’t, because he discovered that he and my eldest daughter had been in the same class in elementary school, but that’s another story.) Translated freely, this meant, “You can go.”

It’s at such moments that, in the surface flow of everyday, demotic Israeli speech, whose lack of regard for the language’s traditional forms can set the teeth of any Hebrew lover on edge, something ripples up from the depths that can cause any Hebrew lover delight. Here’s the Talmudic tractate of Berachot, composed nearly 1,500 years ago:

“Rabbi Avin Halevi said: He who parts from a friend should not say lech b’shalom,’” — literally: go in peace — “but rather lech l’shalom” — go to peace — “since when Jethro told Moses [in the Book of Exodus] lech l’shalom, Moses went his way and succeeded, whereas when David said to Absalom [in the Book of Samuel] lech b’shalom, Absalom went his way and was hung… He who parts from a man who has died should not say lech l’shalom but rather lech b’shalom, since it is written [in the Book of Genesis]: ‘And you shall go to your fathers [i.e., die] in peace [b’shalom].”

The policeman’s sa l’shalom — literally, “Travel to peace” — was just a modern version of the Bible’s lech l’shalom. You don’t have to risk a traffic ticket to hear it, because it’s an expression used in Israel all the time, but it would have made getting a ticket far more pleasant had this Hebrew lover gotten one.

Philologos is a columnist for the Forward.

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