Q. Why is the Jewish greeting shalom aleichem, “peace be upon you”?
A. The origins of people’s national greetings are very interesting. I used to think that the English “hello” (with its variants “hallo”, “hullo”, etc.) came from the word “hale” (as in “hale and hearty”) and was tantamount to saying, “I wish you well”, but then I found it was not necessarily a word with a meaning but an exclamation of Anglo-Saxon origin.
I also used to think that shalom aleichem merely represented the Jewish passion for peace (“peace”, say the sages, “is the climax of all blessings”). This is the popular view and of course it has much to commend it. When greeting each other, people should obviously show that there is peace between them and that they pray that there will be peace everywhere.
But further thinking reminded me that Shalom is one of the names of God. There is a beautiful saying in the Zohar, “God is Shalom, His name is Shalom, and all is bound together in Shalom” (Zohar, Lev. 10b). Hence shalom aleichem means not only, “peace be upon you”, but “God be with you”, and it is a prayer that the person we greet may, with all mankind, be blessed by the Divine Presence.