Thursday, February 24, 2011

L'Shalom vs. B'Shalom

A number of years ago, I picked up the habit of signing off on my letters with “B'Shalom,” which means “in peace.” It just seemed like a pleasant way to end a letter, and so I started using it occasionally, and then all the time.

That is, until Rabbi John Moscowitz, when I was interning for him, told me that I wasn't supposed to do that. According to the Talmud, he taught me, “B'Shalom” was only supposed to be used in reference to the dead. “L'Shalom,” which means “to peace,” or perhaps, more eloquently, “towards peace,” was appropriate when speaking to the living. I made the switch, mostly because it seemed that, if there wasn't a good reason to go against it, it just made sense to follow the tradition on this one. But, I always wondered what the logic was behind it—why would “in peace” and “towards peace” be reserved in this way?

I can remember from whom I learned this, but it came up a couple years ago on one of my rabbinic e-lists. Peace is an ideal. It's what we're striving for in life. But, like any ideal, it's ultimately unreachable. No one, in their lives, will ever truly reach total and ultimate peace. The best that we can hope for is to move, bit by bit, closer towards peace. It doesn't matter if we're talking political or personal; peace is asymptotic. We can get closer, but we can never get there.

The only way we're ever going to truly know complete peace? That's what will happen when we die. Until then, we'll have to settle for more peace tomorrow we have today.

I've always loved that teaching, ever since I heard it. The goal in life is not to achieve perfection, but to move towards it. As Rabbi Tarfon said, your goal is not to complete the task, but not to avoid it, either.


Rabbi Rosenberg



Josh G said...

Rabbi Rosenberg,
I am so glad that I read this blog, as it reaffirms the same reason that I to use L'shalom in my closing salutation. I learned that the term B'shalom could be translated to In Peace, like Rest In Peace (RIP). Therefore, I have forever since used the term L'shalom. Thanks for writing a great blog!
Shabbat Shalom!

Lisa Robbins said...

I always wondered about this!! Thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

"The only way we're ever going to truly know complete peace? That's what will happen when we die."

how do you know this? what's the basis of this statement? Judaism? can you back up your reason here?

this sounds almost our goal to achieve equality, justice, peace, perfection,. .. etc in present life is impossible while we are living rather one has to die to to accomplish these ideology. then what's the point of it all? we live in the imperfect world and we ourselves thrive for the perfection. do you agree?

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Pandy - I learned it from another (now forgotten) Rabbi, so I think of this as an observation from within Judaism, which also seems to reflect reality. I can't offer any definitive proof, but I'm not sure that it's a "provable" concept, anyway!

Anonymous said...

Rabbi, you are in good company with your thoughts. Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS; and Rabbi Avi Weinstein ( among others agree!
L'Shalom/Shalom Aleichem!

Anonymous said...

Our goal is to live peace, we as in I, you, the community. But whether we experience peace is not the expectation, and doing peace does not ensure that we will experience peace in life. But as Rabbi Rosenberg has articulated, death is our peace from the cares of the world

John F said...

Almost like Calculus where you approach infinity but never reach it.


John F said...

This is almost like the mystery of Calculus where you approach infinity but can never reach it.

Pam said...

Thank you for the explanation. I had heard something similar to that, but you explained it very well.

Sara said...

Recently, I exchanged emails with my Rabbi about my family members who had perished in the Shoah.

I couldn't figure out why he was ending those emails with B'Shalom.

And, I was too embarrassed to ask.

... because, in other emails previous from him, when the Shoah was NOT discussed, he'd always used L'Shalom.

Now, I finally understand, thank you.