I was told that there is no translation for “hello” into Hebrew. I was told that Jews say “peace” instead of “hello” and “goodbye.”
I did some further research and found that, traditionally, Jews greet each other by saying, “peace unto you,” and responding, “unto you peace.”
Could you explain these peculiar Jewish customs?
For thousands of years, Jews have been greeting each other with the blessing, “peace unto you,” or in the Hebrew, “shalom aleichem,” with the other person responding, “unto you peace,” or “aleichem shalom.”
Is it just that Jews have different opinions—as the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions”—so that when being greeted, we respond with the opposite phrase?
The fact that we say “peace” implies that this is one time where the expression of the opposite of unity should not take place. So what is the explanation for this seemingly unusual blessing and response?
Peace and G‑d’s Name
First some quotes from the Jewish sages on greetings and peace:
And they instituted that one should greet their friend with G‑d’s name, as the verse says (Ruth 2:4), “And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and he said to the reapers, ‘May G‑d be with you!’ And they said to him, ‘G‑d bless you.’”
-- Talmud, Berachot 54a
And you shall not greet your friend with peace in the bathhouse, for the name of G‑d is “Peace,” and the verse states (Judges 6:24), “And he called Him the G‑d of Peace.”
-- Talmud, Shabbat 10b
Rabbi Hunah says: If one greets another with peace and that person does not return the greeting, the person is called a robber [robbing the other of a greeting of peace].
-- Talmud, Berachot 6b
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains that when two individuals who are spiritually connected to G‑d through their souls, greet each other with Peace—i.e., G‑d’s name—they bring G‑dliness into our physical world with their words.
A blessing of peace—peace throughout the world and in one’s personal life—is one of the greatest blessings one can give and receive, and therefore we bless each other with this.
Flipping the Greeting
One reason for flipping the response to this blessing to “unto you peace” is because the Talmud says that one who does not respond to the greeting is considered a thief. If a person were to respond with the same words, “peace unto you,” one may think that he is also asking, rather than responding. Flipping the words emphasizes that the blessing is in fact a response and not an initial greeting.
A more mystical explanation is given in the teachings of Chabad thought, with this introductory question: When examining the Hebrew phrase, the word “unto you” (עליכם) is phrased in the second person plural instead of in the singular (עליך). Why is that?
The answer is given that when two people meet there is a communal interaction, where no one person’s opinion is the same as another’s. At that moment of interaction, there is a greater need to create unity. Saying “peace unto you” brings peace and unity between the two (into “the public realm”).
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that there are two stages in this “peace making.” One stage is where the person asking states that he or she is ready to make unity between the two of them. Then the second person needs to respond that he or she agrees and also wants unity.
However, if one were to respond in the same way that the other person asked, “peace unto you,” it could seem that the blessing does not come from a personal desire, but rather it is just an approval of the other’s request for unity. Therefore, the person flips the order, “unto you peace,” to emphasize that, not only does he agree to the other’s desire, but he also wants this peace himself.
The one who is asking says “peace onto you.” Peace is mentioned first, because the first person knows that he wants the peace and is asking the other to agree. The responder says “unto you [plural] peace,” for he is the one to actually create peace and unity in the plural— between the two of them.