The Meaning of Shalom

 The renowned Jewish mystic, The Maharal of Prague, offers a fascinating visual explanation to the meaning of Shalom.

In Hebrew, unlike other languages, the names for things are more than just arbitrary, culturally-agreed upon terms used to communicate.

Each word has a unique, inherent meaning of divine origin – usually with a three letter root. The Jewish tradition is that these Hebrew words were used to create the world and serve as the “DNA” of our entire reality.

 If we examine the meaning of Hebrew words and letters, we can gain additional understanding about the words we are describing.

Let’s apply this to Shalom.


jlhkjThe Hebrew root of Shalom is the letters Shin, Lamed, Mem – שלם.

The first letter, explains the Maharal, has three heads. These symbolize that fact that everything in life has two extremes and a middle ground.

The Jewish sage Maimonides expands on this concept when he points out that every human character trait has a polar extreme and a mid-point. You can be a miser. You can be a spendthrift. And you could be the goldilox “Just right”.

In the finite world, everything has two extremes and that middle point of balance. The shin then, says the Maharal, is there to remind us that true peace comes from finding balance between true extremes.

Our goal is to continuously strive to be as balanced and centered as possibly, erring neither on one extreme nor the other.

There is a mystical teaching that pure evil, something completely wrong cannot exist in the world. Anything that does exist must have an element of truth, something positive that is contributing to the universal reality.

Practically, this means that even if you encounter a behavior, idea, or individual that is your polar opposite, realize that there is always some element of positivity that you can learn from it or them to help you become more balanced person.

If you are an extreme liberal, there is still something that conservatives can teach you, maybe about the importance of boundaries. If you are a strong conservative, you can still learn from liberals, maybe the value of the individual and their subjective reality?

And so forth.

We see from this that balance is an extremely important value in Judaism and is a central component of Shalom. But wow do we integrate balance into our lives?

One way, explains Maimonides is to temporarily swing to the other extreme. Thus, if you tend to be stingy and suddenly experiment with giving away a bunch of money, when you eventually return to “normal” you will find yourself naturally more balanced.

This technique is still employed by behavioral psychologists and life coaches.

Lamed & Mem

jhgjkThe second letter, Lamed, is the only letter which rises above the letter line.

This, says the Maharal, demonstrates the transcendental quality of Shalom. Where there is peace, the sages tell us, one is able to rise above the physical limitations and receive a level of blessing that is unparalleled.

Here are a few more interesting facts that allude to the transcendental elements of Shalom, as indicated by the towering lamed:

  • Shalom is traditionally one of God’s names. What this means in oversimplified terms is that the human perception of God is that He is a Being of Peace.
  • Yet interestingly enough, Shalom is the only name of God that is given to human beings (I am one of those human beings).
  • There result of this unique circumstance is that there is Jewish law that prohibits referring to people named Shalom by their name while in a bathroom or other unclean place, places where one is generally prohibited from mentioning words of holiness. Jewish law suggests some interesting alternatives, like subtly altering the name – to Shalon, for example.
  • There is an instruction in Judaism that one should greet another person specifically with the world Shalom, imparting the divine blessing inherent in the name upon the person being greeted.

imgresFinally, we are left with the Mem. The Mem at the end of a word is a closed Mem, and takes the form of a square.

This, is says the Maharal, teaches us that where there is peace, there is security. Just as the letter appears impenetrable from all sides, so to a person who is at peace with himself is able ot withstand a tremendous amount of external adversity and still remain calm, confident and collected.

The more aligned we are internally, the more success we can experience in our outer lives, and the more challenges we can overcome.

Comparing the Peaces

The root of Hishtalmooot of Hishtalmoot meditation is the same three letters as Shalom, as is the root of Shlemut, perfection.

So what’s the difference between these different words?

They imply two very different types of perfection.

Shlemut is the idealized form of perfection we are used to. The sculpted body. The perfect sunset. The killer athlete.

Hishtalmoot is the perfection that can be found in process.

Becoming a bit better today than you were yesterday, even though you are far from perfect. The paraplegic who beats the odds builds a successful sports career despite never being as fast as other people.

We can easily identify a profound yet very different form of perfection in these types of people.

This is the human form of perfection, one that is never complete yet never ceases to inspire. We have in our capacity to be completely at peace with where we are at even as we look towards absolute perfection and realize how much further we still have to go.

Let’s embrace the Shalom that is inside of ourselves, find inner peace, and express that unique form of Godliness that is inherent in our being.

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