What is shalom?
What does Shalom really mean?
We will now return to the opening statement of the Ten Commandments:
“I AM the LORD* your God”.
We must remind ourselves that these words are just formed of consonants. Vowels haven’t yet been discussed. Why? Good question. You probably know (or at least you are going to find out soon) that the Hebrew Scriptures were written without any vowels. Why? Good question, again. Now for some answers.
English without vowels can be a real stinker of a language. Try making sense of the following:
thsbtsntfrls. Even with spaces between words it’s still a bit of a puzzle: ths bt s nt fr ls.
With vowels, this becomes: this boat is not for lease. It could also be: this bet is not free, also.
Just think, that word bt could be: bet, but, boat, abet, bout, bat, bit, bait, bite, boot etc. These words are totally unrelated and not even the context of the sentence is enough to figure out exactly what is being said.
Hebrew is an interesting language. It can live without vowels; it has to really otherwise the Hebrew Scriptures would be a complete nonsense.
The reason it can live without vowels is all down to the way it is constructed. Hebrew words are mostly built around a three letter root, just three consonants. From this root can come any number of nouns, as well as verbs, adjectives, adverbs or whatever. And all of these would share a meaning, even if – with our Western, “Greek” eyes – some of these meanings are a little bit tenuous.
This is the beauty of Hebrew. It may look like a mess, it may be written “backwards”, but it is beautifully and logically constructed! God really has provided us with a wonderful language by which we can get to know Him better. It’s a shame that most of us either don’t know this, or know it but are put off by the strangeness of it all!
Let’s have a look at an example to illustrate this. Here’s a familiar word. Shalom. It is formed from the three consonants shin, lamed and mem.
Although we tend to take the meaning of peace, the word really conveys the ideas of completeness and wholeness.
There are literally hundreds of Hebrew words that have these three letters as their basic root and each of them share similar meanings. Here are some of them:
Shelem: peace offering.
Shilem: returned to state of completeness.
These three, as sharp eyes would have discovered, are formed from the same three consonants, but with different vowels – which we haven’t discussed yet. There are other variations, too, all expressing the idea of harmony, being full, being well, prosperity and being covered.
(mem - vav – shin – lamed – mem) = mushlam =perfect.
As we progress through this book, this is going to be the standard way I’ll be using to express Hebrew words. First, the word itself (without vowels), followed by a list of the Hebrew letters used, (with bold type used to indicate the sounds of the letters), followed by a transliteration (i.e. written with English letters to show how you say the word), then the English translation. Don’t worry about the letters themselves, or any grammatical considerations, they will be covered in a few pages time.
In the above example you can see that our three-letter root is in the last part of the word.
(lamed – hey - shin – lamed – yod – mem) = lehashlim =to complete, fill in.
(lamed - shin – lamed – mem) = leshalem =to pay.
(tav – shin – lamed - vav – mem) = tashlum =payment.
(shin – yod - lamed - vav – mem – yod – mem) = shilumim =reparations.
You can see our three-letter root in all of the above words, though not always in the same place and not always as consecutive letters.
Here’s another example. It’s a word that some of you use so much that you don’t even realise it’s a Hebrew word. Amen to that! Yes, you’ve already been speaking Hebrew every time you finish off a prayer. Amen!
(aleph – mem – Nun) = amen.
This three letter root word is also used in two other key words:
(aleph – mem – tav) = emet.
This means truth, reliability, firmness or trustworthiness.
(aleph – mem – vav – nun - hey) = emunah.
This means faithfulness, steadiness, trust.
All three words are bound up in man’s relationship to God and are all tied up in God’s character, His faithfulness, stability and constancy. Each word takes God’s character as a given and has us humans connecting up to Him as best we can. Amen is our endorsement of God’s actions, the more connected we are to Him, the stronger our “amen” will be! It is putting Him at the centre and aligning ourselves in orbit around Him. All three words are totally God-centred and the more we claim them for ourselves and our actions, the closer we are in synchronising our will to Him.
The next time you amen a prayer, make sure you mean it. It would be inadvisable to partner with God on false pretences.
So, what we have learnt so far is that Hebrew can convey meaning not just through the choice of letter but in the combination of letters. This will sink in more and more as we proceed with our story.
For the previous article in this series, click here.
For the next article in this series, click here.
To find out what is my favourite book of the Bible, click here.
You can reach Steve with any comments or questions at the Saltshakers Web Community website.