Peace be upon you. This is the traditional greeting of Shalom Aleichem. More than just a greeting, Shalom Aleichem is the introduction to the Friday night Shabbat meal.
When everyone has returned from synagogue, family and guests gather around the Shabbat table. The glow of the Shabbat candles shine upon the table with covered challah, Kiddush wine, and the special table settings set aside for Shabbat and other Yomim Tovim (holidays or, literally, good days).
The song of Shalom Aleichem is a song of peace. It sets the tone for the entire Shabbat – a day to take time out from our busy lives. It is a day of rest, of peace, and of spiritual joy.
More specifically, we sing this song to welcome the angels who accompanied us home from Synagogue (Talmud Shabbat 119). We hope that our home is clean, set, and ready for Shabbat and that the ‘good’ angel will be the angel to say, “so shall it be next week”.
Shalom Aleichem was initially written as a poem by kabbalists in Tzfat. While there are many different tunes, the custom of singing Shalom Aleichem at the beginning of Shabbat dinner is nearly universal.
From Abraham, we learned the mitzvah of treating our guests well. This requires us to welcome them into our home as well as to escort them out of our home when it is time to leave. The words of our Shabbat song wish peace upon those who come in to our home, and then wishes them peace as they leave our home.
“Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. May your coming be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He. Bless me with peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He. May your departure be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He.” (translation from the Zemiort Database)
Singing Shalom Aleichem summons peace into our home and sets the stage for our family and guests to enter the holy restfulness of Shabbat. Shabbat would feel incomplete without this initiation and declaration of peace.
On Shabbat, we look back at the six days of Creation. In the image of G-d, we were created. We look at all that G-d has created for us in this world. We look at all that we have created from one Shabbat to the next. We recognize that “it is good”. We are grateful for all that we have. We welcome Shabbat and embrace its serenity.