Shavuot: The Anatomy of a Custom


השיעור לפ’ במדבר
לעילוי נשמת הרה”ת ר’ מרדכי ליב ע”ה בן הרה”ת ר’ חיים דובער ע”ה חן. נפטר ז’ ניסן ה’תש”פ


נתרם ע”י משפחתו שיחיו

In the early common era, people were accustomed to greeting each other by invoking G-d’s name. Why did they do so? Why is it no longer customary? A fascinating look into the Jewish reactions to idolatry, Christianity and Islam.

Why Don’t We Do It?

The final Mishna in Tractate Berachot tells us: “The Sages instituted that we greet each other with G-d’s name, as the verse states: Boaz arrived from Bethlehem; he said to the harvesters, G-d be with you, and they answered him, G-d bless you. Likewise, it says: G-d is with you, mighty warrior. And it says: Do not scorn your elderly mother. And it says: It is time to act for G-d—when they void your Torah.” 

The Talmud explains: “Why are additional verses cited? Because you may ask: Perhaps  Boaz did so on his own initiative and we cannot learn from his example? The answer comes from the angel who used the same expression to Gideon: G-d is with you, mighty warrior.

The Talmud continues: “You may argue that the angel was not greeting Gideon at all. Rather, he was delivering a Heavenly message that that G-d would be with him. Therefore, the Mishna cites the verse: Do not scorn your elderly mother. It means to say: Don’t scorn Boaz and claim that he did so on his own initiative. Learn from Jewish elders; they are reliable sources.”

However, the question arises: If we are supposed to greet each other with G-d’s name, why doesn’t Maimonides say so it in his code of Jewish law?

Maimonides’ Closest Mention

Maimonides does write that “A Torah scholar…should always be first to offer greetings, in order to be well-liked,” based on the words of the Talmud, “Abaye would often say: Seek to increase peace…among all people…so that you will be liked by all. It was said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai that no one ever greeted him first.”

However, for the purpose of being well-liked, an ordinary greeting will suffice. A mention of G-d’s name (Elokim or Havaye, the Tetragrammaton which spells the letters yud—hei—vov—hei) is not specifically necessary nor is it necessary to be a Hebrew greeting—shalom—which is, itself, one of G-d’s names. People are well-received when they offer greetings in any language.

Indeed, the enactment recorded in the Mishna to mention G-d’s name in a greeting is not at all associated with the desire to be well-received among people!

G-d’s Special Name

We can explain it as follows:

The Mishna cited the verse, “It is time to act for G-d—when they void your Torah.” The Shita Mekubetzes explains its meaning: “Out of fear that G-d’s name be forgotten and replaced with names of other deities, we permit the articulation of G-d’s name in vain.” When the names of other deities became common-place due to negative influences, they permitted the articulation of G-d name to ensure that it not be forgotten.

This explains why the sages enacted the custom to greet others with G-d’s name, and specifically the name of Havaye (just as Boaz had done with the harvesters). In order for G-d’s name to become common-place, shalom won’t suffice—despite the fact that it is also G-d’s name. The name Elokim won’t suffice either, because it could be misinterpreted as a reference to judges and also to nobles, as the verse says, “he carried away the eili haaretz, the nobles of the land.” It was necessary to spell out the name which describes G-d, and G-d alone: Havaye.

We can gain even more clarity from the comment of Rabbi Hai Gaon (printed in recent years from the Cairo Geniza): “When Christianity spread, the sages enacted that a person should greet others with G-d’s name; they realized that it was necessary for people to hear G-d’s name on a regular basis, because the Christians would greet each other by saying, ‘Blessed be the father, the son and the holy spirit’” — a reference to the Christian belief in the trinity. This explains why it was necessary for Jews to specifically articulate the name of Havaye, because only that would fulfill their goal to negate (all forms of idol worship, including) the trinity.

The was also true in the times of Boaz (who greeted his workers with G-d’s name) and Gideon (who heard G-d’s name from the angel). During the era of the Judges, according to the biblical account, pagan deities—ashtarot, baal etc.,—were widespread and their names were, no doubt, commonly mentioned. Therefore, it was necessary to add mentions of G-d’s name as well.

The New Religions Pave the Way for Moshiach

We can now explain why Maimonides does not cite this law.

To preface: In the end of his “Laws of Kings” (in early versions which were not subject to censorship, such as the Rome edition), Maimonides writes that “Ultimately, Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite who arose after him pave the way for Mashiach’s coming,” because now, “the entire world has been filled with the mention of Mashiach, Torah, and mitzvot…and they discuss these matters…”

In other words, according to Maimonides, the very fact that those religions discuss concepts like resurrection, and debate whether Torah’s commandments are still relevant is itself a preparation for the Messianic era.

This is also true about spreading monotheism throughout the world and combating idol worship. Christianity, despite being considered idol worship (according to Maimonides), nevertheless paves the way to monotheism, at least to a certain extent; the trinity has replaced a much wider variety of deities. The advent of Mohammed “the Ishmaelite” (hundreds of years later) furthered the cause even more; now, the names of deities are no longer commonplace, and even the trinity is no longer used in greetings. 

Since When Does Judaism Abolish Traditions?


This explains why Maimonides does not cite this enactment in his code: Mentioning G-d’s name in a greeting violates Torah law, especially according to Maimonides who rules that using G-d’s name in vain is a Biblical prohibition. It was only permissible during “a time to act for G-d,” when it was important to combat the influence of those who made commonplace mentions of deities. Once they ceased this behavior, the prohibition to mention G-d’s name in vain reverts to its proper place, and we cannot include it in our greetings.

Therefore, Maimonides omits the Mishnah’s ruling to offer greetings with G-d’s name; to include it would imply that it was still relevant in his times, and in the days of Maimonides it was actually no longer permissible, because mentions of deities were no longer commonplace.

…We find a similar concept regarding idol worship: if a certain idolatrous behavior is not customary in a city or land, we do not enact extra prohibitions to negate it. For example, we customarily abstain from Torah learning on the night of Christmas (known as nittel), so as not to “add energy to the forces of impurity,” but Sephardic Jews do not observe this custom (I once mentioned nittel to a Sephardic Jew, and he had never heard of it at all), because it is a custom associated with Christianity and Christian lands. In those places, it was necessary to prevent “holy energy” from slipping into impure forces—due to his connection to Torah learning as explained in history books and in the Talmud as well.

But in Muslim countries, like Morocco and Yemen, the custom of nittel was not practiced at all, and Torah learning was obviously permitted without question, because that specific deity had no sway in that country.

The same is true of our discussion: In the days of Maimonides, the mention of deities was no longer commonplace (with the advent of Islam etc.) and therefore, the custom to include G-d’s name in greetings was abolished.

20 Kislev & Shabbos Vayeshev 1977

(Kuntres 22 Shevat 5778 — Lahak Hanochos)

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