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Sunday, 13 May 2018

Is it rude to say 'hi'?

Daf Yomi Zevachim 30
Today is Yom Yerushalayim, the day we celebrate the regaining of Jewish sovereignty over the entire Jerusalem, a miracle of modern history that we have not merited for two thousand years.  Chag sameach!
In one of the final heroic acts before Jerusalem and the Holy Temple were destroyed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai famously saved Judaism.  As the city was falling to the Romans, he snuck out in a coffin and pleaded for mercy for the continuity of Torah life.  His request was granted, the Sages were spared, and the centre of Jewish learning moved to Yavneh.
But that’s not all Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was known for.  Amongst his many impeccable character traits was his superb etiquette.  He was always the first to greet every person he encountered, Jewish or not, and whether or not he knew them.  In fact, he would jump to be the first to greet complete strangers in the marketplace! 

The Torah states: “If an animal that one brings as an offering to Hashem, anything that he gives to Hashem shall be holy.  He shall not switch it nor substitute it good for bad or bad for good, and if he should substitute one animal for another, then the original animal and its substitute will both become holy.”
Gemara: If one declared about his animal, “May this be a substitute for my Olah offering, my Shelamim offering,” then it is considered a substitute Olah offering, according to Rabbi Meir.  Rabbi Yossi says: If he originally intended to substitute both offerings, since it is impossible to make both declarations at once, his words take effect (and it is a substitute for both).  If, however, he initially declared the animal an Olah substitute, and then changed his mind and said, “May this be a Shelamim substitute,” it remains an Olah.
Tosfos explains: There are two definitions of ‘toch kedai dibur’ (the amount of time one could fairly make a correction to a declaration, because he inadvertently said the wrong thing).  One is the equivalent amount of time that it takes a teacher to greet his student (“Shalom to you!”); the other is the amount of time it takes a student to greet his teacher (“Shalom to you, my teacher and my master!”).  This then is the meaning of the Gemara.  If one said ‘Shelamim substitute’ within the shorter ‘toch kedai dibur’ timeframe, implying that was his original intent, the switch stands.  When the Gemara says that he ‘changed his mind,’ it implies the longer ‘toch kedai dibur’ which has no effect.

Why did Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai make such a big deal about greeting every person?  Surely, a man of his stature didn’t have time for small talk with the street-cleaner!  That would certainly be the attitude of many people of privilege today.  Rabban Yochanan, however, saw each human being as a reflection of the Almighty.  Every individual was created in the image of G-d.  How could he not rush to greet the Shechina (Divine presence)?

How do you greet another person?  The Gemara here teaches that it depends on who the person is.  If it’s your buddy, you greet them a certain way.  If it’s your teacher, you greet them in a more respectful and lengthier manner.  

Sadly today, people have forgotten how to show respect for those who are older and wiser.  We live in an age and society where everyone is equal.  The Torah’s concept of one person deserving greater respect than another on account of their physical or spiritual maturity, is considered antiquated and unfair.  But a key part of our value system is respect for our elders, and that anchors us in our tradition.

Where does the greeting ‘hello’ come from?  It’s related to the word ‘health.’  Back in the day, when you would see someone you would inquire as to their health.  That still happens in Hebrew.  When you say ‘shalom’ it means you’re asking about their peace and welfare.  When they depart and you say ‘shalom’ you’re offering them a parting blessing of peace. 

It used to be that way in English, too.  You’d meet someone and say ‘How’s your health?’  Later, it was shortened to ‘hail’ (as in Hail, Caesar!), then ‘hello’ and ‘hi’.  Now you’re lucky if people you encounter bother even to look up from their smartphones.  Our contemporary interactions give a whole new meaning to ‘bumping into someone’!

It’s time we started greeting one another with the proper respect that we should be showing to the Shechina!  We should be acknowledging the dignity and stature of every human being.  And those who have earned the right to greater respect and reverence (either by virtue of their age or wisdom), we should be recognizing with the appropriate honour they deserve!

Next time you say ‘hi’ or even ‘Good Shabbos,’ stop for a moment and ask the other person how they’re doing.  Make it personal.  Let them know you care about their ‘shalom’ – their peace and welfare.  May we all learn to be the first to greet with the warmth and respect of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai!