We all sing this song peacefully. Could anything be controversial about it? (This is aside from the mild disagreement that might occur over whether each stanza should be recited three times!) Let us analyze the history of this prayer.
The idea for the prayer is based on the passage at Shab. 119b that states that two “malachei ha-sharet” escort a person home from the synagogue on Friday night. If there is a lamp burning, a set table and a made bed, the good angel says, “May it be this way next Shabbat,” and the evil angel is compelled to answer, “Amen.” If the three above items are not prepared, then the evil angel says, “May it be this way next Shabbat,” and the good angel is compelled to answer, “Amen.”
The author of the prayer felt it was appropriate to write a prayer greeting these two angels and seeking their blessing. The first stanza says “shalom” to these angels; the second says: “may your coming be in peace”; the third asks “bless me for peace,” and the fourth concludes: “may you depart in peace.”
The prayer first appears in one of the early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat. There were many editions of this type of siddur. My research indicates that the prayer first appeared in an edition published in Prague sometime between the years 1615-29. (But the new RCA Siddur says it is found in an edition published in 1613.) Seder Tikunei Shabbat were siddurim that incorporated much kabbalistic material. (The meaning of “tikunei” in kabbalistic thought is “spiritual rectification.”)
The prayer’s author is unknown, but perhaps it was authored by a Kabbalist from Tzefat in the decades preceding. Kabbalists from Tzefat were the ones who authored the entire Kabbalat Shabbat service. (But there was already a custom among some Sefaradim to recite Psalm 92. See B.S. Jacobson, The Sabbath Service, pp. 7-8, citing a responsum of Rambam.)
Many editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat state that they are based on the teachings of the ARI (R. Isaac Luria). But with regard to ARI, R. Chaim Vital kept a record of his Kabbalat Shabbat service and there is no mention of Shalom Aleichem there. Perhaps it did not exist in his time. ARI died in 1572.
When you look at our text of Shalom Aleichem, the first stanza refers to “malachei ha-sharet” and the three subsequent ones refer to “malachei ha-shalom.” “Malachei ha-sharet” is the term found in the Talmud. The switch to “malachei ha-shalom” is very puzzling. The explanations I have seen are not satisfying. I think I can explain the switch. The second word in the second, third and fourth stanzas is “shalom.” To parallel this, the angels in these paragraphs were called “malachei ha-shalom.” (The second word in the first stanza is “aleichem.”)
In the third stanza, we ask for these angels to bless us. Many objected. For example, R. Chaim of Volozhin (d. 1821) wrote: “One must not address petitions to angels since they do not possess any power, even to the lightest [degree]. Whatever they do is by compulsion. If man is worthy, they are forced to bless him; and if not, they are forced, God forbid, to curse him.” R. Yakov Emden (d. 1776) also objected to asking for a blessing from angels. Of course, there are answers to these objections. (See, e.g., the answer of Prof. David Berger quoted in the new RCA siddur.)
In the last stanza, we ask the angels to leave: “Tzeitchem Le-Shalom.” This is objected to by many as well. For example, R. Emden writes: “It would be better for them to tarry a while and rejoice at the meal…” R. Emden concludes that he was willing to recite the first stanza only.
Of course, the angels are not really being asked to leave. The phrase can merely mean: “when you decide to leave, leave in peace.”
But there is another possible solution. Some early editions have a slightly different text than what we have. The second stanza starts with בבואכם, and the fourth starts with בצאתכם. These may be the original readings. If so, the first and second stanzas may merely reflect one long idea, and the third and fourth stanzas may merely reflect one long idea. When read in this manner, the question goes away.
A note in a siddur published in 1880 states that if there has been a quarrel in the home, the last stanza should be omitted. The idea is that the angels remaining in the home will cause the quarrel to end.
Chatam Sofer wrote that one should not recite “Shalom Aleichem,” as it was presumptuous of anyone to consider himself worthy of an angelic escort. But his student Maharam Shick wrote that his teacher did recite it, but recited it silently lest he give the impression that he considered himself worthy of this.
The standard Sefardi text of Shalom Aleichem has an added stanza, between the third and fourth.
There is a prayer “Ribbon Kol Ha-Olamim” that typically follows Shalom Aleichem in our siddurim. It followed it in many of the early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat. The prayer has some of the same ideas as Shalom Aleichem. The new RCA siddur takes the position that this prayer and Shalom Aleichem were one unit, by the same author. I am not yet convinced. But if this is true, then one can use the ideas expressed in this prayer to shed light on our (too short) Shalom Aleichem prayer. There is also language in this prayer (“I have entered your house…”) that suggests that it was originally recited in the synagogue. If so, this would be the case with Shalom Aleichem as well.
The new RCA siddur also points out that there is a brief mention of greeting Friday night angels in a book of customs from 13th-century Italy, and it is recorded as the practice of the Tosafist R. Aharon of Regensburg. Thus Shalom Aleichem is not as great an innovation as is typically thought.
Some early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat instruct to recite each of the Shalom Aleichem stanzas three times. In the context of Kiddush Levanah, ARI had explained that reciting the phrase “Shalom Aleichem” three times served to remove kitrug (=prosecution). See the Etz Yosef comm. in Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot. Most likely, from this practice in Kiddush Levanah, ARI’s followers extrapolated that it would be good to recite each of the stanzas in the Shalom Aleichem prayer three times as well. Rabbi Rothwachs had challenged our shul with this question on a Friday night in 2002. I am glad that I could finally, if belatedly, provide the answer! (The recital of the phrase three times in Kiddush Levanah is mentioned in Soferim 10:2 without explanation.)
The early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat also typically include the recital of Eishet Chayil on Friday night. The recitation of this section (Prov. 31: 10-31) was probably introduced by Kabbalists from Tzefat who understood the woman being referred to as the Shechinah.
If this prayer was introduced by Kabbalists from Tzefat, this suggests that the neighboring prayers Shalom Aleichem and Ribbon Kol Ha-Olamim were introduced by them as well.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of R. Arie Folger and Efraim Palvanov.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He is an attorney and Jewish history scholar, has authored three books and many articles, and is a regular columnist for this important paper. He feels worthy of angelic escort.