How do you say ‘hello!’ in Biblical Hebrew?

How do you say ‘hello!’ in Biblical Hebrew?

BiblicalHebrew.com, 2022

In building the IMMERSION BIBLICAL HEBREW curriculum, I was immediately faced with the question of how an ancient Israelite would have said ‘hello’. While a simple שָׁלוֹם ‘peace’ as in Modern Hebrew seemed reasonable, I wanted to really take a close look at the ancient biblical evidence to be sure. I also realize that many teachers implementing a communicative language teaching (CLT) approach might want an easy go-to reference for justifying the use of certain words and phrases in their classrooms. A series of blog posts just like this one will hopefully meet such a need.

To begin, then, we first have to consider what exactly we mean by the question, how would an ancient Israelite have said ‘hello’? In English, of course, the word ‘hello’ is modified from ‘hallo’, which itself comes from ‘holla’, ‘hollo’, which appears to have been merely a shout one would utter to get someone’s attention.1 Cross-linguistically, this is by no means the normal way of greeting someone across the world’s languages. In fact, greetings in many languages involve some sort of semantic content, whether wishing peace, welcome, blessing, etc. And this outlines an important principle for dealing with ancient languages as spoken languages. In attempting to learn how to speak ancient Hebrew, it would be wrong for us to start with an English phrase we want to say and then search out a direct translation of that English word or phrase. Rather, we must begin by defining a particular language task and only then search out an ancient context in the Bible (or elsewhere) in which we encounter that same language task.

In this case, we are talking about the context of the first utterance of a common greeting. While in English we say ‘hello’, there was likely an entirely different convention for this language task in ancient Hebrew. I am going to outline the three primary ways of saying ‘hello!’ in Biblical Hebrew:

I. שָׁלוֹם ‘peace!’

Perhaps one case of שָׁלוֹם ‘peace’ as a greeting occurs in II Sam. 18, which recounts the death of Absalom after his attempt to usurp his father David’s kingdom. After Joab killed Absalom, Ahimaaz runs to go tell David of the news. As he approaches, we read the following:


II Sam. 18.28

וַיִּקְרָ֣א אֲחִימַ֗עַץ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֶל־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ שָׁל֔וֹם

‘And Ahimaaz called out and said to the king, “Peace!”’


Interestingly, various translations differ as to how they render שָׁלוֹם in this verse. While the NIV, ESV, and KJV take it as an initial statement of news (NIV, ESV, KJV: ‘all is well’); the NET Bible takes it as a greeting (NET: ‘greetings!’). While it is possible that the initial statement is related to the news to come, it is significant that a full recounting of the news immediately follows, including a blessing formula. Therefore, it seems at least plausible that שָׁלוֹם may function as a greeting in this verse.

Note that such a greeting has many parallels elsewhere in Semitic. In Akkadian, the greeting šulmu(m) ‘peace!’ or lū šulmu(m) ‘may there be peace/well-being (to you)!’ is common. In Arabic, the greeting السلام عليكم as-salām ʿalaykum ‘peace upon you!’ is well known. The opening שְׁלָם ‘peace; well-being’ at the beginning of Official Aramaic letters is also common. Ugaritic yišlam leka ‘may there be peace/well-being to you!’. Finally, Modern Hebrew שָׁלוֹם ‘peace’ provides an ample parallel.

II. הֲשָׁלוֹם לְךָ/הֲשָׁלוֹם אַתָּה ‘do you have peace?; are you well?’

In some contexts, rather than the bare שָׁלוֹם, the question הֲשָׁלוֹם לְךָ ‘do you have peace?; are you well?’—or a shortened version of it הֲשָׁלוֹם ‘is (all) well?’ might also serve as a greeting:


II Kgs. 5.21–22

וַיִּרְדֹּ֥ף גֵּיחֲזִ֖י אַחֲרֵ֣י נַֽעֲמָ֑ן וַיִּרְאֶ֤ה נַֽעֲמָן֙ רָ֣ץ אַחֲרָ֔יו וַיִּפֹּ֞ל מֵעַ֧ל הַמֶּרְכָּבָ֛ה לִקְרָאת֖וֹ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הֲשָׁלֽוֹם׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ׀ שָׁל֗וֹם

‘And Gehazi pursued Naʿaman. When Naʿaman saw someone running after him, he got down from the chariot to meet him and said, “Is (all) well?” He said, “It is well.”’


II Kgs. 9.11

וְיֵה֗וּא יָצָא֙ אֶל־עַבְדֵ֣י אֲדֹנָ֔יו וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ הֲשָׁל֔וֹם

‘And Jehu went out to the servants of his mater and they said to him, “Is (all) well?”’


The same formula is also attested in the rest of II Kgs. 9, though the unconventional (and/or rhetorical) nature of the responses make the passage a less-than-ideal exemplar for a more typical greeting context:


II Kgs. 9.17–18, 22, 31

‏וְהַצֹּפֶה֩ עֹמֵ֨ד עַֽל־הַמִּגְדָּ֜ל בְּיִזְרְעֶ֗אל וַיַּ֞רְא אֶת־שִׁפְעַ֤ת יֵהוּא֙ בְּבֹא֔וֹ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר שִׁפְעַ֖ת אֲנִ֣י רֹאֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוֹרָ֗ם קַ֥ח רַכָּ֛ב וּֽשְׁלַ֥ח לִקְרָאתָ֖ם וְיֹאמַ֥ר הֲשָׁלֽוֹם׃‏ וַיֵּלֶךְ֩ רֹכֵ֨ב הַסּ֜וּס לִקְרָאת֗וֹ וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הֲשָׁל֔וֹם וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יֵה֛וּא מַה־לְּךָ֥ וּלְשָׁל֖וֹם … ‏וַיְהִ֗י כִּרְא֤וֹת יְהוֹרָם֙ אֶת־יֵה֔וּא וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הֲשָׁל֣וֹם יֵה֑וּא וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מָ֣ה הַשָּׁל֔וֹם עַד־זְנוּנֵ֞י אִיזֶ֧בֶל אִמְּךָ֛ … וְיֵה֖וּא בָּ֣א בַשָּׁ֑עַר וַתֹּ֣אמֶר הֲשָׁל֔וֹם זִמְרִ֖י הֹרֵ֥ג אֲדֹנָֽיו׃

‘And the watchman was standing on the tower in Jezreel and saw the company of Jehu as he came and said, “I see a company!” Jehoram said, “Take a horseman and send to meet them and let him say, ‘Is (everything) alright?’” So the horseman when to meet him and said, “Thus says the king, ‘Is (everything) alright?’” Jehu said, “What do you have to do with peace?” … When Jehoram saw Jehu, he said, “Is (everything) alright, Jehu?” He said, “What peace can there be during the harlotry of Jezebel, your mother?” … And as Jehu came in the gate, she said, “Is (everything) alright, Zimri, murderer of his master?”


This format actually has a nice parallel in early Hebrew inscriptions (Kuntillet ʿAjrud) from the 9th/8th century BCE, albeit with the preposition את ‘with’ instead of ל ‘to; for’:


Kuntillet ʿAjrud 19.1–4

א]מר אמריהו אמר ל·אדני השלמ·א[תכ]

‘Amaryahu says, “Say to my lord, is it well with you?”’


Note that the same formula may also be used to ask about how others are doing in the third person:


Gen. 29.5–6

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ם הַיְדַעְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־לָבָ֣ן בֶּן־נָח֑וֹר וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ יָדָֽעְנוּ׃ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָהֶ֖ם הֲשָׁל֣וֹם ל֑וֹ וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ שָׁל֔וֹם

‘He said to them, “Do you know Laban, son of Nahor?” They said, “We do.” He said to them, “Is he well?” They said, “He is.”’


Gen. 43.27–28

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֲשָׁל֛וֹם אֲבִיכֶ֥ם הַזָּקֵ֖ן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲמַרְתֶּ֑ם הַעוֹדֶ֖נּוּ חָֽי׃ וַיֹּאמְר֗וּ שָׁל֛וֹם לְעַבְדְּךָ֥ לְאָבִ֖ינוּ עוֹדֶ֣נּוּ חָ֑י

‘He said, “Is your elderly father whom you told me about well? Is he still alive?” They said, “Your servant, our father, is well. He is still alive.”’


II Sam. 18.32

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ אֶל־הַכּוּשִׁ֔י הֲשָׁל֥וֹם לַנַּ֖עַר לְאַבְשָׁל֑וֹם

‘The king said to the Cushite, “Is the boy, Absalom, alright?


II Kgs. 4.26

‏עַתָּה֮ רֽוּץ־נָ֣א לִקְרָאתָהּ֒ וֶאֱמָר־לָ֗הּ הֲשָׁל֥וֹם לָ֛ךְ הֲשָׁל֥וֹם לְאִישֵׁ֖ךְ הֲשָׁל֣וֹם לַיָּ֑לֶד וַתֹּ֖אמֶר שָׁלֽוֹם׃

‘Now, go run to meet her and say to her, “Are you well? Is your husband well? Is the boy well?” She said, “They are.”’


Elsewhere, an independent second-person pronoun like אַתָּה ‘you (ms)’ can take the place of the preposition lamed with a second-person suffix:


II Sam. 20.8–9

הֵ֗ם עִם־הָאֶ֤בֶן הַגְּדוֹלָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּגִבְע֔וֹן וַעֲמָשָׂ֖א בָּ֣א לִפְנֵיהֶ֑ם … וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹאָב֙ לַעֲמָשָׂ֔א הֲשָׁל֥וֹם אַתָּ֖ה אָחִ֑י

‘While they were at the great stone of Gibeon, Amasa came before them … and Joab said to Amasa, “Are you well, my brother?”’


There is one other similar expression with a pronoun instead of the preposition ל ‘to; for; concerning’ with a suffix. In this case, the pronoun precedes שָׁלוֹם:


I Sam. 25.6

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֥ם כֹּ֖ה לֶחָ֑י וְאַתָּ֤ה שָׁלוֹם֙ וּבֵיתְךָ֣ שָׁל֔וֹם וְכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

‘And you will say thus to life/my brother(?): “And may you be (in) peace, and your house (in) peace, and all that you own (in) peace!”’


Finally, one further strand of evidence that such questions could be used to greet someone is found in the way in which greetings are discussed in indirect speech. The first interaction of a meeting of two parties is often described as asking regarding peace with the verb שָׁאַל-יִשְׁאַל ‘to ask’ and the phrase לְשָׁלוֹם ‘regarding peace’ with the relevant party whose peace is concerned also preceded by the preposition לְ ‘to; for; at; concerning’. Note the first thing that Joseph is described as doing when he sees his brothers, who have just returned to him from Canaan:


Gen. 43.26–27

וַיָּבֹ֤א יוֹסֵף֙ הַבַּ֔יְתָה וַיָּבִ֥יאּוּ ל֛וֹ אֶת־הַמִּנְחָ֥ה אֲשֶׁר־בְּיָדָ֖ם הַבָּ֑יְתָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־ל֖וֹ אָֽרְצָה׃ וַיִּשְׁאַ֤ל לָהֶם֙ לְשָׁל֔וֹם

‘When Joseph came home, they brought him the gift they had with them into the house and bowed down to him on the ground. He inquired concerning their welfare.’


Exod. 18.7

‏וַיֵּצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֜ה לִקְרַ֣את חֹֽתְנ֗וֹ וַיִּשְׁתַּ֙חוּ֙ וַיִּשַּׁק־ל֔וֹ וַיִּשְׁאֲל֥וּ אִישׁ־לְרֵעֵ֖הוּ לְשָׁל֑וֹם וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ הָאֹֽהֱלָה׃

‘Moses went out to meet his father-in-law’, bowed down, and kissed him. And they inquired of each other regarding their welfare and went into the tent.’


Judg. 18.15

‏וַיָּס֣וּרוּ שָׁ֔מָּה וַיָּבֹ֛אוּ אֶל־בֵּֽית־הַנַּ֥עַר הַלֵּוִ֖י בֵּ֣ית מִיכָ֑ה וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ־ל֖וֹ לְשָׁלֽוֹם׃

‘And they turned aside there and came to the house of the young Levite, at the house of Micah, and inquired of him concerning his welfare.


I Sam. 10.3–4

וְחָלַפְתָּ֨ מִשָּׁ֜ם וָהָ֗לְאָה וּבָ֙אתָ֙ עַד־אֵל֣וֹן תָּב֔וֹר וּמְצָא֤וּךָ שָּׁם֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל אֶחָ֞ד נֹשֵׂ֣א ׀ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה גְדָיִ֗ים וְאֶחָד֙ נֹשֵׂ֗א שְׁלֹ֙שֶׁת֙ כִּכְּר֣וֹת לֶ֔חֶם וְאֶחָ֥ד נֹשֵׂ֖א נֵֽבֶל־יָֽיִן׃ וְשָׁאֲל֥וּ לְךָ֖ לְשָׁל֑וֹם וְנָתְנ֤וּ לְךָ֙ שְׁתֵּי־לֶ֔חֶם וְלָקַחְתָּ֖ מִיָּדָֽם׃

‘Then you shall go from there farther on and you shall come to the oak of Tabor. There three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you, one of them bearing three young goats, one of them bearing three loaves of bread, and one of them bearing a skin of wine. They will ask concerning your welfare and give you two loaves of bread, and you shall receive them from their hand.’


I Sam. 17.22

‏וַיִּטֹּשׁ֩ דָּוִ֨ד אֶת־הַכֵּלִ֜ים מֵעָלָ֗יו עַל־יַד֙ שׁוֹמֵ֣ר הַכֵּלִ֔ים וַיָּ֖רָץ הַמַּעֲרָכָ֑ה וַיָּבֹ֕א וַיִּשְׁאַ֥ל לְאֶחָ֖יו לְשָׁלֽוֹם׃

‘And David left the things in the care of the equipment keeper, and ran to the ranks. He came and inquired of his brothers regarding their welfare.


I Sam. 25.5

‏וַיִּשְׁלַ֥ח דָּוִ֖ד עֲשָׂרָ֣ה נְעָרִ֑ים וַיֹּ֨אמֶר דָּוִ֜ד לַנְּעָרִ֗ים עֲל֤וּ כַרְמֶ֙לָה֙ וּבָאתֶ֣ם אֶל־נָבָ֔ל וּשְׁאֶלְתֶּם־ל֥וֹ בִשְׁמִ֖י לְשָׁלֽוֹם׃

‘And David sent ten young men. And David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, go to Nabal, and inquire of him in my name regarding his welfare.”’


I Sam. 30.21

‏וַיֵּֽצְאוּ֙ לִקְרַ֣את דָּוִ֔ד וְלִקְרַ֖את הָעָ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּ֑וֹ וַיִּגַּ֤שׁ דָּוִד֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַיִּשְׁאַ֥ל לָהֶ֖ם לְשָׁלֽוֹם׃

‘And they went out to meet David and to meet the people that were with him. David approached the people and inquired of them regarding their welfare.


II Sam. 8.10

‏וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח תֹּ֣עִי אֶת־יֽוֹרָם־בְּנ֣וֹ אֶל־הַמֶּֽלֶךְ־דָּ֠וִד לִשְׁאָל־ל֨וֹ לְשָׁל֜וֹם וּֽלְבָרֲכ֗וֹ עַל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִלְחַ֤ם בַּהֲדַדְעֶ֙זֶר֙ וַיַּכֵּ֔הוּ

‘Toi sent Joram, his son, to king David to inquire of him regarding his welfare and to bless him on account of the fact that he made war against Hadadezer and struck him down.’


II Sam. 11.7

‏וַיָּבֹ֥א אוּרִיָּ֖ה אֵלָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל דָּוִ֗ד לִשְׁל֤וֹם יוֹאָב֙ וְלִשְׁל֣וֹם הָעָ֔ם וְלִשְׁל֖וֹם הַמִּלְחָמָֽה׃

‘And Uriah came to him and David inquired regarding the welfare of Joab, the welfare of the people, and the welfare of the war.


Jer. 15.5

‏כִּי מִֽי־יַחְמֹ֤ל עָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יְר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם וּמִ֖י יָנ֣וּד לָ֑ךְ וּמִ֣י יָס֔וּר לִשְׁאֹ֥ל לְשָׁלֹ֖ם לָֽךְ׃

‘For who will have pity on you, O Jerusalem, or who will mourn for you, or who will turn aside to inquire regarding your welfare?’


I Chr. 18.10

‏וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח אֶת־הֲדֽוֹרָם־בְּנ֣וֹ אֶל־הַמֶּֽלֶךְ־דָּ֠וִיד לשאול־ (כ׳) לִשְׁאָל־ (ק׳) ל֨וֹ לְשָׁל֜וֹם וּֽלְבָרֲכ֗וֹ עַל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִלְחַ֤ם בַּהֲדַדְעֶ֙זֶר֙ וַיַּכֵּ֔הוּ

‘‘And he sent Hadoram, his son, to king David to inquire of him regarding his welfare and to bless him on account of the fact that he made war against Hadadezer and struck him down.’


Presumably, the descriptive phrase שָׁאַל לוֹ לְשָׁלוֹם ‘inquired of him regarding his welfare’ implies a direct speech question of הֲשָׁלוֹם לְךָ ‘are you well?’, הֲשָׁלוֹם אַתָּה ‘are you well?’, or הֲשָׁלוֹם אִתְּךָ ‘are you well?’, each of which appears elsewhere in the biblical text or in early Hebrew inscriptions.

And yet, as we think about the phrase לִשְׁאֹל לוֹ לְשָׁלוֹם ‘to inquire of him regarding his welfare’, we must understand that there is also a nuance of wishing for one’s peace and not merely a neutral question. As such, it may also be regarded as something of a blessing. Note the following biblical passage in which שָׁאַל has a construct phrase headed by שָׁלוֹם as its direct object—the meaning is one of blessing:


Ps. 122.6

שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם

Seek/ask for the peace of Jerusalem!’


An ancient Hebrew inscription from around 600 BCE, the phrase יִשְׁאַל לִשְׁלֹמְךָ ‘may ask/seek for your welfare!’ is used as a blessing, with God being the subject of the verb:


Arad 18.2–3

יהוה ישאל לשלמכ

May the Lord seek for your welfare!


Note also that in ancient inscriptions from Arad, the verb לִשְׁאֹל ‘to ask; to seek for’ is used when invoking God to seek one’s welfare but the verb לִשְׁלֹחַ is used when simply desiring to find out how someone is doing. Note the examples below with the phrase שָׁלַח לִשָׁלוֹם ‘to send (to find out) regarding the welfare (of)’:


Arad 16.1–2

אחכ·חנניהו·שלח לשלמ·אלישב·ולשלמ ביתכ

‘Your brother, Hananiah, has sent regarding the welfare of Eliashib and regarding the welfare of your house.’


Arad 21.1–2

בנכ·יהוכל·שלח·לשלמ·גדליהו [בנ] אליאר·ולשלמ·ביתכ

‘Your son, Yehukal, has sent regarding the welfare of Gedaliahu, the son of Elyair, and regarding the welfare of your house.’


Arad 40.1–3

‏‏בנכמ·גמר[יהו] ונח‏מיהו·שלח[ו לשלמ]‏ מלכיהו

‘Your sons, Gemariahu and Nehemiah, have sent [regarding the welfare of] Malkiah.’


Note, however, that this could be a shortening of the phrase לִשְׁלֹחַ ___ לִִשְׁאֹל לְשָׁלוֹם ‘to send ___ to inquire regarding the welfare (of)’ (cf. II Sam. 8.10 and I Chr. 18.10 above).

Therefore, while a phrase like לִשְׁאֹל לְשָׁלוֹם ‘to inquire regarding the welfare (of) …’ is often neutral—that is, it implies a question like -הֲשָׁלוֹם ל ‘is ___ well?; how is ___?; is ___ alright?’ (e.g., in II Sam. 11.7)—in other cases it likely had the nuance of something of a blessing. To inquire regarding the welfare of someone might also be seeking after their welfare and caring about them being well. Indeed, one wonders if we might be better to translate the phrase שָׁאַל לוֹ לְשָׁלוֹם as ‘sought welfare for him’ as a sort of idiomatic phrase for greeting someone.

This feeds in well to the final way in which ancient Hebrew speakers greeted one another …

III. יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה ‘may the LORD bless you!’, etc.

In other cases, some invocation of God and/or blessing from God appears to be involved in the greeting. Note the following examples:


Ruth 2.4

‏וְהִנֵּה־בֹ֗עַז בָּ֚א מִבֵּ֣ית לֶ֔חֶם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לַקּוֹצְרִ֖ים יְהוָ֣ה עִמָּכֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמְרוּ ל֖וֹ יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָֽה׃

‘And look, Boaz came from Bethlehem and said to the reapers, “YHWH be with you!” And they said to him, “May YHWH bless you!”’


Ps. 129.8

‏ וְלֹ֤א אָֽמְר֨וּ ׀ הָעֹבְרִ֗ים בִּרְכַּֽת־יְהוָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם בֵּרַ֥כְנוּ אֶ֝תְכֶ֗ם בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהוָֽה׃

‘And those who pass by do not say, “The blessing of YHWH be upon you! We hereby bless you in the name of YHWH!”’


A phrase like יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה might very well have been a sort of short version of the priestly blessing יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ ‘may YHWH bless you and keep you!’ (Num. 6.24).

Note also how just as the phrase לִשְׁאֹל לוֹ לְשָׁלוֹם ‘to inquire of him regarding his welfare’ can be used somewhat synonymously with greeting someone (see verses above in section II), there are also cases where לְבָרֵךְ ‘to bless’ appears to be used somewhat synonymously with ‘to greet’:

II Kgs. 4.29

‏וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לְגֵיחֲזִ֜י חֲגֹ֣ר מָתְנֶ֗יךָ וְקַ֨ח מִשְׁעַנְתִּ֣י בְיָדְךָ֮ וָלֵךְ֒ כִּֽי־תִמְצָ֥א אִישׁ֙ לֹ֣א תְבָרְכֶ֔נּוּ וְכִֽי־יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ אִ֖ישׁ לֹ֣א תַעֲנֶנּ֑וּ

‘And he said to Gehazi, “Bind up your loins and take my staff in your hand and go! If you meet someone, do not bless him. And if someone blesses you, do not answer him.”’


I Sam. 13.10

‏וַיְהִ֗י כְּכַלֹּתוֹ֙ לְהַעֲל֣וֹת הָעֹלָ֔ה וְהִנֵּ֥ה שְׁמוּאֵ֖ל בָּ֑א וַיֵּצֵ֥א שָׁא֛וּל לִקְרָאת֖וֹ לְבָרֲכֽוֹ׃

‘And when he had finished to make the burnt offering, look, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him to bless him.’


I Sam. 25.14

‏הִנֵּ֣ה שָׁלַח֩ דָּוִ֨ד מַלְאָכִ֧ים ׀ מֵֽהַמִּדְבָּ֛ר לְבָרֵ֥ךְ אֶת־אֲדֹנֵ֖ינוּ וַיָּ֥עַט בָּהֶֽם׃

‘Look, David sent messengers from the desert to bless our lord, but he spurned them.’


II Sam. 8.10

‏וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח תֹּ֣עִי אֶת־יֽוֹרָם־בְּנ֣וֹ אֶל־הַמֶּֽלֶךְ־דָּ֠וִד לִשְׁאָל־ל֨וֹ לְשָׁל֜וֹם וּֽלְבָרֲכ֗וֹ עַל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִלְחַ֤ם בַּהֲדַדְעֶ֙זֶר֙ וַיַּכֵּ֔הוּ

‘Toi sent Joram, his son, to king David to inquire of him regarding his welfare and to bless him on account of the fact that he made war against Hadadezer and struck him down.’


I Chr. 18.10

‏וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח אֶת־הֲדֽוֹרָם־בְּנ֣וֹ אֶל־הַמֶּֽלֶךְ־דָּ֠וִיד לשאול־ (כ׳) לִשְׁאָל־ (ק׳) ל֨וֹ לְשָׁל֜וֹם וּֽלְבָרֲכ֗וֹ עַל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִלְחַ֤ם בַּהֲדַדְעֶ֙זֶר֙ וַיַּכֵּ֔הוּ

‘‘And he sent Hadoram, his son, to king David to inquire of him regarding his welfare and to bless him on account of the fact that he made war against Hadadezer and struck him down.’


Such expressions may indicate that in addition to phrases like שָׁלוֹם ‘peace!’ or questions like הֲשָׁלוֹם לְךָ ‘are you well?’, phrases like יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה ‘may YHWH bless you!’ could also serve as typical greetings in ancient Israel.

There are also occasional cases in which the passive adjective בָּרוּךְ ‘blessed’ is used to describe the addressee, with לַיהוָה ‘to/by YHWH’ used as a complement:


I Sam. 15.13

וַיָּבֹ֥א שְׁמוּאֵ֖ל אֶל־שָׁא֑וּל וַיֹּ֧אמֶר ל֣וֹ שָׁא֗וּל בָּר֤וּךְ אַתָּה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה

‘And Samuel came to Saul and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you to YHWH.”’


Given the context, though, such an expression may be intended as more than a simple greeting.

In any case, note that similar blessing formulas involving the verb בֵּרַך-יְבָרֵךְ ‘to bless’ are also found at the beginnings of letters in ancient Hebrew inscriptions. YHWH is invoked to bless the addressee:


Kuntillet ʿAjrud 19.7–10

יב‏רכ·וישמרכ‏ ויהי עמ·אד[נ]‏י

May he (i.e., YHWH) bless and keep you! And may he be with my lord!’


Ketef Hinnom 1.13–1.16 (see also Ketef Hinnom 2.5–7)

‏[אמ]ו֯ר יבר[כ]‏כ֯ יהוה [וי]שמרכ

‘Say, “May YHWH bless you and keep you!”’


Kuntillet ʿAjrud 19.5–10

‏ברכתכ·לי‏הוה תמנ‏ ולאשרתה·יב‏רכ·וישמרכ‏ ויהי עמ·אד[נ]‏י

I hereby bless you to YHWH of Teman and to his Asherah. May he bless and keep you! And may he be with my lord!’


Moussaieff 2.1

יברככ·יהוה בשלמ

May YHWH bless you in peace!


In other cases, however, the one greeting the other pronounces that he has blessed the addressee to the Lord. In such cases, the verb בֵּרַךְ occurs in the 1CS qaṭal form:


Arad 16.2–3

ברכתכ ליהוה

I hereby bless you to YHWH.’


Arad 21.2–3

ברכתכ ל[יהו]ה

I hereby bless you to YHWH.’


Arad 40.3

ברכת[כ ליהו]ה

I hereby bless you to YHWH.’


Kuntillet ʿAjrud 18.1

אמר·ליהל[לאל]·וליועשה·ו[—]·ברכת·אתכמ·ליהוה·שמרנ·ולאשרתה

‘Say to Yehallel and to Yawʿasa and … I hereby bless you to YHWH of Samaria and to his Asherah.’


Kuntillet ʿAjrud 19.5–7

‏ברכתכ·לי‏הוה תמנ‏ ולאשרתה

I hereby bless you to YHWH of Teman and to his Asherah.’


Similar expressions involving some invocation of God or gods for a greeting are found elsewhere in Semitic. In Old Babylonian (Akkadian), it is common to find a phrases like DN liballiṭka ‘may DN preserve your life!; may God keep you well!’ at the beginnings of letters (Huehnergard 2011, §24.5). Arabic is full of expressions invoking God in greetings and farewells: e.g., حياك الله ḥayyak allāh ‘may God preserve your life!’; الرب يباركك ar-rab ybārikak ‘may the Lord bless you!’; الله معاك allāh maʿāk ‘God be with you!’; الله يسلمك allāh ysalmak ‘may God keep you in peace!’. Ugaritic contains similar phrases like ʾilūma taġġurūka tašallimūka ‘may the gods protect you (and) keep you in peace!’ (CAT 2.14:4–5).

Conclusions: So how should I say ‘hello!’ in Biblical Hebrew?

To make a long story short, there are three ways you might say hello in Biblical Hebrew:

1. The simplest way, and likely used frequently in ancient Israel, was simply שָׁלוֹם ‘peace!’. This might be regarded as a rough equivalent of ‘hello’ or ‘hi’ in English. It might be regarded as parallel to Arabic expressions like السلام عليكم as-salām ʿalaykum ‘peace be upon you!’.

2. One might also use a question like הֲשָׁלוֹם לְךָ ‘is it well with you?’ as a greeting, which might better approximate English ‘how’s it going?’ when used in the same manner as a mere greeting. It might be regarded as parallel to Arabic expressions like كيف حالك kif ḥālak ‘how are you?’.

3. Finally, in shared religious contexts, one might also use a blessing formula like יְהוָה יְבָרֶכְךָ ‘may YHWH bless you!’ or יְהוָה עִמְּךָ ‘YHWH be with you!’ to greet someone. While this has no good parallels in English, Arabic speakers would feel right at home using such an expression for a greeting, as it parallels wells phrases like الرب يباركك ar-rab ybārikak ‘may the Lord bless you!’ and الله معاك allāh maʿāk ‘God be with you!’.

Bibliography

Huehnergard, John. 2011. A Grammar of Akkadian. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.

Huehnergard, John. 2012. An Introduction to Ugaritic. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson.

Warren-Rothlin, Andy. 2007. “Politeness Strategies in Biblical Hebrew and West African Languages.” Journal of Translation 3: (1): 55–71.

  1. Etymology of hello.

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