The Importance of a Friendly Greeting

The Journey to Unity - 65b

The Importance of a Friendly Greeting:

"Receive every human being with a cheerful and pleasant countenance" (Pirkei Avos 1:15 - Teaching of Shammai).

"Receive every human being with gladness" (Ibid 3:16 - Teaching of Rabbi Yishmael)

Dear Friends,

Someone influenced by modern western culture, with its emphasis on individualism, might raise the following objection to the above Torah teachings: "Is not the expression on my face my own personal business?" Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the 19th century sage who founded the Mussar movement, responds to this question. He taught that the expression on our face can affect the mood of those around us; thus, our face is considered to be within the "public domain," and it is not within the "private domain." One Yom Kippur eve, Rabbi Salanter met a person on the way to synagogue for the Kol Nidrei prayers. Rabbi Salanter warmly greeted him, but this person was so absorbed with the solemnity and awesomeness of the Day of Atonement that he did not return the greeting. In fact, he had a gloomy expression on his face, as he contemplated the seriousness of the Divine judgement. Rabbi Salanter then remarked to his disciple, Rabbi Itzele of Petersburg, "Why must I need to suffer because of his preoccupation with the Divine judgement?" Rabbi Salanter was teaching his disciple that regardless of our mood, we have a responsibility to greet everyone with a cheerful and pleasant countenance.

Rabbi Yechiel Gordon, a sage of the 20th century who was the Dean of the Lomza Yeshiva, was stricken with cancer. Those who visited this sage during the last months of his life describe how he would tell stories and try to bring cheer to his visitors, despite his great pain. He knew that they were saddened to witness his deteriorated state, and he therefore greeted each visitor with a cheerful countenance.

Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who lived in Jerusalem both before and after the rise of the State of Israel, was a loving person who was known as "the tzadik of Jerusalem." For over sixty years, without missing a day, he rose before daylight every morning to join a group in prayer at the rising of the sun. On his way to the synagogue, he made it a point to greet everyone he met on the street; and he was especially careful to wish a good morning to the street-cleaners, who also rose early to work. He once said, "I have an affection for the street-cleaners. Just look: When everyone is still asleep they take the trouble to come and clean the streets of Jerusalem so as to support themselves by their own honest labor. Their work is not respected; they are not esteemed for it; their salary is low. And still they take pains to do their task faithfully." (Cited in "A tzadik in our time" by Simcha Raz, published by Feldheim)

Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, another sage of the 20th century, taught his disciples: "If a person appreciates the fact that the human being is created in the Divine image, he will deem it a privilege to greet his fellows (cited in "Love Your Neighbor" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin). Greeting another person is therefore not only an act of lovingkindness; it is an act of respect which the other person is entitled to!

We not only have an obligation to greet each person in a cheerful and pleasant manner; we also have the obligation try to initiate the greeting, as the Talmud states in the name of Rabbi Masya ben Charash: "Initiate a greeting to every human being" (Pirkei Avos 4:20). In this spirit, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, a leading sage in the Land of Israel at the end of the Second Temple period, would initiate a greeting with each person that he met in the marketplace, including non-Jews (Brochos 17a).

The above teaching does not say, "Initiate a greeting to every Jew"; instead, it states, "Initiate a greeting to every human being." In this spirit, when Jacob, our father, came to the land of Haran, he greeted a group of shepherds by calling them, "My brothers" (Genesis 29:4). Rabbi Levi ben Geshon (known as the "Ralbag") was a 14th century biblical commentator, and he points out that although the shepherds were complete strangers, Jacob initiated the greeting by calling them "brothers." Jacob's greeting should therefore inspire us to greet each human being in a warm manner, for we all have the same One Creator

Rabbi Irving Bunim, a noted Torah educator of the 20th century, discusses the importance of initiating a greeting, and he writes:

"There is many a person whose petty conceit will not permit him to recognize anyone unless he is recognized first. The other person must make the first move. This is his way of establishing and maintaining his 'dignity,' he believes. Others will hesitate from a sense of insecurity to be the first to extend a warm greeting to those they meet. They are afraid to give a token of friendship and receive only an icy stare in return. They will therefore insist on waiting until the person they meet takes the 'emotional risk,' while they 'play it safe.' Whatever the reason, such behavior is wrong. Take the initiative, says our Sage. Do not seek a sense of conceit or importance, or an illusion of security, at the expense of another's feelings. Give him a friendly greeting with a warm smile, and inquire, if you will, after his welfare." (Ethics from Sinai - a Commentary on Pirkei Avos by Irving Bunim)

As we discussed in the previous letter, a warm and friendly greeting to someone who is feeling dejected is a form of tzedakah which can help revive someone's soul. This is especially true when one intiates the greeting. And as the following story reminds us, such a warm and friendly greeting can inspire somone to rediscover their soul:

I once heard Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, an elder sage of Jerusalem, tell a story about his discussion with a young man who had abandoned the secular lifestyle and entered a yeshiva. Rabbi Wolbe asked the young man, "What inspired you to begin studying Torah?" The young man replied that he had grown up in a secular neighborhood in Israel, and whenever he went to school each morning, the only person on the street who daily greeted him was an elderly man who wore the garments of the traditional Orthodox Jews. Years later, he began to search for the meaning of life, and the memory of the religious man who warmly greeted him each morning inspired him to enter a yeshiva in order to study Torah.

When I lived in New York City's Greenwich Village, I would often invite spiritually-searching Jewish men and women to my Friday night Shabbos meal. I would explain to my guests that before beginning the Shabbos meal, we sing a traditional song of greeting to the Shabbos angels who come and bless our home. The song opens with the words "Shalom aleichem malachai hashares - Shalom upon you, O angels who serve." We greet the angels by blessing them with shalom. Most of my guests liked this tradition, but I once had a female guest who seemed somewhat skeptical, and she indicated that she was somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of greeting angels! I responded by explaining that the Hebrew word for "angels" is "malachim" - a term which also means "messengers." For an angel is a messenger who serves the Divine purpose by fulfilling a unique mission. And I added:

Each of us at this Shabbos table is also a "malach" - a messenger. Would you be willing to greet the messengers at this table who have entered your life tonight? If so, then when we sing, "Shalom aleichem malachai hashares," you can have in mind that you are greeting each person at this table!

She loved my suggestion, and she joined in the song with great enthusiasm.

Shalom upon you, O messengers who serve!

A Good Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. Rabbi Irving Bunim points out that it is especially important to greet someone who is not on the best of terms with you, as by greeting such a person pleasantly, you might be able to begin breaking down the barriers of misunderstanding and bitterness.

2. Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a noted Torah educator of the 20th century, teaches that when someone enters the room, you should turn your full countenance towards him and greet him. (Cited in "Love Your Neighbor" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)

3. Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, a noted 20th century teacher of Mussar, said: "When someone is dressed in a manner that shows he is wealthy, people will usually greet him with much respect. If someone else comes along who is dressed in rags, many people just ignore him. Even if someone does greet him, it will usually be in a perfunctory manner, done out of a feeling of obligation. But this is based on falsehood. Who are you greeting - a human being or his style of clothing?" (Cited in "Consulting the Wise" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)

4. The Talmud (Brochos 6b) teaches that if someone greets you, then you are obligated to return the greeting, as failure to do is tantamount to stealing. This is because you "owe" him a greeting, and when you do not give someone what you owe him, you are stealing from him.

5. We are supposed to use our common sense with regard to the way we treat people, and this applies also to the beautiful custom of greeting people on the street. For example, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, a leading sage of the early 20th century, once said: "When I lived in a small town before I came to live in Vilna (a big city in Lithuania), I was very scrupulous to cheerfully greet every person I met on the street. But since I came to Vilna I stopped this practice, because in such a big city, it's impossible to greet everyone." (This story is cited in "The Tzedakah Treasury" by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feur - ArtScroll) Another example can be those societies or neighborhoods where a woman greeting a strange man on the street would be misunderstood. In some of these places, visiting friendly women are often shocked to discover that when they greet a man in a friendly way, it is often interpreted as a sexual invitation. One therefore needs to be aware of the cultural attitudes of societies that we live in or visit.

6. The disciples of another 20th century sage, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, noticed that he had a warm smile on his face even when he spoke to someone on the phone! Someone asked him, "But Rebbe, the other person can't see your smile, so why bother?" Rabbi Friedlander responded: "Although the listener may not be able to see my smile, he can hear my smile." He explained that a happy expression on our face when we speak on the phone will be "heard" through our voice.

7. On Shabbos - the Sacred Seventh Day - Ashkenazic Jews have a tradition to greet each other with the words, "Gut Shabbos," and Sephardic Jews have a tradition to greet each other with the words, "Shabbat Shalom." This Sephardic greeting is especially popular in Israel. In English speaking countries, many Jews say, "Good Shabbos."

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