Bestow (‘put’) peace, goodness and blessing, grace, and loving-kindness and mercy, on us and on all Israel Your people.
- Bless us, our Creator, together as one with the light of Your countenance, for by the light of Your countenance You have given us, Lord our God, the Torah [teaching / law] of life.
- By the light of Your countenance You have given us, Lord our God, love of loving-kindness, and justice, and blessing, and mercy, and life, and peace.
- And it is good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel, at all times, and at every moment, with Your peace.
Blessed are You, Lord, Maker of peace.
The text of Sim Shalom comes as the final blessing within the Amidah – the ‘Standing Prayer’ during which we ‘step forward to stand’ in the Presence of the Divine. The Amidah is also known as the Shemonei Esrei (literally ‘eighteen’), because it originally had eighteen blessings (though for many centuries now it has had nineteen). It was instituted by the Rabbis of the Talmud to help people understand the core, essential elements of what could (or should) constitute daily prayer. Another name for the Amidah is T’fillah (from the Hebrew meaning to ‘judge / examine oneself’). While this is most often translated as ‘prayer’, it is different from the Christian origin of prayer which is the Latin word precare, meaning to ‘ask for’ or ‘entreat’. In the Amidah / T’fillah, the opening blessings are praise, the middle blessings are requests, and the final blessings are thanks. On Shabbat, we leave out the middle blessings, as we do not ask God to do anything or ‘work’ on Shabbat, and replace them with a single blessing for Shabbat itself.
So Sim Shalom is the final prayer of thanks. Its wording has all the appearance of a request, which, as already mentioned, might mean that it should not be spoken on Shabbat. However, unlike the ‘request’ prayers, this one does not ask for specific items, but is more about the hope for the continuation of a particular quality of relating from God to humanity, without which, we would literally cease to exist. The Amidah is an enormous journey of emotion, spirit, and intellect, spanning all of Jewish past, present and hoped for future, and the core elements of the Jewish value-system, worldview and theology. For me, the words of Sim Shalom come always as a relief, as though we are on the home stretch; the sun is coming out and all conflicts are reconciled, all mysteries resolved. I love how these words express the core relationship between God and us.
Shalom, the Jewish concept of ‘peace’, is not easily realised in human terms, but is the essence of God. In this blessing, we exist in the light of God’s gaze, and are seen through God’s eyes. From God’s eye view, all can be seen as part of a whole, all is reconciled and makes sense. The word ShaLoM (shin-lamed-mem) is related by shoresh (root) to ShLeiMut, meaning ‘wholeness’. In the mystical tradition of kabbalah, the letter Shin (representing aiSh ‘fire’) is reconciled by the letter Lamed (representing meLamed, God the ultimate ‘Teacher’) with the letter Mem (representing Mayim ‘water’). This idea of all things becoming One with each other is also found in the allegorical idea that ShaMayim ‘heaven’ is the reconciliation of the opposites of Shin (aiSh ‘fire’) and Mem (Mayim ‘water’). From the Zohar (the 13th century seminal text of kabbalah) we learn that to listen – SheMA (shin-mem-ayin) – with the ears of God, we can reconcile Shin (aiSh ‘fire’) and Mem (Mayim ‘water’), and then see with God’s eyes (Ayin).
What of the word ‘Israel’? The simple meaning of this text is undoubtedly about peace being bestowed upon the Jewish people in particular, and seems not to consider anyone else. But peace is not peace if only one specific group of people experiences it, any more than freedom has much value while others are oppressed or deprived of it. Is there an internal contradiction in this blessing that seems to request peace for just the Jews? For me, the solution to the puzzle is to think of the word Yisrael and what it can mean: one who ‘wrestles with God’ (yisra eil), or goes yashar eil ‘straight to God’. Those who ‘wrestle’ – engage deeply – with God, and those who yearn and reach to go ‘straight’ to God, are most likely to be living the God-ly life, one that exhibits the qualities named in this blessing. To embody and live these qualities is to simultaneously receive them from God and express them for God. Any person who strives for a shalom-saturated relationship with the world is ‘Israel’, and comes closer to seeing the world from God’s perspective, a place of ultimate wholeness.
We have within us the capacity to be holy, like God, to see the world as whole, as One-ness. But because we are humans, we experience existence as Duality, distinctions and separations (and are taught to do this in the the Berieshit/Genesis account of the meticulous order in Creation). And it is this very fact that we do not experience existence the way God does, that we yearn, and are spurred on to make things whole, to play our part in tikkun olam, the healing of the world and its peoples, when shalom will be the tangible, lived reality of all.
- The chorus should always have a light touch, with the hint of a dance to it, especially the last time it comes.
- Pay careful attention to the phrase marks in the voice part of the verses. In each verse, the breaths have to happen in different places from the previous verses to make sense of the words; this is also important for creating variety in the feel of the verse melody each time it returns.
- The verses have long phrases. As a professional singer, I know that I can sing these long lines without taking too many breaths, and this is ideally what I hope for when this piece is sung. However, it is important that this song feels relaxed, flowing, peaceful and reassuring, so if you have to breathe more often, please feel encouraged to do so.
- The Sim Shalom chorus can be sung by a congregation. However, the verses, though smooth and lyrical, have a wide pitch range, and a congregation may feel they are too challenging vocally; in time, the congregation might like joining in with the verses as well. The trick might be to find the right key (Em chorus, Cmaj verse?).
© Alexander Massey, Oxford, July 2014