All three patriarchs of the Jewish People are referred to as “complete”: G-d told Abraham that when he circumcises himself, he will become tamim, “whole” (Gen. 17:1); G-d told Isaac that he is an olah temimah, “an unblemished burnt-offering” (Bereishit Rabbah 64:3); and Jacob is described as an ish tam, “a wholesome person” (Gen. 25:27). These three words are clearly derived from the biliteral root TAV-MEM, but that’s not the whole story. There is another word in Hebrew that also means “complete” / “whole” — shalem. In this essay we study these two different words for “completion” and explore how they differ from one another.
Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Gen. 17:1) offers two important points that help us understand exactly what being tamim entails. Firstly, he notes that tam refers to something that is “complete” in the sense that it does not have any deficiencies or superfluities. To illustrate this point, he uses the example of the Torah, which is called temimah (Ps. 19:8) because it is perfectly complete, such that one cannot add or subtract to the Torah’s completion (Deut. 13:1). Secondly, Rabbeinu Bachaya writes that when a person is tam, his inside is like his outside. Meaning, there is complete congruency between what the tam believes in his heart and what he says with his mouth.
The upshot of Rabbeinu Bachaya’s understanding is that tam refers to equivalence. When referring to a righteous person, tam means that this person is precisely equal to that which is expected of him. He neither falls short of those expectations nor exceeds them. Moreover, the tam’s inner spirit precisely matches his outer veneer. This fits with the meaning of the related word teomim/tomim (“twins”), who are a matching pair in which one person is understood to be precisely equal to the other.
Malbim (1809-1879) explains that tamim in the sense of righteousness refers to the “completeness” of intention. In other words, the righteous person performs acts with wholesome motives and does not have ulterior, selfish motives, such as receiving reward or avoiding punishment. Malbim further notes that tamim implies complete agreement between the different parts of one’s psyche to the extent that the righteous person’s entire being resolves to perform good deeds without any inner conflict or dissent that must be appeased.
Along these lines, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that tam/tamim refers to “completion” in a spiritual sense (e.g., a righteous person), in a physical sense (e.g., an unblemished animal), and in a quantitative sense (e.g., a full measurement). The word tam also refers to an “innocent” or “wholesome” person whose range of knowledge is “complete” and does not seek to enlighten himself beyond what he already knows. Note the appearance of whole in the English word wholesome, which points to a semantic affinity between those English words and the Hebrew tam/tamim. The result of this is that tam often refers to a simpleton, like the tam of the Four Sons in the Passover Haggadah. (Interestingly, the Zohar to Bamidbar 165b explains that tam refers to a higher level of completion than tamim.)
After banning Jews from being augurs, diviners, sorcerers, and necromancers, the Torah commands that one should “be tamim with G-d” (Deut. 18:13).This means that one ought to be “innocent” and “wholesome,” without appealing to outside forms of wisdom, such as the dark arts, to know the future. The Kedushat Levi does not explain tamim as “wholesome,” but instead understands the word as a reference to the “completeness” of one’s trust/belief in G-d. He explains that this verse means that one should view G-d as He who always provides whatever is lacking.
Targum Onkelos on that verse translates the word tamim as shelim — an Aramaic cognate of shalem. In fact, the early Kabbalistic work Sefer HaBahir (137) uses this source to prove that tamim means shalem. This suggests that the words tam and shalem are synonymous, at least in a colloquial sense.
Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word shalem to the biliteral root SHIN-LAMMED, which he defines as “removed” or “cast away.” This meaning is best illustrated by the verse in which G-d tells Moshe at the Burning Bush, “Remove (shal) your shoes from upon your feet” (Ex. 3:5). Other words derived from this root include sheol (“grave”), because death marks entering a domain that is “away” from the realm of the living; shallal (“booty/spoils”), because looting involves taking property “away” from its previous owners as the spoils of battle; and shalvah (“tranquility”), because it describes a state in which all disturbances or troubles have been “removed” or “taken away.”
Another derivative of this core root is the word shalem (“complete,” “finished,” or, in a financial context, “paid”), which Rabbi Pappenheim explains as referring to the completion reached after everything that has been “removed” from something has already been returned. In a word, shalem means that right now, nothing is lacking. In Rabbi Pappenheim’s estimation, the word shalom (“peace”) also implies the presence of all the positive factors required for prosperity, such that nothing extra is lacking.
Although he admits that tam and shalem maycolloquially mean the same thing, Rabbi Pappenheim proposes a fundamental distinction between them: shalem refers to quantitative “completion,” while tam refers to qualitative “completion.” Based on this, he explains that shalem is used when the Torah commands a person to be honest in their business dealings by maintaining “complete” (Deut. 25:15) weights that are accurately calibrated and are not missing any part of their declared weight. Similarly, shalem is used when the Torah commands that the Altar be built from “complete” stones (Deut. 27:6, Joshua 8:21), which are not chipped or otherwise notched. Additionally, G-d allotted the Canaanites a sort of “allowance” for their sins, which would allow them to remain in the Holy Land until that quota had been filled. When relating that the Canaanites’ quota of sin had not yet been filled/complete in the time of Abraham, the Bible again uses the word shalem (Gen. 15:16). All of these cases refer to “completeness” in a quantity: the stones in terms of their weight, and the Canaanites in terms of their amount of sin.
On the other hand, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that tam refers to “completeness” in quality. For example, when the Bible prescribes that a sacrificial animal be tamim (Lev. 1:3, 22:21), this means that its body must be qualitatively pristine — with nothing extra or missing. This refers to a non-quantifiable form of “completion.” The same is true of the Red Heifer, whose redness ought to be temimah (Num. 19:2).
Based on this distinction, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that we can gain a better appreciation of an exegetical homily concerning the Counting of the Omer. The Torah commands that we count the weeks from Passover to Shavuot, saying: “They shall be seven ‘complete’ (temimot) weeks” (Lev. 23:15). In explaining this verse, the Rabbis teach that weeks are considered temimot only when the Jewish People act according to Hashem’s will (Vayikra Rabbah 28:3). As Rabbi Mecklenburg explains it, the Rabbis saw this idea hinted at in the word temimot, which refers to qualitative completeness, and thus cannot just be a reference to counting the passage of time which is a quantitative process. Because of this, the Rabbis explained that this verse is not just talking about counting days, but about bettering oneself qualitatively and bringing one’s actions in line with the Divine will.
Shalem refers to anything that is not lacking anything towards its completion, but this does not preclude it from having more than needed. For example, l’shalem means “to pay” or “to compensate” by giving money to somebody. If, for whatever reason, somebody paid more than the price of his purchase, then the verb l’shalem still applies to his act of payment. By contrast, when it comes to the term tamim, this verbiage cannot apply if there is no exact match. Anything having something missing or extra is considered imperfect and is precluded from being termed tam.
Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) takes a similar approach, but differs in that he explains that shalem refers exclusively to “quantitative completion,” while tam refers to “qualitative completion” that also includes “quantitative completion.” Interestingly, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi (a 13th century Spanish sage) seems to understand that both words refer to “completion,” but shalem is a neutral word that contains no value judgment, while tam implies a positive form of “completion.”
When the Bible reports that the Jews cried over Moses’ death for thirty days, it then reports “and the days of crying for Moses’ bereavement finished” (Deut. 33:8), using a cognate of tam to denote the completion of that mourning period. The commentators are bothered by the presence of this word instead of a cognate of shalem in this context, given that the Bible here describes the completion of a certain amount of time, which is a quantitative measurement.
To answer this question, we may accept Rabbi Wertheimer’s supposition that tam can mean quantitative and qualitative completion, while shalem refers only to quantitative completion.
Alternatively, we may answer that the “completion” of this period of mourning refers not to the quantitative measurement of time, but to the qualitative nature of their mourning. Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) explains that the mourning of Moses’ death was “completed” when the Jewish People compounded the loss of their leader with the realization that they could have become his pupils in the same way that Joshua was if they had not been so lazy. Thus, tam in this case refers to a quality of their mourning, and not necessarily to just the completion of a certain amount of days.
If I understood him correctly, Rabbi Shimon Dov Ber Analak of Siedlce (1848-1907) explains that tam refers to “completion” in one particular aspect, but not necessarily in all aspects, while shalem implies a more overall sort of “completion.” When the Bible reports that Jacob arrived shalem at Shechem (Gen. 33:18), the Rabbis (Shabbat 33a) expound on the word shalem to mean that Jacob was “complete” physically (i.e., his body was healthy), intellectually (i.e., he amassed Torah knowledge) and financially (i.e., he amassed wealth). This demonstrates the broader implications of the word shalem. The term tam — on the other hand — almost exclusively denotes “completion” in the spiritual realm, but not in the physical, intellectual, or financial sense.