As many of you will know, I have a particular affinity with the Shehecheyanu bracha and that I am writing a book on the subject (which I’d love to complete and publish in the coming year!). And one of the reasons why I have immersed myself into understanding the Shehecheyanu bracha is because – like so many other aspects of Jewish practice – it is profoundly misunderstood.
We are taught in the Mishna (Brachot 9:3, 54a) that Shehecheyanu should be recited upon building a house or purchasing new items, and from here it seems clear that Shehecheyanu is a bracha which is recited on moments of ‘simcha’ (joy). On this basis, it was also understood that Shehecheyanu should also be recited on the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) since these are joyous festivals.
In today’s daf (Eruvin 40b), the question is raised by Rabbah whether Shehecheyanu should be recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the reason for this is because while these are profoundly sacred days, at least on first glance they do not capture the same joyous spirit as the Shalosh Regalim. Yet the response to this query is a seemingly cryptic reply from Rav Yehuda who states that he recites Shehecheyanu on a new gourd (and therefore, by implication, it should be obvious that Shehecheyanu is recited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur).
To make sense of what is happening here, we need to understand that there are different categories of the Shehecheyanu bracha. In terms of Gemara Brachot, it speaks of the recitation of Shehecheyanu in moments of personal joy, and it is of significance that in that sugya the bracha is referred to with the actual words of the bracha ”ברוך… שהחיינו וכו’ – ‘Blessed [are You Lord our God, King of the Universe] who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time’.
However, today’s daf speaks of Shehecheyanu in terms of the celebration of time and the blessing of natural events which occur in seasonal time. This is why, in response to the question of whether Shehecheyanu should be recited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (which are annual days of sacred time), Rav Yehuda responds by explaining that he recites Shehecheyanu on seasonal vegetables – and this is because Shehecheyanu is recited on events that occur מזמן לזמן – on a regular, seasonal or annual basis. Significantly, this reading of our sugya is confirmed by the fact that the bracha is simply referenced with the word זמן, which literally means ‘time’.
What we learn from here is that there are two identities of Shehecheyanu which overlap to create three categories of Shehecheyanu – namely: Shehecheyanu recited on joyous events; Shehecheyanu recited on cyclical events, and Shehecheyanu recited on joyous cyclical events.
Tonight, on Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate a new year and a new זמן. Admittedly, given these strange and difficult times, some people may be feeling joyous about Rosh Hashanah, while some unfortunately might not be. But as we learn from today’s daf, the kavanah (intentionality) of tonight’s Shehecheyanu is less about joy, and more about the concept of seasonal time and how – through time – we encounter growth opportunities.
At the same time, as numerous commentaries explain, there is an overarching message in all these different categories of Shehecheyanu – namely the celebration and appreciation of the gift of life. And while life for many of us may be complex, we are nevertheless blessed by God to be alive. So while we pray that this new year brings us all more moments of joy so we can recite Shehecheyanu once again, tonight – just before we recite Shehecheyanu – we should take a moment to celebrate our זמן – meaning our time on this earth – which God has graciously given us, as well as our ability to grow from every moment of this precious gift called life.