Jews mark the passage of time in a range of ways. One of those ways is through the recitation of the Shehechiyanu blessing, which reads: “Blessed are you, LORD our God, Sovereign of the World, who has kept us alive, and sustained us and brought us to this time.”
This blessing is said when marking major life-cycle events, performing a new mitzvah or a mitzvah that you haven’t performed in a while, when eating or wearing something new and special, and at other moments worthy of celebration. Each of these opportunities is situational – you say the blessing when you do the thing, though you don’t necessarily have to do the thing. Were you to never buy fancy new clothes, for example, you would never recite Shehechiyanu on a new outfit.
But are there set times when you are required to stop and take stock of the passage of time and God’s role in it? Today’s daf unequivocally says yes. The Talmud requires that this blessing be
recited on the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The inherent joy of the pilgrimage ritual requires the cultivation of gratitude and wonder, even today when pilgrimage to the Temple is no longer possible.
And what about the other biblical festivals: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? These holidays are powerful moments in the Jewish calendar too, times of reflection and awe, even though they do not require pilgrimage. So do we say Shehechiyanu then too?
This is the question that today’s daf picks up.
Rabba said: When I was in the house of study of Rav Huna, we raised the following dilemma: What is the halakha with regard to saying the blessing for time, i.e., Who has given us life [sheheḥiyanu], on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? The two sides of the dilemma are as follows: Do we say that since these festivals come at fixed times of the year, we recite the blessing just as we would for any other joyous event that occurs at fixed intervals? Or do we say, perhaps, that since these festivals are not called pilgrimage festivals, we do not recite it, as the joy that they bring is insufficient? Rav Huna did not have an answer at hand.
Apparently, this question is so thorny that it stumped Rav Huna. But after an involved discussion of this issue, the Talmud concludes: “The halakha is that one recites the blessing for time on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.”
On the one hand, this conclusion seems obvious. These High Holidays are days that are designed for taking stock of one’s life, one’s choices, one’s blessings. So it seems perfectly natural that we would recite a blessing thanking God for the gift of our life and time on these days. On the other hand, the three pilgrimage festivals are inherently joyful, and produce a joy that connects to gratitude. Many of us don’t immediately think of joy when we think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These Days of Awe are awesome, but for many, that awesomeness is understood in the sense of intense, solemn, and spiritual. And of course, Yom Kippur has the added complication of fasting and other bodily deprivations.
But in requiring us to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, today’s daf concludes that there is indeed something profoundly joyful about these days. Or at least, that there should be. We are required to cultivate a feeling of joy that leads to gratitude precisely at these moments of judgment that may seem least joyous.
How exactly are we to do that? Today’s daf leaves that challenge to us.