Sunday, September 12, 2010


There are 3 situations in which we recite שהחיינו

1) On a new purchase e.g. new clothes

2) When performing certain mitzvoth such as Megillah, Lulav and Brit Milah

3) On a festival that hasn’t been celebrated in a year

Rabbis’ debate about the meaning behind this blessing that enables us to understand the nature of its intention, and how it is applicable to all 3 situations yet excludes others.

It is interesting to note in the first case, if you buy something new with someone else like a house, then you do not say שהחיינו, but rather הטוב ומטיב. From this we learn that שהחיינו is an individual blessing, and applies to an object that is related to the individual alone and not one that includes others as well.

In the 2nd situation, it is explained that we recite שהחיינו for certain mitzvoth such as on a lulav, Pidyon ha-Ben and Megillah. It could be explained that they merit the blessing because these are occasions might be seen as rare, or that there is an element of שמחה ‘happiness’ that is associated with them and therefore we might ascertain that any mitzvah that has an element of sumach qualifies for שהחיינו, but this is not the case.

In the 3rd situation there is discussion as to if you say שהחיינו only on the 3 רגלים or also on Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, as in any occasion that occurs once a year and adds an element of timing to the blessing. This is why we only say שהחיינו on fruit and not vegetables, as vegetables are available all year round, whereas fruit is seasonal.

The question remains though what is the link that these 3 situations all have in common that explains the significance of this blessing?

The explanation that I relate to the best is from the Kesef Mishneh (Yosef Caro), who comments that שהחיינו is actually a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving and not a blessing. It is possible to look at the purchases, special occasions and festivals, in a way that makes us grateful for the opportunity of realising that moment or individual aspiration. By understanding that שהחיינו is a prayer rather than a blessing, it changes our intention when we say it, to almost be one of hope and yearning for snapshots where we obtain, celebrate or commemorate the fact that we have simply arrived at that juncture. We are demonstrating that when given the opportunity to be grateful, we grab it, in the hope that if we behave in this way, we will be presented with more opportunities in the year ahead, we pray rather than bless.

In this vein, along the course of time, tradition has developed to encompass the שהחיינו prayer in our rituals where it is not halachically required, but the custom has developed for its inclusion. For example underneath the Chuppah, where we make an excuse for the chatan to say the blessing even though it is not necessary and interestingly enough does not encompass the kalah as it is an individual prayer. We are searching for ways in which to be thankful, and almost requesting that we may chance upon more achievements, mitzvoth and moments, whereby we are able to recognise the importance of just being in the moment. This prayer however has grown to become a symbol of appreciation and uniqueness when presented with something in our lives that intends for us to take a step back from the flow, a purposeful break

Along these sentiments, an explanation that I would like to share is that I view שהחיינו as a prayer that is like punctuation.

The Torah was given to us without punctuation, as a scroll of words, yet there is a strong tradition of how we are meant to read from it, which is very strict. The trop which are the musical notes to which the torah is read aloud, allows us to interpret where to pause, where to put a comma, a full stop, which words to accentuate and therefore adds meaning. Without punctuation the Torah is just a string of words put together.

When we are told ‘לא בשמים היא’ that the torah is no longer in heaven and it is in our hands, I believe that this is some way saying, that it is for us to add the punctuation, to interpret it and derive meaning. This enables us to discuss, to create and to make it our own personal torah. We are given the free choice to read the text, we can hear how it was originally meant to be said and but we still have the opportunity to punctuate it for ourselves. Which is unique compared to any other religious text.

Saying שהחיינו I would like to suggest is like enacting a semi-colon in your life. The use of a semi-colon in grammar, links an idea from the first part of a sentence to the next, it provides a break, an opportunity to pause enough to reflect and then move on into a totally new concept that is however inextricably linked to the previous statement. A semi-colon joins two concepts to make them one, however after passing the a semi-colon, and reading the 2nd part of the sentence, the first half will never be the same as when it stood by itself and changes its meaning entirely.

There are two other major things that I view as having punctuated my life and added meaning. Aliyah is not just starting a new chapter, it is the turning of a book from back to front, along comes with it a language of its own where English grammar does not apply in the conventional sense and the punctuation is pure guesswork.

I recently just read the amazing short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri….she writes about the immigrant experience of a man who lived on 3 continents, who grew up in Benegal, who studied in London and eventually moved to America to work. It is a simple story but she conjures up a world whereby we experience it in the most moving and incredible way. The story ends with his reflection which encapsulates my feelings about Aliyah perfectly.

“I know my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, and each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination”. (From the story ‘The Third and Final Continent”).

The other punctuation that colours my life and I hope colours your lives is family and friendship in other words our relationships and encounters with other people. People that have crossed my path are perhaps like emoticons…they pop up as yellow circles here and there and colour otherwise plain text…they can have smiley faces, stick out their tongues, cry or give you a flower but they have revolutionised the usage of colons and semi-colons forever.

The importance that I would like to emphasise is that we have the choice as to how we punctuate our lives. We can choose to add, capital letters to make people important. We can place question marks where we are unsure. We can finish off chapters and tuck away, events, people or places. We can move on and start new chapters, begin new friendships and choose to turn over a new page. Rosh Hashanah maybe a semi-colon that provides you with a pause that lets you reflect about where you were last year. I find this particularly significant, when we think about that over the next 10 days we are asking to be signed in the book of life, we want to be added to a list but in what style will we be written. Will we be the first? Will we be underlined? Will we be added last as a scribble and afterthought? In what way do our actions influence what font our name appears?

We have the choice as to who we let in, how we let others treat us, and how we behave in return. We have the choice as to what events we place emphasis on, as to whether we care enough about issues to raise our hands up and take a stance. We have a choice about whether to engage in discussion, argument or be passive. We have a choice as to whether or not to love or to hate. We have choice to apologise or hold a grudge. We have a choice to make things better or make things worse. We can put in effort, we can give people a chance, we can try new things, or we can sit in a box and watch the world go by unpunctuated.

I have always believed that only special people are granted with the strength to make Aliyah, and be subject the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I am truly honoured to say שהחיינו in the presence of you all tonight, for the punctuation and therefore meaning that you add by being here to share this meal, in the appreciation that this moment has arrived in the knowledge of all that has been, and during the semi-colon that connects last year to next I hope that we may all be inscribed in bold in the book of life together.


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