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Shehekhiyanu on Rosh HaShana

Elul 5783 | September 2023


The gemara in Eruvin questions whether we should recite shehekhiyanu (zman) on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The discussion there, related by the sage Rabba in first person, provides insight into the nature of the High Holidays and the blessing of shehekhiyanu.

Rabba relates that this question first arose in Rav Huna’s Beit Midrash (House of Study): “since they [the High Holidays] come at specific times a year – we should say it, or maybe since they are not called pilgrimage festivals – we should not say it?” Rav Huna did not know the answer.

Rabba then asked the question in Rav Yehudah’s Beit Midrash. Rav Yehudah answered, “I say zman on a new gourd,” intimating that kal va’chomer, a fortiori, he also says it on the new occasion of these holidays. Rabba then clarified his question and explained that he’s not asking whether it’s permissible to recite shehekhiyanu on these occasions, but if it’s obligatory. Rav Yehudah answers quoting Rav and Shmuel, “One only recites zman on pilgrimage festivals,” indicating that the only time we are obligated to recite shehekhiyanu is on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

This is the end of Rabba’s story, but the gemara continues the discussion. Eventually the sages send Rav Yeimar to observe Rav Chisda on the first night of Rosh HaShana, where he said shehekhiyanu after kiddush. The gemara concludes that there’s an obligation to say shehekhiyanu on both Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.[1]

Why differentiate between the High Holidays and the pilgrimage festivals?

As we discussed, the Torah commands us to “rejoice before God” on pilgrimage festivals; Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not pilgrimage festivals – there is no mitzvah to appear before God in the Temple and offer the accompanying sacrifices. While later sources do speak of simcha on Rosh HaShana and some halakhic authorities rule we are obligated to feel simcha on Rosh HaShana, there is no denying that certain essential elements of simcha on the regalim are lacking, which may be the reason the Torah does not mention simcha in conjunction with the High Holidays.[2]

It’s possible that these missing aspects of simcha are the reason the students in Rav Huna’s beit midrash asked their question. The issue does not seem to be one of simple semantics – should we say shehekhiyanu on all moadim or just regalim? Regalim have distinct characteristics, and one of those characteristics is the Torah mitzvah of simcha. Indeed, there are many occasions when the halakhic question of whether to say shehekiyanu is contingent on the individual’s simcha.

This is not the only way to understand this gemara. Indeed, if the only difference was simcha then that should have been the question – do we only say shehekhiyanu on days the Torah mentions a mitzvah of simcha? What else could be the reason?

Simcha or renewal?

The language of the question seems to focus on the element of time, as does the language of the blessing which praises and thanks God for getting us to “this time.” The pilgrimage festivals are called regalim – which is generally understood as “pa’amim” – occasions or times.[3] These festivals are expressly tied to the calendar dates of miraculous historical events and significant agricultural seasons, which add another element of simcha. While the Torah includes Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur in the category of mo’adim, appointed times, it does not mention any agricultural or historical significance to the dates.[4]

The regalim are seasonal, directly related to the position of earth in relation to the sun. The blessing of shehekhiyanu also has an element of seasonality. It’s generally understood that Rav Yehudah says shehekhiyanu when he sees the new gourd growing, not when he eats it.[5] The blessing is not on a gourd that is “new to him” but on the renewal of gourd season.

Rambam rules that someone should make shehekhiyanu when they “see a fruit that renews from one year to the next, when they first see it.”[6] Indeed, many halakhic authorities rule that we do not say shehekhiyanu on food or produce that is available year-round, even if we haven’t eaten it in a long time.[7] Many of these sources don’t mention an element of simcha, the focus is on renewal. Yet, according to Eruvin this blessing on renewal is one that is optional.

Shulkhan Arukh includes shehekhiyanu in the list of birkot re’iya, blessings on seeing things such as rainbows, lightning, the sea – wonders of “nature.” Not all these things are enjoyable, but that’s not a problem because birkot re’iya are generally considered blessings of praise or gratitude.

We might think there are two separate reasons we say shehekhiyanu – sometimes because we’re happy and sometimes because of renewal. The issue is that every aspect of joy also has an aspect of renewal – joy on new clothing, on seeing a friend we haven’t spoken to in over a month, when unexpectedly being served a nicer bottle of wine at a meal.[8]

It seems more likely that shehekhiyanu is primarily a blessing on renewal. When it has an element of simcha, such as on the regalim, the blessing is mandatory. When it does not, such as seeing a new gourd, it’s optional. The High Holidays are about renewal, but without an aspect of simcha it seems that shehekhiya would be optional. We rule it is mandatory. Is this because there is also an element of simcha on Rosh HaShana? Or perhaps the possibility of renewal, of turning over a new leaf, is in itself a reason to rejoice?

[1] Within this conversation the gemara entertains the idea that Shehekhiyanu on holidays may only be recited over a cup of wine – with kiddush. This is a particular problem for Yom Kippur – since it’s a fast day and there’s no kiddush. The gemara concludes that it does not need to be said over wine and can be recited anywhere, at any point on the holiday.

[2] There’s significant dispute if there is a mitzvah of simcha on Rosh HaShana. Machzor Vitri 322, Yam Shel Shlomo Beitza 2:4; Shulkhan Arukh HaRav 529 all rule there is no mitzvah of simcha, although the latter two speak of oneg – delight (which is the emotion associated with Shabbat), which is connected to the sanctity and honor of the day. Those who rule there is a mitzvah of simcha include Responsa Maharil 128 and Yere’im 227. Rambam (compare Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:17 and Hilkhot Megilla v’Chanuka 3:6) and Shulkhan Arukh (OC 597:1) rule that there is a mitzvah of simcha on Rosh HaShana, but in moderation.

[3] Based on the parallel between Shmot 23 verses 14 and 17.

[4] Vayikra 23. The sages do discuss the historical significance of the days; still, it’s significant the Torah completely omits any such mention.

[5] Rashi Eruvin ibid.

[6] Hilkhot Brachot 10:2

[7] Mordechai Sukka 671; Shulkhan Arukh OC 225:7; HaGahot Maimaniyot ibid 3.

[8] Tur and Shulkhan Arukh OC 225:1-3. Many halakhic authorities rule we do not say shehekhiyanu on seeing a new friend anymore.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.