Thursday, May 6, 2021
A Blessing After Absence
The Talmud has a fascinating passage about blessings on occasions when you encounter a friend after a period of time. I had a chance this week to study this passage and the commentaries on it.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing him recites: “Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time” (the ‘shehechiyanu’ blessing). One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: “Blessed… Who revives the dead” (the ‘mechayeh hametim’ blessing which is also recited as the second blessing of the Amidah). [Talmud Babli, Berachot 58b].
The tradition of reciting these blessings in this way has largely disappeared in the modern age as technology has made it possible to remain connected with others without being in their physical presence. I have taught this text in the past and many are sort of spooked by the practice of saying the “reviving the dead blessing”. I personally find that tradition of reciting the blessing quite moving and a way to acknowledge reconnecting to someone after a prolonged absence. Rashi comments about the practice, “And a vessel that has been lost for more than twelve months is forgotten by its owners, because they despair of finding it after twelve months….” When we encounter a friend or even an acquaintance after a year it is like finding a lost object.
Several Torah scholars have suggested that the reality of the pandemic and our long confinement should be reason enough to revive the recitation of the ‘shehechiyanu’ blessing when we encounter a close friend or a family member. The commentators emphasize that this is so if we encounter someone who gives us joy when we are in his or her presence. A Rabbi in Israel recently argued that even with the reality of Zoom and telephones in our lives, we should say the ‘shehechiyanu’ blessing when we are in the physical presence of family and friends physically after our long period of confinement. In essence this is the hugging blessing.
The saying of a blessing upon seeing a friend after prolonged period seeks to sensitize us to absence. When we see someone we care about after a period of absence, we should make a blessing. We are thanking God for the restoration of presence. The Torah teacher Erica Brown writes, “The Talmud defines newness as a fresh pleasurable occurrence experienced after thirty days. The reunion blessing shares the same language as the blessing recited upon eating a piece of new fruit or reaching a significant milestone event. All of these experiences, from the prosaic to the significant, demand spiritual pause; they ask to be acknowledged and celebrated [From First Things Journal, May 1, 2021].
As many of are getting vaccinated and we are starting to slowly emerge from confinement, accompanying our physical encounters with a ‘shehechiyanu’ is a way of greeting people with spiritual intention. It is a way of saying to a friend or family member that their presence is deeply felt by us. It is also a way of bringing God into our encounter and sanctifying the moment of physical encounter.
I hope that you will have many opportunities to chant the ‘shehechiyanu’ blessing in the upcoming days and months. May you experience many hugs and embraces that will fill you with joy.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg