The holiday of Shemini Atzeres suffers from an identity crisis. On the one hand, its very name — the Eighth Day of Assembly — leads to the impression that it is the closing day of Sukkot, the holiday that immediately precedes it. At the same time, the Talmud clearly understands it to be a separate holiday, with significant features that distinguish it from Sukkot. Among the halakhic features that the Talmud uses to prove its independence is the recitation of the blessing of Shehechiyanu — Baruch she-he-cheyanu ve-kiyamanu ve-higiyanu la-zeman ha-zeh — the benediction recited at the beginning of each festival thanking God “who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” The Shehechiyanu said at the beginning nights of Sukkot is not sufficient to cover the joy that we have in encountering a new and independent milestone of Shemini Atzeres.
It is striking to note how often this special blessing is recited over this season of the year: both evenings of Rosh Hashanah during kiddush, preceding the shofar on both days of Rosh Hashanah, during Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, during kiddush on the opening evenings of Sukkot, before waving the lulav and etrog for the first time and again in the kiddush of Shemini Atzeres and Simchat Torah. (In fact, during the time of the Talmud, an additional Shehechiyanu was recited when the sukkah was constructed! Sukkah 46a.) In many ways, this simple expression of gratitude to God for survival is the anthem of our High Holiday season.
There is a powerful story that illustrates the profound significance of this blessing:
One year, the first Bobover Rebbe, R’ Shloime Halberstam (1847—1905), acquired a precious possession: a set of the famed Slavita edition of the Talmud. Particularly prized by Chassidic rebbes due to the beauty of the printing and the piety of the printers, the Bobover Rebbe was overjoyed with his good fortune. So when the second night of Rosh Hashanah arrived that year, the Bobover Rebbe asked that the Slavita Talmud be placed on the yom tov table together with the customary platter of new fruit, in order that his shehecheyanu — his heartfelt declaration of joy in being allowed to live another year — should include his excitement over his new Talmud.
Decades later, in 1946 his grandson who bore his holy name, R ‘ Shloime Halberstam (1907—2000), found himself in New York on Rosh Hashanah under very different circumstances. He had lost his wife, most of his children and many of his followers during the dark years of the Holocaust. Bobov was gone, and as a refugee in America, his beard just growing back after the war, was trying to imagine the near impossible work of rebuilding. When he sat down to celebrate the second evening of Rosh Hashanah, on the table he, too, placed a new set of Talmud, just as his namesake had done.
And when I imagine the ragtag group of refugees who shared that first Rosh Hashanah in the New World, I think about what the Shehecheyanu must have meant to them:
• Notwithstanding the horror and the carnage, they were still alive.
• Notwithstanding the utter obliteration of the rich heritage of European Jewry, the Talmud still lived.
• Notwithstanding the unfamiliar and spiritually rootless soil they found themselves on, the grandson could still find the same joy in Judaism as the zeyde had years before.
Baruch she-he-cheyanu ve-kiyamanu ve-higiyanu la-zeman ha-zeh!
This has been a challenging year for the whole world, and as we culminate for a festival season that in some ways would be unrecognizable to our pre-pandemic selves, it is not difficult to give in to a sense of sadness and despair.
This Tishrei, we need to seize on to the Shehechiyanu of the Bobover Rebbe, to find the joy and gratitude to Hashem for what we do have, that we are still here and appreciating the unique gifts that each festival of this blessed season.
And I leave you with this question: What can we bring to the table this year to enhance our Shehechiyanu? More than a lychee or a kumquat, we need to dig deep in ourselves to find and share that for which we are so grateful to Hashem, notwithstanding the anxiety of this past year.
Baruch she-he-cheyanu ve-kiyamanu ve-higiyanu la-zeman ha-zeh! PJC
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.