Judging by the conversation online, I can tell many Jews are wondering: Is there a consensus on what blessing to recite when we receive our Covid-19 vaccine?
The question intuits what I’ve heard firsthand from members of my community, Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek: receiving the vaccine is a spiritual moment. It provides a glimmer of hope and sense of deep relief after a profoundly difficult year. Receiving the first dose of the vaccine also moves the recipient into what sociologist Arnold Van Gennep famously called a liminal period.
From the Latin word limen, meaning threshold, the term is applied to a person on the brink of entering a new phase of life. These seasons of life are betwixt and between: the person in a liminal phase is no longer who they were but also not yet who they will become. Van Gennep contended that these periods were disorienting and jarring — both for the individual and the community — and, as a result, societies needed rituals and ceremonies to guide them safely to the other side. The communal marking of these moments forms the basis of contemporary rites of passage. So it is not surprising that, as our world transitions from a period of separation to a time of reintegration, we seek to ground ourselves in ritual.
But what prayer should we recite? Many have suggested the shehecheyanu blessing, praising God for “granting us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.” In its poetic concision, the shehecheyanu beautifully summarizes much of what is essential about Judaism’s life-affirming approach to the world. It is certainly a good option for this moment when we express gratitude for the blessings of life and health promised by the Covid-19 vaccines.
I have only one reservation about this choice. While shehecheyanu is today at many joyous moments, classical Jewish law is more circumspect in its approach to the blessing, limiting its use to a small collection of sacred moments: when one celebrates the first day of a festival, eats the fruits of a season, wears a new outfit or observes a mitzvah for the first time in a particular year. By focusing on events that we hope will reoccur in the future, the shehecheyanu calls attention to the cyclical nature of Jewish time.
If a person is somewhat superstitious, as I am, they might avoid saying the shehecheyanu at other moments, especially at events that they hope occur only once in a person’s life. Should we, for instance, recite the shehecheyanu at a wedding? Or would we, God forbid, be casting the Evil Eye on the couple? Similarly, perhaps saying the shehecheyanu when receiving the Covid vaccine might similarly tempt fate. “You’d like to say this blessing again,” the Evil Eye might say. “Well, I’d be more than happy to give you the chance.”
The Talmud does, however, provide a blessing for when something unexpectedly good happens to us. When rains arrive in the autumn or when we hear good news or even when a host produces an unexpectedly good bottle of wine (see Brakhot 59b), the Talmud suggests reciting the blessing ha-tov ve-hameitiv: Praised are you, God, who is good and who does good. This blessing might be a great choice to recite both when receiving the Covid-19 vaccine and hearing about the vaccination of our friends, family and community members.
There still is, however a place for the shehecheyanu in the months to come. The world of the Talmud was one where people frequently travelled for commerce. Such journeys were often fraught with danger; surviving a voyage at sea was considered an occasion for sacred thanksgiving. Similarly, being reunited with a friend after a lengthy separation demanded prayer:
“Praised are you… for giving us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.”
Hopefully, the arrival of the Covid-19 vaccine portends a time of reunification, when we can truly be grateful not just for our own health, but for the long-delayed reunions with friends and family that we all deeply desire. I very much look forward to embracing friends and family and saying the shehecheyanu together someday soon.