It is always nice to see friends that you haven't seen for a while. After an extended separation, the joy of catching up with old acquaintances is palpable. Our sages acknowledged this feeling by mandating a benediction for the occasion (B. Brachot 58b). If you haven't seen your friend for 30 days, the sheheheyanu blessing is appropriate: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time."
This blessing is generally recited at festivals and upon other seasonal events, such as tasting a new fruit. The benediction is also mandated for moments of personal joy, for instance upon the acquisition of significant new possessions. In this spirit, seeing a friend after a lapse of 30 days warrants the recital.
If a full 12 months have passed since seeing a good friend, a different blessing is called for: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who resurrects the dead."
It sounds somewhat strange to recite the blessing over the revival of the dead just because you have not seen a friend for a year; an extended absence is hardly akin to the finality of death. One early hassidic master - Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz (1726-1791) - explained the blessing in mystical terms: The joy of two people meeting creates an angel. This angel has a limited life expectancy of one year. If within this period the two meet again, the angel receives a new lease on life. Alas, after a 12-month separation between friends, the angel is no more. When friends meet again after a yearlong absence, the angel is resurrected. The blessing is pronounced over the miraculous revival of their joint angel and thus the benediction over resuscitating the deceased is appropriate.
Commentators note that these blessings are not pronounced for just any acquaintance; only seeing a good friend justifies the recital of the benediction (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Codifiers go even further, mandating the blessing only for truly beloved friends who we are genuinely happy to see (Shulhan Aruch OH 225:1). A further limitation is noted: If you received regards from the person or a letter saying the friend is alive and well, then the blessing need not be recited when you actually meet him face to face (Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, 19th-20th century, Poland).
Common practice, however, goes even further: Along with the sheheheyanu benediction mandated in various other cases by the sages of the Talmud, sheheheyanu upon seeing people is generally not said (see Rema OH 223:1 and commentators). The blessing in this context, it appears, has fallen into disuse.
How should we understand the trend of the post-talmudic commentators to limit the recitation of this benediction and how are we to comprehend the widespread cessation of its recital?
The hassidic master and halachic authority, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkatch (1871-1937), tackled this question. First, he commented on the narrowing of the parameters when the blessing should be said: If we were to pronounce the blessing over every friend that we hadn't met in the last 30 days, we would be endlessly reciting the benediction. This would certainly be the situation on such days as market day when all gather to sell their wares, particularly considering the requirement to love all fellows. Considering this possibility, the cases that justified the blessing were necessarily limited.
The Munkatcher Rebbe did not explain what is the problem with being forced to recite the blessing incessantly. We can surmise that this would be an untenable situation for the efficient flow of commerce on market day. More importantly, the sheheheyanu blessing was designed to reflect excitement and joy; ceaseless recitation would dull the very spirit of the benediction. In talmudic times this blessing apparently was appropriate; with changing realities, however, the conditions for its recitation needed to be adjusted.
The narrowing of the parameters of the benediction over friends still does not explain why it is never pronounced today. Here too, the Munkatcher Rebbe offered an explanation that reflected his understanding of modern times. He bemoaned our exilic existence that besides the physical exile from our land also entails a spiritual exile. This spiritual exile is expressed in many ways, one of which is the lack of brotherly love between people and the jealousy with which we suspiciously view one another. The Munkatcher Rebbe sadly highlighted insincerity and two-facedness - which he termed "politics" - as a staple of his times. Given this lamentable situation, a true sheheheyanu is no longer ever called for.
Furthermore, given the general lack of sincerity, if people were allowed to recite the blessing they would pronounce it artificially, pretending that they were happy to see their so-called friends while suppressing their inner malice. Thus the benediction would be recited in vain. To avoid this infraction of the law against using the God's name without cause, the blessing over friends is no longer recited.
The joy over seeing a good friend is nevertheless palpable, and the talmudic dictate still is not so easy nor so desirable to merely brush aside. In consideration of this, the Munkatcher Rebbe continued suggesting that a less formal expression of joy - albeit without the prescribed benediction formula - may fulfill the talmudic requirement. Thus saying something to the effect of: "Thank God, it's good to see you" may minimally satisfy the benediction requirement. Indeed blessings may be said in any language, not just in the holy tongue, though it appears that the blessing necessarily needs to be an exact translation; a mere paraphrase would not suffice.
Today, we generally do not say the sheheheyanu blessing formula when seeing friends whom we have not seen for some time. Any less formal replacement may not properly discharge the blessing obligation. Moreover, it is difficult to explain this halachic development. Despite this unusual situation - a talmudic blessing that has strangely fallen into disuse - upon seeing a friend it is nice to express our joy with appropriate words, thanking the Almighty for the moment.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.