Roughly 2.5 million Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine against COVID-19, with 20% of them getting the second dose as well.
This is cause for great celebration in Israel, even as we continue to pray for the healthy recovery of those still suffering from this pandemic, here and around the world.
It has also led to a fascinating debate about whether a blessing – and which blessing – should be utilized to express our thanks to God for this incredible development.
In general, people who have undergone life-threatening events, such as severe medical illness or a serious car accident, should recite the blessing known as hagomel. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who bestows kindness upon the culpable, for He has bestowed goodness to me.”
Those who had real symptoms from the coronavirus should certainly recite this blessing upon their full recovery. Receiving a vaccine to remove the threat of the virus, however, is not the same type of threat and therefore mandates a different blessing.
In theory, there should be precedents to guide our ritual response to such medical breakthroughs.
Smallpox, for example, ravaged much of the world until the British doctor Edward Jenner discovered in 1794 that an infection with the relatively mild cowpox virus conferred immunity against the deadly smallpox virus. Soon afterward, rabbinic decisors around the world were encouraging Jews to get vaccinated. Nonetheless, we don’t have records of people reciting special blessings on the occasion.
As such, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner has argued that we should not respond with any new formal blessing on the COVID-19 vaccine. One could reply that in many cases, such as the smallpox vaccine, there were significant risks with the new treatment alongside less confidence in its efficacy, perhaps tempering the excitement of the moment.
The problem of precedents, however, raises a much larger question with regard to the historical recitation of “blessings of thanks and praise” which Jewish law mandates on various occasions.
These blessings are meant to inculcate a sense of wonder as we experience the natural world as well as gratitude to God for both the good and bad that we experience in our lifetimes.
Thus the Talmud mandates reciting a blessing when seeing a rainbow or lightning. It also mandates acknowledging the “true Judge” (dayan ha’emet) at the time of someone’s death and giving thanks to the One Who “is good and bestows good” (hatov ve’hametiv) upon the birth of a child.
Probably the most familiar of these blessings is sheheheyanu in which we give thanks to God “Who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.” Jewish law generally mandates this blessing to be recited on seasonal occasions: yearly holidays or annual holiday rituals, happy life-cycle events (such as circumcision), and when consuming certain seasonal fruits that have become available for the first time that year.
The Talmud also discusses reciting sheheheyanu or hatov ve’hametiv on more subjective experiences. The former blessing, for example, is recited by a landowner if a significant rain brings benefit to his field; if she owns the field in partnership with others, then she recites the latter blessing to acknowledge the good also bestowed on others. Similarly, a person may recite sheheheyanu when purchasing a new house alone, while a couple would recite hatov ve’hametiv.
However, in the context of discussing sheheheyanu regarding a new fruit, the Talmud deems this blessing as “reshut” (literally translated as permissible).
Some commentators asserted that this merely means that a person has discretion whether to consume such fruits or build a new house; however, should they do that action, they are obligated to recite the blessing.
Others more moderately asserted that there is no punishment for not reciting the blessing, even as it is clearly a mitzvah.
Yet another strand of decisors, including Rabbi Moshe Isserles, asserted that the blessing is optional. That is to say, one may choose to express thanks with this blessing, but it is entirely one’s prerogative.
While many decisors disagreed with this approach, it has been utilized to explain why over generations many Jews stopped reciting this blessing (outside of holidays and select life-cycle rituals).
Others further note that we have a general rule not to recite blessings in cases of doubt.
Based on this factor as well as Isserles’s opinion, several contemporary scholars, including Rabbi Asher Weiss, have recommended not reciting a blessing before receiving the coronavirus vaccine. Others have suggested that we should simply recite a short Talmudic prayer composed for medical procedures: “May it be Your will, O Lord my God, that this enterprise be for healing, and that You should heal me; as You are a faithful God of healing, and Your healing is truth.”
Yet, as Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon has noted, the Sages ordained these blessings precisely because they wanted Jews to channel such happy, momentous occasions into their prayers. Sometimes we are cautious about saying blessings so that we do not take God’s name in vain. Yet if a person feels real joy and relief on a momentous occasion, there is nothing more genuine than reciting a blessing of thanks to God. In that spirit, Rimon has recommended reciting sheheheyanu, while Rabbi Hershel Schachter suggests reciting hatov ve’hametiv when receiving the first shot to recognize the good that vaccination does, not just for the vaccinee but for all those around them.
I personally endorse this latter position, while further adding that it is appropriate to recite at the second shot the prayer that “this enterprise be for healing.” Amen.
The writer is co-dean of the Tikvah Online Academy and a postdoctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University Law School.