Sheheheyanu: Appreciating Friendship in the World of Zoom
Sometimes, it takes a radical shake-up in our lives for us to be able to reflect on our everyday experiences. Over the last few years, I have been researching, teaching, and writing about ways in which halakha responds to the changes social media have brought to our lives. When the world began to move into quarantine, and our primary contact with others took place through Facebook and Zoom, and as face-to-face contact has been minimized, we began to understand what these tools can and cannot do. For those of us in Israel, life is slowly returning back to normal, and we can now see our neighbors, if only from several feet away and behind masks. For those in other places, a tighter shutdown remains. Whatever stage of this we are in halakha can provide insight, and give us means to express our feelings in religious ways. This can be seen in the way halakha captures the experience of friendship through two berakhot.
The Talmud offers two blessings that we say upon seeing friends after time apart:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing him recites: “Blessed… Who has kept us alive (Sheheheyanu), sustained us and brought us to this time.” One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: “Blessed… Who resurrects the dead (Mehaye Ha-metim).” As Rav said: A dead person is only forgotten from the heart after twelve months have elapsed, as it is stated: “I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind; I am like a lost vessel” (Psalms 31:13), and with regard to the laws of lost objects, it is human nature to despair of recovering a lost object after twelve months (Berakhot 58b, Koren translation with minor alterations).
In a world without effective communication, if one did not see his or her friend for a year, one had a real doubt as to whether that friend was still alive. Thus, upon seeing that person, one recites the blessing on the resurrection of the dead. It must be noted, as emphasized by Rashba (Responsa 4:76), that even if the proximate cause for making this blessing is confirmation that one’s friend is alive, it is only said for friends. One does not, for example, make this blessing when meeting a stranger for the first time. While meeting someone may “bring them to life,” the blessing is warranted only when one wants to thank God for the relief of finding out that a friend is alive and well.
Rav Ya’akov Chagiz (Responsa Halakhot Ketanot 1:220), writing in the seventeenth century, was the first to consider whether one would still recite this berakha if, during the year-long period, the friends were in contact through letters or kept updated through mutual acquaintances. He rules, “It appears that one should not say the blessing of Mehayeh Ha-metim… as this case lacks the status of ‘I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind’.” In other words, the communication is sufficient to negate the novelty of seeing his friend anew. It is not clear whether for Rav Chagiz the central point is simply that the blessing is recited upon learning that a friend is alive or upon forgetting someone “as a dead man out of mind” and then having the friend “resurrected.” Either way, this blessing is not said unless someone has been in uncertain concerning a friend’s wellbeing for a year, which is not the case when they have been in contact directly or indirectly. The suggestion is accepted as authoritative by most latter authorities. (One could see this blessing as focused on the emotional aspect of ceasing to think about a friend, and believe that mere communication is not sufficient to keep that emotional connection alive. Thus, this blessing would be recited upon seeing a pen-pal after a year. Rabbi Shemuel Ghermezian Mishpitei Tzedek, O.H. 29 indeed rules this way, though not precisely for the above reasons.)
Rav Yisrael Kanievsky (Orhot Rabbenu, vol. 1, Berakhot 15), writing in the twentieth century, takes this further (in the context of Sheheheyanu; see below): in the modern era, lack of news is itself evidence that someone is alive. When someone in a given social circle passes away, the information travels. Thus, if one hears nothing, this is de facto evidence that the person is alive, thus obviating the need to make a blessing upon seeing him. In our contemporary digital world this is even more the case when Facebook accounts of those who pass away are often taken over by their loved ones to spread the word of their deaths and details of their funerals.
What about Sheheheyanu? Many (see, for example, Mishna Berura 225:5) equate the two berakhot. However, many authorities disagree. Shehecheyanu is said in various contexts: upon buying new clothes, eating a “new” seasonal fruit, etc. In each of these cases, one makes a blessing on the joy of experiencing newness, or perhaps, renewal. In our context, therefore, this blessing should be understood as thanking God for the joy of renewing a friendship or relationship. Indeed, Tosafot (Berakhot 58b, s.v. Ha–ro’eh) cite Rav Yitzhak of Dampierre (Ri) as saying that this blessing is only made upon seeing a “friend whom one loves,” excluding mere acquaintances or more casual friends, a limitation accepted in Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 225:2).
Rav Ya’akov Chagiz (as noted in Arukh Ha-shulhan, O.H. 225:5), in the responsum discussed above, appears to accept this distinction. Thus, even if Reuven has been in communication with Shimon, Reuven recites Shehecheyanu when seeing Shimon for the first time in a month. Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yehave Da’at 4:17) explains the logic: while it is true that one receives some level of emotional satisfaction by communicating with friends through all kinds of media, “the excitement and emotional animation experienced upon seeing one’s friend face to face is of much greater intensity.” In Rav Yosef’s teshuva we have a halakhic formulation of what most of us feel about our modern social networks. Rav Yosef does not explicitly write that one who has been in contact through video would still recite the blessing. However, he does note that seeing a friend through a live feed would not require the recital of a blessing, implying that face to face contact cannot be replaced, neither to obligate or negate the obligation of this blessing. (See the recent comments of R. Avraham Stav to this effect.)
Have things changed?
Has my analysis missed a key demographic? While for some people social media may encourage superficial friendships, rather than intimate in-person relationships, there are those for whom genuine bonds of affection are not easily formed. Some painfully shy individuals have difficulty or discomfort forming relationships, and social media allows them to create a sense of comradery and community while avoiding aspects of social interactions that make them most uncomfortable. For such people, it could be that friendships forged with the distance allowed by social media bring them more joy and meaning than real-world relationships. Perhaps, for them, it would be justifiable to treat these virtual connections like in-person meetings.
A second point was suggested to me by R. Aryeh Klapper. I assume that it is possible to tease out implications for contemporary reality from the earlier sources presented above. However, it is possible that the way in which we interact has been so radically altered by communications technology that we do not relate to others in ways analogous to those experienced by halakhic authorities of even twenty years ago, to say nothing of a few centuries ago. Our assumptions about when we will interact, how and with whom, are so different that the laws on the books may in no way reflect our current realities. Considering that these berakhot are built on assumptions about human emotions, such a paradigm shift may require more than tweaking the existing laws.
Friendship in a time of Covid-19
When I wrote a version of this analysis a year ago, I thought it possible that our world has indeed changed, and that we no longer need face to face connections. But now, I am more convinced than ever that some things don’t change. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the imposition of “social distancing” and quarantine, we have all been in “virtual contact” with family and friends, perhaps more than we have in months. And yet, in many ways, most of us have never felt so lonely.
Israeli musician Hanan Ben-Ari captured what Covid-19 has taught us in a recent song. “We thought… what person needs another person?… How you [Covid-19] have returned sanity, longings for people?! Suddenly, loneliness burns, we no longer fly from here to there. The parks are closed. Weddings almost without people. We have almost lost ourselves; we have almost stopped feeling.” Indeed – we thought we forgot that we need each other, in person.
This experience has convinced me of the correctness of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s opinion. We find face-to-face interactions to be more intense and meaningful, and we should. Halakha recognizes and encourages this reality. How strongly we all feel the deep need to return to work, school, and shul, to talk to our neighbors and learn with our friends? To hug a family member? To let grandparents babysit their grandchildren again? To even simply shake hands?
A year ago, I thought we should rule like Rav Ovadia because “it is preferable to prioritize in-person relationships, highlighting that, at least for most people, there are benefits to these kinds of friendships. To institute a blessing for virtual interactions is to ‘give in’ to a culture where people would rather text with friends who are not present than speak with friends sitting next to them.”
What I’ve learned is this is already the case. We want those relationships; we need face to face contact. In our ever-connected world we forgot that. Deep down, we knew this. Who do we make sure to find time to meet up with – our close friends who we speak to regularly but only visits infrequently, or the acquaintance I don’t miss even after not speaking for a decade? Take this unfortunate opportunity to remember. I, for one, commit to the following: at the end of this, when I see those beloved friends from whom I was separated because of Covid-19, I am going to thank God for the gift of seeing friends in person. In the meantime, I pray that day arrives soon.
Rabbi Jonathan Ziring is a Ra”m at Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah in Modi’in. This essay is adapted from a piece originally published on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, updated for a time of COVID.
[Published May 3, 2020]