Q. Many of us hum the fast-paced musical rendition of “Shehecheyanu”, but what are the words all about?
A. The composition you hum is probably by Meyer Machtenberg, an Eastern European choirmaster who flourished in the United States a century ago.
“Shehecheyanu” has been part of Jewish life for nearly 2000 years. Beginning in the Talmud (Ber. 54a, Pes. 7b, Sukkah 46a, etc.), it is the way in which we greet a new and exciting moment. We say,
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life, preserved us and enabled us to reach this time”.
It implies three things:
1. God has “kept us in life”.
Life is the supreme blessing. It is true that Jonah said it was better to die than to live, but his despair was momentary. If ever any of us should want to give up on life, the answer is to find a good deed to do, and suddenly living will have meaning once again.
It is not only our own life that we should preserve at all costs, but that of others. Elie Wiesel, writing about the Holocaust, summed it up by saying, “A child died – and it wanted to live”.
Every child, every human being has a right to live. If anyone, God forbid, has the thought of killing someone, a much better option is to perform an act of love and humanity for them.
2. God has “preserved us”.
Every moment is dangerous, wherever we are.
Amazingly, we almost always reach the end of the day safe. If we complain about the problem of evil, isn’t there also a problem of good?
So many good things happen to us that every day we should bless God that we can wake up, we can live, we can move, we can think, we can love, and we can spend another day usefully.
3. God has “enabled us to reach this time”.
Which time? Every time, every moment, every day. So many special days punctuate the year, and human life.
Someone who is getting older and not so well says, for example, to a grandchild, “I want to be there at your bar-mitzvah, I want to be there at your wedding”, and so often superhuman effort of will keeps them going. No wonder they want to say “Shehecheyanu”.
But whoever we are, every day is a privilege to celebrate and we can all echo “Shehecheyanu” and be excited at the thought that life is so full of joy and exhilaration.
Q. Who invented the term High Holydays?
A. It probably came from the popular English phrase, “high days and holydays”: most people use the terms holydays and holidays interchangeably, and “holiday” is in fact a contraction of “holyday”.
But neither word is a literal translation of the Hebrew “yom kadosh”, a sacred day; in English, “holy” derives from the Middle English “hool”, which means not “sacred” but “whole” or “excellent”. “Yom kadosh” is found in Hebrew in the T’nach in various forms, but generally with reference to Shabbat (e.g. Isa. 58:13).
The now well known phrase, “yamim nora’im” (“awesome days”) is not Biblical, nor am I aware of it being found in the Talmud; Professor Ismar Elbogen, author of the monumental “Jewish Liturgy in its Historical Development”, believed it was medieval and reflected a change in the mood of Rosh HaShanah from a predominantly joyous celebration to a more subdued day reflecting times of persecution.
Despite Elbogen, however, the traditional liturgy says, “This day is holy to our Lord”.
It is worth adding that there are always people who get things wrong, and I have heard someone who should know better speaking of the “yamim narronim” – and “narronim” means “idiots”!