by Laura E. Adkins
(JTA) — Jewish liturgy offers blessings for seemingly every occasion, from ritual moments (such as lighting Shabbat candles) to sublime experiences (seeing a rainbow) to mundane acts (going to the bathroom).
But what is the right blessing (“bracha” in Hebrew) to say upon receiving the COVID-19 vaccine? Is it even appropriate to say a blessing at all?
This moment felt far off at the beginning of the pandemic, but is arriving at record speed. Both Moderna and Pfizer have produced COVID-19 vaccines that are more than 90% effective at preventing infection, and the U.S. government is set to receive enough vaccines to immunize 100 million people in the first quarter of 2021.
So we reached out to rabbis from different denominations to get their opinions. All said the occasion merits a Jewish response, even as Orthodox rabbis noted that formal blessings with God’s name are reserved for certain situations.
But beyond that, they turned to different ideas from within Jewish texts and tradition. Here’s what they told us.
Do you have a different response to this question? Email us your thoughts.
Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles
I would say three, actually: the shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God who brought us to this day; “She’asah li nes bamakomhazeh,” who has done a miracles or me in this place; and “Shenatan michochmato l’basar v’adam,” who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood. In a recent “daily connection” video, I cited the biblical Joseph saying the second of these blessings when he returns to the pit he was thrown into, and I suggest we should say the same.
Rabbi Emily Cohen, West End Synagogue in New York City
What do you say upon receiving a vaccine that may, one day, lead to communal life again? First, I’ll invite each person, upon receiving the vaccine, to take a breath of awe and thanks, even if — like me — they hate needles.
I’ll be inviting each member of my synagogue to bench gomel on the Shabbat after they receive the vaccine. Gomel is a prayer said by Jews who’ve come through a harrowing threat to life, like giving birth, a major illness or a car crash. It’s received by the congregation and responded to by the full community, each person asking for more good to come to the one who has survived.
One day, when we are able to gather as a complete community in our sanctuary, I will lead us all in the most profound of shechecheyanus, offering full-throated gratitude for being brought to the moment of collective, in-person religious expression for the first time in well over a year.
Rabbi Ben Greenfield, The Greenpoint Shul in Brooklyn
One must offer words of praise and blessing to Hashem upon the amazing event of receiving this vaccine! That is clear. The question is if one should do so using one of the official, canonical brachot of our tradition, which would entail uttering God’s sacred name.
Here, too, the short answer is yes, complicated only by the fact that there are so many brachot which apply that it is hard to know which one is correct! Shehechyanu, recited upon occasional events that spark gratitude (e.g. buying new furniture, eating new fruit, important rain falling on one’s field) seems, at first glance, to easily qualify. On the other hand, ha-Tov v’ha-Meitiv (who is good and causes good) should be recited if the event is shared by multiple people (e.g. rain falling on a shared field, a couple buying furniture, new wine brought out to the dinner table), and receiving a vaccine is of both personal and public health benefit. Finally, ha-Gomel (who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and who has rewarded me with goodness) is recited upon rescue from an illness. A strong argument can be made for this blessing, too.
My master and teacher, Rabbi Dov Linzer, addresses all these possibilities and advises reciting HaTov, and to do so before receiving the first shot.
COVID has been a dark reminder of an eternally true fact: Our lives and our health are connected with those of strangers we will never meet. To have the opportunity to protect ourselves and, in doing so, grant protection to others is a gift from God worthy of a most heartful “HaTov v’ha-meitiv.”
Rabbi Salem Pearce, Executive Director of Carolina Jews for Justice
Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed and Rabbi Ruth Adar have both written original and moving brachot about vaccines. The other possibility I’m thinking about is asher yatzar, a prayer that is traditionally said after using the bathroom. The ambiguity of “b’chochmah” (with wisdom) could be understood as God creating us with the wisdom to recognize the divine image within ourselves and the importance of our partnership with God in creation and stewardship of human beings.
Rabbi Yosie Levine, The Jewish Center in New York City
The impulse to recite a blessing upon receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is a laudable one. As a general matter, brachot insist that we pause and reflect on how we can endow otherwise mundane moments in our lives with a sense of sanctity. But not everything warrants a bracha.
There is an argument to be made that the distribution of the COVID vaccine calls for the recitation of birkat shehecheyanu, the blessing that acknowledges how indebted we are to our Maker for permitting us to reach a given milestone. In the midst of the untold suffering brought about by this pandemic, the almost miraculous production of a vaccine represents a dose of unusually good news. As the Talmud teaches, hearing exceptionally good tidings is reason enough to recite this blessing.
At the same time, however, we typically adopt a minimalist approach to brachot. We tend to follow precedent. We might say that the list of occasions that call for birkat shehecheyanu is fixed. As such, from the perspective of Jewish law, the best practice would be to recite the bracha while omitting the name of God. Many people are in the habit of doing this — perhaps unwittingly — upon hearing another kind of news.
At a funeral, mourners say the bracha of dayan ha-emet, expressing that God’s ways are just even if they are inscrutable. But others recite this blessing without God’s name by saying simply “baruch dayan ha-emet.” It’s an elegant compromise that allows one to express the intent of the blessing without running afoul of potentially reciting a bracha in vain.
In the case of the COVID vaccine, there may be yet another reason to say shehecheyanu. Though the practice has largely fallen out of vogue, Jewish law mandates this bracha in a case where a person sees his/her friend for the first time in 30 days. Considering that this vaccine will allow people in isolation to soon reintegrate with their friends and family, there will be much to celebrate. To put in differently, how could we not acknowledge the extent to which we are grateful for having reached this moment? What a blessing.