Do I make a berakha when receiving a COVID-19 vaccine shot or when it begins to be distributed in my city? If so, what berakha?
We should start by noting that the question you are asking is a halakhic one regarding the specific formulaic blessing of the Barukh atah nature. From a religious perspective, if one is feeling a sense of gratitude towards God, he should certainly say prayers and words of praise, either of his own or those that can be found in the Siddur or in Tehillim, or that come from any appropriate source.
To turn, then, to the halakhic question, my ruling would be as follows:
Assuming that you are experiencing joy, the blessing that you should recite is either the berakha of She’hehiyanu or HaTov vi’ha’Meitiv. In most cases, the blessing may only be recited at the time of receiving the shot, specifically the first shot, and not at other times, such as when the vaccine is being distributed.
Let’s see why.
1. Which berakha?
As these moments are moments of joy, the berakha that one should recite would be the standard one that is recited when a joyous event occurs – either She’hehiyanu, when it is just she who is experiencing the joy, or HaTov Vi’ha’meitiv (hereafter, HaTov), if her joy is shared with others.
In our case, HaTov would be preferred over She’hehiyanu. When a person receives a vaccine, it is good for other people as well – the fewer people who get sick, the better off we all are. However, the benefit that those others are receiving is of a different sort – they are not being directly protected – and some poskim are generally leery of saying HaTov when the shared nature of the benefit is not so black- and-white. There is also the general consensus among poskim that She’hehiyanu works even in cases which call for HaTov (see Beur Halakha, OH 223:5). So reciting She’hehiyanu is definitely an acceptable choice, and for some would be the preferred choice (not to mention that, experientially, people are much more emotionally connected to She’hehiyanu than to HaTov).
Nevertheless, I still would prefer HaTov. I believe that this case, unlike so many others in classic literature, is one in which the person receiving the benefit feels genuine joy not just for herself, but for all of society. This is reinforced by the fact that the receiving of the vaccine happens in settings where many people are receiving it together and where there is a system set up to administer the vaccine. One feels in such settings that the joy she is receiving is shared by others, and the joy that others are receiving is shared by her. HaTovwould be – in my opinion – the preferred blessing to be recited.
So far, we have only been considering She’hehiyanu and HaTov. My esteemed colleague, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, however, as well as others, have argued that the proper blessing to be recited at this time would be HaGomel, the blessing that we recite when a person recovers from an illness or returns from a dangerous sea journey. There is much to recommend this approach. The blessing of HaGomel is said when a person is saved from a state of danger or fear for one’s safety. It is a blessing of redemption. She’hehiyanu and its counterpart, HaTov, in contrast, are blessings most often said in times of joy which go beyond our normal, acceptable – or generally good – state of being. It is not a blessing that we associate with being saved from a precarious situation. The one exception to this that I know of, is the recitation of She’hehiyanu (or HaTov) at a time when the rains come, which, according to Shulkhan Arukh (OH 221:1) refers to a case when it rains after a period of drought. Receiving rain during a period of drought is truly a case of being saved from desperate conditions. Others posit, however, that the case of reciting She’hehiyanu when the rains come refers to a case of plentiful rain, when there is great joy (Arukh HaShulkhan 221:2), making this recitation of She’hehiyanu just like all the others. According to this latter framing, She’hehiyanu is only said at moments of joy beyond the norm, and never when one is saved from a bad or dangerous situation. While this position is compelling, as a matter of halakha we embrace Shulkhan Arukh’s position, and recite She’hehiyanu when the rains come after a drought. It for this reason that we focus here on the blessings of She’hehiyanu and HaTov as the ones to be recited, despite the fact that ours is not the standard case regarding these blessings.
To rule that one should recite HaGomel in our case would require one to adopt the position that HaGomel may or should be recited at any time when one is saved from danger, even if the person was not one of the four types explicitly mentioned by the Rabbis (Berakhot 54a), namely, a person who returns from a dangerous sea journey; returns from crossing the desert; recovers from an illness; and who is released from prison. Shulkhan Arukh (OH 219:9) sides with this more expansive approach and does not limit the berakha to these cases specifically. Although in the end he recommends that when it is not one of the four cases specifically mentioned, one should recite the blessing without using God’s name, Mishnah Brurah (OH 219:32) states that the consensus of the later poskim is that we should follow Shulkhan Arukh’s first and primary opinion and recite HaGomel in any case analogous to those four.1
The reason that I do not explore here the possibility of reciting HaGomel, as compelling as that possibility may be, is that I generally adopt the more conservative approach that limits HaGomel to the four cases listed in the Talmud, although there is good reason, both halakhically and religiously, to not adopt such a limiting approach. More to the point, however, is that I also question whether the experiences of those who never had COVID and are now being vaccinated can be compared to a person who was seriously ill (even if not with a life-threatening illness) or who crossed a desert. In those cases, when ill or in the desert, there is an acute awareness at every moment of the dangerous and precarious situation that one is in, and the transition from being in the desert or at sea to having returned home is sudden and clearly demarcated (although admittedly less so in the case of recovering from an illness). In those cases, when one exits the state of danger or illness, he feels as if he has been saved. Our situation, by contrast, is one of an individual or community that has now been vaccinated and will now, over time, be relatively freer from the constraints that the virus has imposed. It does not seem to me that there will be a similar sense of salvation here when one receives a vaccine shot. Relief, yes. Joy, yes, possibly. But not salvation. I do think, however, that we should definitely consider the ha’Gomel blessing when enough people are vaccinated that society can move back to something close to normal. That, I believe, will feel like going from darkness to light. It will feel like salvation.
[NOTE: The above paragraph was written with the majority of the population – those who are not working on the front-lines – in mind. Since this teshuvah’s posting, a number of front-line health care providers responded and noted that their role requires them to put themselves in danger of exposure to illness every day. For them, their reality was very much one of “acute awareness at every moment of the dangerous and precarious situation that one is in” and receiving the vaccine felt exactly like crossing an ocean and coming onto dry land. For these front-line workers, the proper blessing to recite would certainly be HaGomel.
Not everyone among health-care providers will have the same emotional and religious response. A chaplain, who likewise exposes herself to health risk on a daily basis, wrote a moving piece how for her, the blessing of Shehechiyanu gave exact expression to her powerful feeling of the presence of the hand of God, the partnership between God and humankind and the miracle of God having “sustained us and brought us to this time.”
Perhaps one way to articulate the different religious responses here, is that one is a response of relief and the other one of joy, but that might be too facile of a distinction. As a practical matter, since both the HaGomel and the Shehechiyanu blessing would be indicated halakhically, a person should recite the blessing that gives greatest expression to what she is experiencing religiously and emotionally. If she feels that each blessing responds to a different part of her experience, she may choose to recite both of them, as each blessing is warranted by the circumstances.]
So while the blessing of HaGomel is one that might speak more to our experience of going from travail to relief than the blessings of She’hehiyanu and HaTov, which focus on joy, it is, in my opinion, a blessing whose time has not yet come. When we move from shots beginning to be given in certain geographic areas to a society that has been broadly immunized and has returned to some semblance of normalcy, the blessing of HaGomel should definitely be given serious consideration.
2. Each individual recites
Each individual who receives the vaccine should recite the blessing, even if everyone else is also receiving these shots. The Gemara (Berakhot 59b) rules that when it rains, each individual who owns a field and benefits from the rain recites the berakha – either She’hehiyanu or HaTov Vi’ha’Meitiv – alongside everyone else who is reciting it independently. Shulkhan Arukh rules accordingly (OH 221:1).
When is the right time to recite this blessing? We can identify a few potential times:
- When the vaccine begins being distributed in your area;
- When people have been using it for a few months, and its efficacy has been clearly demonstrated; or
- When you, personally, receive it.
3. When is the moment of joy?
To decide between these we need to consider, first, when the moment of joy occurs and, second, whether halakha would allow for the blessing to be recited at all, or only some, or only one of these times.
These blessings are only made when a person is, subjectively, experiencing joy. When is that time in our situation?
Many will feel that it is #3, when receiving the shot. At that time, something is happening to them concretely, and they are connecting to the joy of this vaccine directly.
For others, the moment of distribution, #1, will be a much more joyous event than that of actually receiving the vaccine itself, which might be anti-climactic. Alternatively, many people might not be prepared to celebrate until the vaccine has been proven to be effective, and would focus on that time, #2. It is, however, hard to know exactly when that time is. Nevertheless, if a person feels joy at a concrete moment when the vaccine’s effectiveness is announced, then that would be the time to focus on for this person.
4. First Shot or Second Shot?
If one is to recite the blessing at the moment of receiving the vaccine shot, should she do so when receiving the first shot, when the process begins, or the second shot, when the process completes? Here, again, the case of rain is instructive. The halakha is that the blessing of She’hehiyanu or HaTov over rains is said already when enough rain has fallen that bubbles are created when rain continues to fall, although the ground has not yet absorbed the amount of rain that is needed (SA OH 221:1, based on Berakhot 59b). This is directly applicable to our case: the blessing should be recited once the process begins in a significant and concrete way, that is, when receiving the first vaccine shot. It need not wait until the second shot is received. This makes a great deal of sense, since our feeling of joy begins at that first concrete moment, and in general, She’hehiyanu blessings that are said for joyous occasions focus on the first concrete experience of joy, even if the process has yet to consummate.
So much for the question of the subjective experience of joy. But what about halakhic considerations? Would halakha allow for a blessing to be made at any of these times?
My conclusion is that halakha would only allow for this blessing to be recited at #3, when one receives the vaccine. Here’s why:
5. Direct and Indirect Experience of Joy
When the vaccine is distributed in your city, you will likely be joyful as a resident of the city even before you have received your shot and benefited from the vaccine personally and directly. Can a blessing be recited then? The answer, is no. To return to the case of the rain – when it rains after a drought and you don’t own a field, you do not make the berakha of She’hehiyanu or HaTov, although everyone else is experiencing great joy, and presumably you are joyous together with them (SA OH 221:2). Nevertheless, if you don’t own a field, then you are not directly benefiting, and thus you do not recite a blessing.
What about the fact that you are benefiting personally when the vaccine is being distributed, because the entire society will now be more normal, and this is something that you will directly benefit from (e.g., your favorite stores will now be open, you can leave the house and go to work, etc.)? The case of the rain, however, seems to clearly prove that this does not suffice for the blessing to be recited. In that case, when rain falls after a drought, the entire community benefits. People are happier, and food is cheaper and more available. And yet, if one does not own a field, she does not make the berakha of She’hehiyanu or HaTov (SA OH 221:2). Those berakhot are reserved for times when a person directly benefits from what has just occurred.2
It is, however, worth noting that in the case of rain, the Rabbis instituted a special blessing to be recited by all those not reciting She’hehiyanu or HaTov: “We thank you, God, our Lord, for every drop and drop that you have brought down to us…“. The reason for this special blessing seems clear. As Arukh HaShulkhan explains (221:4): “One nevertheless has to give thanks to God, for this is something that affects everyone.” I think we can reasonably surmise that were Hazal around now, they would have instituted a similar blessing for a time during a pandemic when a vaccine has been discovered and begins to be distributed to the entire world. But in the absence of their establishing such a blessing, we must choose between the blessings that they have instituted: She’hehiyanu and HaTov (and possibly HaGomel).
To repeat what was said above, if one is feeling religiously moved to bless and thank God at this time, then one should definitely do so in ways other than the formulaic Barukh atah style blessing. One could consider reciting the Nishmat prayer which appears right before Yistabach in the Shabbat Shaharit service. Much of the Nishmat prayer is taken from the blessing over rain, and one could even add to it the opening line from the rain blessing – “We thank you, O Lord, our God and God of our ancestors, for every drop and drop that you have brought down to us.” We could even think of “every drop” as referring to every drop of the vaccine!
Our discussion, however, is in reference to the formulaic, halakhic blessings. For those, the time to say it is limited to cases of personal, direct experience.
6. Hearing Good News versus Hearing Good Tidings
We have seen that one does not recite the blessing unless she benefits directly from the vaccine, that is, when she receives it herself (#3). But perhaps there is another reason to recite the blessing earlier – when it is being distributed (#1) or seen to be effective (#2). On hearing of the announcement of these events, a person is hearing joyous news. The Mishnah (Berakhot 54a) teaches that the blessings of She’hehiyanu and HaTov are made at moments of besorot tovot, joyous news. Would this not be such a time?
There is a halakhic question here as well as an experiential one. To start with the halakhic – does one recite a berakha upon hearing good news even if nothing has yet actually happened to the person directly? Would I, for example, make a berakha when my favorite team wins the World Series, since for me this is tremendously joyous news?
To me it seems clear that one does not. The examples in the Talmud (Berakhot 59b) of reciting a blessing when hearing good news is when a man hears that his wife has given birth or that he has received an inheritance. Those are not good news in general; they are reports that something good has happened to him.
In fact, the word used in the Talmud is not – as Shulkhan Arukh paraphrases it – shmuot tovot – good news, but rather besorot tovot. The word besorah occurs in multiple places in Tanakh, and it always has the meaning not of “good news” but of “good tidings,” specifically in the sense of a report of something good or bad that is of direct consequence to the person receiving the news (see, for example, Sam. II, ch. 18, throughout the chapter, and Jer. 20:15, which was effectively lifted by the Mishna).
I can find no evidence that one may make a berakha of She’hehiyanu or HaTov upon hearing about good news which does not directly impact him.3 The case of the blessing over the rain is again proof to this. Although it is clearly good news that a non-farmer hears when told that it has started raining, he still does not recite She’hehiyanu or HaTov.4 Similarly, Mishnah Brurah in Beur Halakha (223:1) rejects the position of Sefer Hasidim that one may recite a blessing when he hears that a righteous person who is very dear to him had a child. Since there is no direct benefit that this person has received in that case, it does not constitute besorot tovot and does not warrant a blessing.
We must, however, consider one final scenario. Consider a case where a person receives a shot before its effectiveness has been proven – as will be true for a large number of people – and does not experience any significant joy since he remains uncertain as to its efficacy. Then, it is announced that it has proven to be effective, which is joyous news to this person. This case is one which I would consider to be besurot tovot. Hearing about the vaccine’s effectiveness after having received the shot is being told that something good has happened to you – and a berakha should be made at that time.
We have seen that the blessings of She’hehiyanu or HaTov were instituted in cases where a person is joyous over (a) a specific event that (b) affects her personally. In limiting the blessing to circumstances that meet these criteria, the Rabbis seem to have felt- perhaps basing themselves on the model of the blessings before and after eating – that we are most connected to benefit that we experience directly and personally. There might be cases – such as possibly this one – where a person experiences equal or even greater joy at a different moment. Nevertheless, the formulaic blessing – Barukh atah… – is limited to cases of direct, personal joy. Other prayers may of course be said at these times, just not these formulaic blessings.
One should thus reserve the recitation of the blessing to the moment when she is receiving the vaccine herself. That is, the time to recite the blessing is #3, when receiving the vaccine, and not #1, when it is distributed or #2, when it has proven its effectiveness.
For some, however, the moment of receiving the vaccine might not be the moment of greatest joy, and this moment might even be anti-climactic compared to hearing that it is being distributed, as discussed earlier. In such a case, the blessing should not be recited at the moment of receiving the shot. Whether one will recite a blessing at all in such a case may depend on the sequencing. If she hears of its effectiveness after having received the vaccine, and this is a joyous moment for her, she should recite the berakha at that time, as this news is good tidings about something good that has happened to her. If, on the other hand, she were to hear about the effectiveness before receiving the shot, no berakha is to be recited. Not before the shot, at the time of distribution or announcement of effectiveness, because it would not be in response to a personal, direct experience. And not at the moment of the shot, since, for this person, there is little joy at that time. Of course, in such, a case a person can say any words or verses of praise, or read from the Hallel. It is just the particular Barukh atah type blessing that would not apply in this case.
If someone did recite the blessing at the moment of distribution or when the vaccine’s effectiveness was announced, before she received the shot, I would rule that she should make it again at the moment of receiving the shot, provided that that is also a joyous moment for her. The blessing would have to be recited again at that point, since the earlier blessings would, in my opinion, not have counted.
A. The blessing to be made is HaTov or She’hehiyanu. Either of those are legitimate options in my opinion, for reasons discussed above. There is reason to also consider the blessing of HaGomel, especially when there has been change felt throughout society, although that is beyond the scope of this discussion.
B. The time to make the blessing would be when receiving the first shot, assuming that it is a moment of joy for the person.
C. If there is no particular joy for the person at the moment of receiving the shot, then a formal blessing should not be recited at that time.
D. If, however, a person does not experience joy when receiving the shot but is joyful when she hears about its effectiveness afterwards, the blessing should be made at that later time, as that is a moment of good tidings.
E. If a person made the blessing at an earlier time, whether at the time of distribution or at the time of the announcement of its effectiveness, she should make it again when receiving the shot, if this is also a joyous moment for her.
F. Even when halakha does not dictate that the Barukh atah blessing should be said, a person may and should be encouraged to say words of praise to God if she is religiously motivated to do so.
May God, through the wisdom and knowledge that God has granted us as human beings, send refuah shleima to all those who are suffering as a result of the virus, and protect all of those who have not yet contracted the virus, and let us all see a time when society has returned to a semblance of normalcy.
1 Alternatively, there are those who have argued that our case fits into the category of a sick person being healed. This is a hard position to take since ours is a case of being protected from illness, not of having been sick and being healed from the illness, which, on a subjective level, is a significantly different experience.
2 Here we follow the explanation of Shulkhan Arukh (OH 221:1), as to why in this case the rain is a joyous event. He frames this as a case where there has been a drought, and now it is finally raining. Other framings are also possible. Mishnah Brurah (OH 221:1) rules that a blessing would be in order for the first rain of the season in the Land of Israel, since the country is often beset with drought and there is always great anxiety around when it will begin to rain. Both of these cases are analogous to ours, as they start with a bad situation for the entire society that has now been resolved and, nevertheless, the blessings are only recited by those benefiting directly. In contrast, Arukh HaShulkhan (OH 221:2) describes the case as one where there is plentiful rain and that it will be a particularly successful year for the farmers. If so, this would not be relevant to our current situation.
3 The Talmud and Shulkhan Arukh (OH 223:2) do have a case where a man hears about his father’s death and recites Dayan Ha’Emet over the death and She’hehiyanu if he is receiving an inheritance. While in that case he will actually collect his inheritance later, he is already, according to halakha, the legal owner of the property at the moment of death.
4 I have found one source that might imply that the concept of besorot tovot goes beyond good tidings of events that happened to the person. Shut Hilkhot Ketanot (2:160) compares the blessing said over besorot tovot to the blessing that we make over smelling spices. The former is pleasure received by the ear, and the latter is pleasure received by the nose. While one could argue that the pleasure that a person experiences when hearing good tidings about events that relate to him directly will be greater than the pleasure he experiences when hearing good news in general, there are definitely exceptions to this rule (e.g., when I hear that my team won the World Series – that’s music to my ears). It seems that for Hilkhot Ketanot this blessing is recited over hearing any joyful news, and not just good tidings.
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