Question: I have long wondered why we don’t say Shehecheyanu when we start counting the Omer. Can you explain the reasoning behind this practice?
Answer: Indeed, this unusual practice – or non-practice – demands an explanation. First, though, we must explore the topic of blessings in general.
The Rambam, based on Tractate Berachot (20b and 35a, and Tosafot s.v. “ha’teinach le’acharav”), starts his Laws of Blessings by noting that saying the first blessing of Birkat Hamazon is a biblically mandated since the Torah states (Deuteronomy 8:10), “Ve’achalta ve’savata u’verachta et Hashem Elokecha al ha’aretz hatova asher natan lach – You will eat and you will be satisfied, and you shall bless the L-rd your G-d for the good land He gave you.”
The Rambam states that, biblically, one must only say the blessing if fully sated. The Sages, though, instituted that it be said if one eats as little as a kezayit (an olive’s worth).
The Rambam notes further (based on Berachot 35a) that the Sages “also instituted that a person should say a blessing before he enjoys food. This is derived from a kal va’chomer: If a person must say a blessing once he has eaten and enjoyed food, all the more so should he say a blessing before he has eaten when he is hungry.”
The Rambam notes that the Sages also ruled (in Berachot 43a) that a person “must say a blessing even when deriving pleasure from a fragrance he is about to inhale.” In addition, he has to say a blessing before performing mitzvot (based on Pesachim 7b) as well as say blessings of praise, thanksgiving, and request (hoda’ah u’bakasha). That way, we always remember our Creator.
Thus, there are three types of blessings: birchot ha’nehenin (blessings before deriving pleasure), birchot ha’mitzvot (blessings before performing mitzvot), and birchot ha’hoda’ah (blessings of thanksgiving). The Rambam states that Ezra and his beit din established the text of the various blessings and we may not add words to them or delete words from them.
The blessing of Shehecheyanu belongs to the third category (blessings of praise). It is listed in the Mishnah (Berachot 54a) among various blessings of thanksgiving and praise that are required on specific occasions: “One who has built a new house or purchased new vessels [‘kelim,’ which can also mean clothes] recites, ‘Blessed be He Who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.’”
Further on in the same tractate (ibid. 58b) R. Yehoshua b. Levi states: “One who sees a friend after a lapse of 30 days says, ‘Baruch shehecheyanu veki’yemanu.’” Tosafot (ad loc. s.v. “Haro’eh et chavero”) quotes the Ri (12th century) who maintains that the word “friend” refers specifically to a cherished friend whom one is glad to see after a long absence.
In discussing the blessing one recites upon building a new house or acquiring new utensils, the Gemara (infra 59b) notes that Shehecheyanu is not recited when there is joint ownership of an item (in which case the blessing of “Hatov ve’hameitiv – Who is good and does good” is said instead). R. Huna (infra 60a) points out another general rule regarding Shehecheyanu – that a person only says it on new items if he does not have in his possession items of similar or greater value.
The Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 11:9) enumerates other times (in addition to those cited in Tractate Berachot) that require a blessing of Shehecheyanu. These include seasonal mitzvot such as listening to a shofar, sitting in a sukkah, waving a lulav, reading Megillat Esther, and kindling Chanukah lights. They also include mitzvot that are performed with (newly acquired) objects such as a new set of tzitzit, a new pair of tefillin, a new mezuzah, a new guardrail on the roof of one’s house.
The Rambam also lists infrequent mitzvot that require a Shehecheyanu like the circumcision of a son. (Hagahot Maimoniyot, Hilchot Milah 3:3, notes that Bnei Ashkenaz do not recite Shehecheyanu because the infant experiences pain) and the redemption of the firstborn.
The Rambam, however, does not list Sefirat HaOmer as a mitzvah requiring Shehecheyanu, which is puzzling since it is a seasonal biblical mitzvah.
(To be continued)