In Jewish practice, brachot/blessings give us the language to express joy and gratitude. Brachot also function as the spiritual technology for lifting experiences, mundane as well as sublime experiences, into elevated moments of consciousness and wonder. Particular experiences are assigned their particular blessings to root us where we are, directly linked with the action we are doing, and then widening the web of our experiences to include the sweep of great forces of nature, time, history, community, the processes of the body and the Divine Presence enlivening it all.
Almost all of the daily, weekly, annual and lifecycle blessings that are woven into Jewish life are laid out in the Talmud (codified in 500CE), with additions and edits developing during the early medieval period. It is striking to think that the same words of blessing have been shared across generations for common human experiences shared across time. But every so often, a new invention, a new situation arises that Judaism hasn’t quite met yet. For example, what is the bracha for receiving a Covid vaccine during a global pandemic?
There is interesting conversation about this among rabbis, Jewish thinkers and various communities exploring this question. What makes it interesting, even if you don’t think of yourself as a religious person, is that the answer reveals a lot about how one relates to the pandemic, the vaccine and all that is entailed in this moment. Should a new blessing be created because of the uniqueness of this global pandemic and the tools we have at this time to stem its contagion? Should an existing blessing be used because Covid-19 is just the latest expression of processes of illness, healing and the wondrous discovery and use of medicines that have been part of human experience throughout history? Is receiving the vaccine optional or, from Judaism’s perspective, is it a mitzvah – a commandment and obligation rooted in our collective, interpersonal responsibility? Is the blessing-worthy nature of the inoculation located in its benefit to the individual getting the shot in the arm or is it in the collective benefits it yields?
Of course, there has not been agreement among authorities, but I want to share a few suggestions to infuse receiving the vaccine with Jewish meaning.
1) By far, the most widespread suggestion is She’hecheyanu, for the joy and relief of reaching this moment of protection after a year of living in danger of becoming infected.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמָן הַזֶּה
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam she’hecheyanu, ve’ki’yemanu, ve’higi’yanu la’zman hazeh
Blessed are you Adonai our God Sovereign of Time and Space for enlivening us and sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.
Though it is not commonly used in this way, this bracha is also said when a person sees a friend for the first time in 30 days or more. Since the vaccine will enable us to come out of isolation, to gather with family, friends, community and to hug our beloveds again soon, this one blessing can punctuate (inoculation pun intended) each stage of our being kept alive, sustained and brought together again.
The close second favourite blessing across the religious spectrum is Hatov ve’hameytiv. This blessing is said when one’s personal benefit and joy are shared by others and when the benefit and joy of others is shared by you – like when it rains and your field is watered, as are the fields of your neighbours, or to give quite a different example, when you are drinking a nice wine with others and then someone brings a better bottle of wine to the table for everyone to enjoy. Each person recites hatov ve’hameytiv over their own cup. In a context where each person vaccinated both protects them and benefits everyone, this is quite a beautiful option.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵיטִיב
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, ha’tov ve’hameytiv.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who is good and bestows good.
3) To express or awaken a sense of being inoculated as an experience of personal miracle, this blessing is traditionally said when one returns to visit a place where one experienced a miracle.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שעשה לי נס במקום הזה
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam she’asah li nes bamakom hazeh.
Blessed are you Adonai our God Sovereign of Time and Space who did a miracle for me at this place.
4) In gratitude for the medical and scientific discoveries that brought us the vaccines, this is the blessing traditionally said when encountering a great sage of secular knowledge person.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ודם
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam shenatan michochmato l’basar va’dam.
Blessed are you Adonai our God, Sovereign of Time and Space who has given Divine wisdom to humans of flesh and blood.
5) Birkat Hagomel is the blessing for having come through danger. This might apply to all of us, but it is particularly fitting for those with compromised immune systems, for those who are more vulnerable or in more precarious living situations and for those whose work has put them at greater risk,. Traditionally it is said after childbirth, after dangerous travel or after having been ill and regaining health. It is also moving that this blessing includes a response, having another person (even on Zoom) recognize the goodness you are receiving and blesses you with more.
ברוך אתה ה אלהינו מלך העולם הגומל לחיבים טובות שגמלני כל טוב
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha’olam ha’gomel la’chayavim tovot she’gemalani kol tov.
Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe who bestows goodness on humankind and has been gracious to me.
Response: מי שגמלך כל טוב הוא יגמלך כל טוב סלה
Mi she’gemalech (f)/she’gemalcha (m)/she’gemalchem (plural) kol tov hu yigmalech kol tov sela.
May the One who has bestowed goodness on you continue to bless you with all that is good.
6) One of the new blessings that has been composed for this moment by two Pittsburgh rabbis, Rabbi Barbara Symons, Rabbi Doris Dyen, is based on the blessing in gratitude for our bodies, recited every morning and as well as after going to the bathroom.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות בידי כל יושבי תבל
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam rofeh chol basar u’maflee la’asot be’yedey chol yoshvey tevel.
Blessed are You Adonai our God Sovereign of the universe who heals all flesh, working wondrously through human hands.
And here is a new prayer poem:
A Prayer for Receiving the Covid Vaccine
by Rabbi Naomi Levy
I have been praying for this day and now it is here!
With great excitement, a touch of trepidation
And with deep gratitude
I give thanks
To all the scientists who toiled day and night
So that I might receive this tiny vaccination
That will protect me and all souls around this world.
With the pandemic still raging
I am blessed to do my part to defeat it.
Let this be the beginning of a new day,
A new time of hope, of joy, of freedom
And most of all, of health.
I thank You, God, for blessing me with life
For sustaining my life
And for enabling me to reach this awe-filled moment. Amen
I hope and pray that we and all people around the world, be blessed with access to the vaccine, speedily. May it be effective, protective and healing. May we come face to face, singing and learning together soon.