It is customary to celebrate Tu Bi-Shevat by eating fruits and reciting the She-Hehiyanu blessing on them. This custom, however, has proved challenging in recent years as advances in technology have made it difficult to find new fruit—as defined by halakhah—to say the She-Hehiyanu blessing.
My aim here is to address the halakhic definition of new fruit—and why they are becoming harder to find—and explain how other forms of She-Hehiyanu are being re-evaluated in the modern age. Taken together, it seems that developments in today’s world are making She-Hehiyanuan endangered blessing species in the lives of many Orthodox Jews.
Categories of She-Hehiyanu
While She-Hehiyanu is recited on many different occasions, all of these can be placed on a continuum on which, at either end, stand two different values: zman (time) and simhah (joy).
In terms of the She-Hehiyanu recited on holidays and the mitzvot associated with those occasions (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 473:1), its purpose is to acknowledge the sanctified Zman of the year. Though every blessing should be recited as an expression of joy, this She-Hehiyanu has little to do with personal simhah.
The She-Hehiyanu on fruit is recited on the first occasion that someone eats a particular seasonal fruit (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 225:3,6), and this She-Hehiyanu has both time-related elements (zman) and is a personal expression of joy (simhah).
Finally, She-Hehiyanu is recited upon purchasing a new item (Shulhan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 223:3), or upon seeing a close friend or family member who hasn’t been seen for over 30 days (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 225:1). While there are some time-related elements (zman) to some brachot in this category, it is primarily an expression of joy (simhah).
She-Hehiyanu on Fruits
The connection between She-Hehiyanu and modern technology is not new. In a 1964 responsum addressing this issue (Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 3:34), Rabbi Moshe Feinstein raised the question that fruit importation and long-term refrigeration may mean that many fruits are no longer to be considered seasonal.
Further developments in transportation and refrigeration have led numerous poskim to present more absolute positions on this issue. These include Rabbis Alexander Aryeh Mandelbaum (Sefer ve-Zot Ha-Brakhah 161-63), Simha Rabinowitz (Piskei Teshuvot vol. II, 916-18) and David Feinstein (Responsa ve-Dibarta Bam vol. II, n.45). All agree that one should presume—at least in the Diaspora—that She-Hehiyanu should not be recited unless you are certain that it is a seasonal fruit. In Israel, the She-Hehiyanu may only be recited on a limited selection of fruit. Apparently, then, the experience of holding a fruit and reciting She-Hehiyanu is one that few Jews are likely to have this Tu Bi-Shevat.
She-Hehiyanu on Seeing Close Friends
She-Hehiyanu on new fruit is not the only casualty of technology. The opportunity to recite the She-Hehiyanu upon encountering a close friend or family member after 30 days is because the absence of separation ensures that the moment of being reunited generates simhah. But what if, in the interim, they communicated through technology, say, like Facetime or Skype?
Some have suggested that these new media have no bearing on the halakhah while others, like Rabbis Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halakhah: Brachot 378) Alexander Aryeh Mandelbaum (Libun Ha-brakhah 393), rule that it should not be recited in this case since the perpetual contact afforded by mobile technology dulls our sense of joy and wonder.
She-Hehiyanu on Purchasing New Items
Moreover, a survey of recent halakhic works reveals a growing trend to discourage the recitation of She-Hehiyanu even on occasions when one would expect it to be recited such as in response to the purchase of new items (Libun Ha-Brakhah 410), or upon the receiving of valuable gifts (Halikhot Shlomo: Tefillah 283, n.70). While no clear reasons are offered for this, it would seem that this development is primarily based on economics and consumerism. We are no longer moved to spontaneously recite the She-Hehiyanu blessing upon the purchase or receiving of new items.
Taken together, all the evidence points to the fact that significant improvements in transportation, refrigeration, technology, and material comfort is leading us to the situation that at least some forms of the She-Hehiyanu blessing are becoming an endangered species. Yet despite this being an outcome of our modern mode of living, it seems unfortunate. The She-Hehiyanu has much to teach us about appreciating and acknowledging God in even the most mundane of moments and its decline ought to make us wonder whether we are losing our sense of wonder of God. Certainly, we should relish the remaining opportunities to recite the She-Hehiyanu, such as when we purchase new items, or when we celebrate the holidays.
Ultimately, the challenge for future generations is to find meaningful ways to maintain our connection with God in an age when some of His gifts are hidden by the gifts of human development.