So why, indeed, do we not recite Sheheheyanu before death?
Rabbi Haim Hager of Ottynia was born in the year 1863, a scion of the Kosov-Vishnitz dynasty. At the tender age of 13, he was ordained as a rabbi by the leading Galician halachic authorities of the day.
He married a distant cousin, Pesya Leah, the daughter of Rabbi Yitzhak Friedman of Bohush (1834-1896) – a branch of the regal Ruzhin line. Thus the connection between the hassidic courts of Ruzhin and of Vishnitz – a connection that already existed thanks to previous marriages between the two families – was further strengthened.
Rabbi Haim’s father, Rabbi Baruch Hager (Imrei Baruch, 1845-1892), was the leader of the Vishnitz Hassidim. When the Imrei Baruch died, his oldest son – Rabbi Yisroel Hager (Ahavas Yisroel, 1860-1936) – took over the mantle of leadership of the Vishnitz Hassidim. The second son – Rabbi Haim – took up a rabbinic post in the town of Ottynia, at the time in Galicia.
Hassidic lore relates that the poorer hassidim were drawn to Vishnitz, while the wealthier hassidim accepted Rabbi Haim as their leader.
Thus the popular quip: “To Vishnitz travel the poor and needy with their worn-out bags over their shoulders; to Ottynia travel the wealthy with their suitcases.” On one occasion, hassidim came to the Ahavas Yisroel and complained about their dire financial situation, asking the master to urge the Almighty to grant them wealth. The Ahavas Yisroel responded that they were free to go to Ottynia, if they wished! The battles of the eastern front of the Great War were fought in the heartland of Galician hassidism, and many chose to flee the killing fields. Towards the end of 1914, Rabbi Haim of Ottynia – together with other hassidic masters connected to Ruzhin – fled to Vienna, where he remained for four years.
The town of Ottynia was devastated during the war, and though it was included in the reconstituted republic of Poland, Rabbi Haim felt he could not return. He moved to the larger city of Czernowitz and eventually settled in Stanislawow (today Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) where he lived for the remainder of his life.
A number of tales of the life of Rabbi Haim have been preserved. The rabbi once sat with a group of hassidim and asked them why a person does not say the Sheheheyanu blessing when they are about to die and go to heaven. The question is a bit a strange, for the blessing commemorates how fortunate a person is to have lived to this moment. In fact, the word “sheheheyanu” means “that He caused us to be alive”! Rabbi Haim explained his question: The righteous merit entire goodness in the world to come; they merit to take shelter in the Holy Presence – and surely this is worthy of the blessing! So why, indeed, do we not recite Sheheheyanu before death? Without answering the question he posed, Rabbi Haim turned to the hassidim and cryptically added: “I’ll work this out.”
Years later, on the eve of Hanukah, Rabbi Haim lay in a Krakow hospital as his death approached. In a few moments, Hanukah was to begin, so a makeshift hanukia was hastily organized. Night fell, and they offered the rabbi the opportunity to light the hanukkia, but he refused, insisting they must bring his personal silver hanukia from his home. Those present urged him to light, thinking to themselves that this might be the last mitzva he would be able to perform. They were concerned lest he die before they managed to go to his home and bring back the silver hanukia. But Rabbi Haim was adamant – he wanted to light his own hanukia, and the arguments of those present were to no avail.
They sped to his home and raced back with his personal hanukia in hand. Quickly they prepared the wick, poured the oil and brought the hanukia to his bedside. Rabbi Haim recited the three traditional blessings: the blessing over the lighting, the blessing recalling the miracle that the Almighty wrought, and… the Sheheheyanu blessing – recited, as always, on the first day of a festival.
That night, the first night of Hanukah 1931 – soon after reciting the blessing – Rabbi Haim of Ottynia passed away.