One who builds a new house, or buys new utensils recites the blessing: Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who keeps us in life, sustains us, and has brought us to this occasion (shehechiyanu). One who sees a new fruit for the first time in its season recites the shehechiyanu.
-Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of blessings 10:1-2
In the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, our little foundation has to face the twice yearly dilemma of what holiday gifts to purchase for our employees. The custom of holiday gifts at Rosh Hashanah and Pesach is a serious element of Israeli culture and business practice. It is interesting that there are a number of parallels between American Christian/secular holiday customs and Israeli practices. For example, Valentines Day in America has its counterpart in Love Day here, based on an obscure tradition mentioned in the Talmud but in summer, on the 15th of Av. The parallels between Purim and Halloween are clear. Independence day, with barbecues and fireworks, seems to be universal. Thanksgiving, with its emphasis on family and food, seems to reflect key themes from a number of Jewish holidays. We have Mothers day here, in the winter, that parallels American Mothers day though the card, flower, and gift businesses have not yet foisted on us the rest of the list (fathers, grandparents, secretaries, bosses ). On the other hand, the massive obsession with personal gift giving that characterizes the Christmas season in North America has no counterpart here. Chanukah has not taken on this custom, and while the Zionist educators who built the Israeli school system gave Chanukah increased importance as a nationalistic celebration, it remains a relatively minor holiday, with parties, family outings, special foods, pageants, and of course candles.
The two holidays associated with gift giving on a large scale are Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. However the emphasis is not on personal gifts, but on the obligation of employers to give holiday gifts to employees. This is big business, and there are trade fairs devoted just to holiday gifts; after all, when a large employer (e.g., the ministry of education, or a large supermarket chain, or a large manufacturer) decides on a particular gift, thats a big sale. Its actually quite amusing when you visit the home of a coworker and recognize among her home decorations and serving dishes familiar items the gifts accumulated by each of you over the years. The job of choosing the gift every six months is a heavy responsibility, and judging from some of the offerings that have come into our home over the years from my wifes employer (a large public institution), good taste is not always a requisite for the job. On the other hand I have to say that our unneeded holiday gifts have played a significant role in equipping our daughters kitchen sets of dishes, flatware, serving pieces, even a food processor. But if we didnt have a daughter with a kitchen to equip, I suspect much of this loot would end up in rummage sales and charity auctions etc. As an employer, I have given up the role of gift-choosing, as too often I learned that our employees were bumping into each other at the store where they went to exchange the gifts I had picked out as attractive and useful. In the past several years, many employers have given up on this whole annoying process, and simply issue gift coupons to department stores. On the one hand, this is clearly a boon to employees, who essentially are just getting a cash bonus. On the other hand it is what it is a cash bonus, not a holiday gift. Ours often gets carried around for months until we notice the expiration date approaching, and think of something we need but have been postponing.
New garments and new utensils are traditionally an occasion for a blessing, and are seen as a way of increasing the joy of the holiday. New things renew us. Both Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, of all the holidays, have a strong theme of renewal about them traditionally, both of them have included new garments, new dishes, new produce of a new season as part of their celebration, so that shehecheyanu can be said with feeling. What is the blessing over a gift certificate?