Subtleties of Simcha and Sasson
In the blessing which we customarily say for a newly-married bride and groom, we wish upon the couple different forms of happiness: sasson, simcha, gilah, rinah, ditzah and chedva. What are all these different types of gladness and how do they differ from each other? To answer these questions we will first resolve the age-old dichotomy of sasson and simcha, and then we will explain the meanings of the other words for happiness.
The Talmud (Succah 48b) relates a disagreement between the personified concepts of simcha and sasson: Simcha said to Sasson, “I am better than you because it says, (regarding the resolution of the story of Purim) for the Jews… simcha and sasson (Esther 8:16)”. Sasson said back to Simcha, “I am better than you because it says, (regarding the happiness of the Messianic Era) They will attain sasson and simcha (I Samuel 14:45)”. In the first verse, simcha is mentioned before sasson, which implies that simcha is superior; but, the second verse implies sasson’s superiority by mentioning it before simcha. So which one is a higher form of joy, sasson or simcha?
Malbim explains that simcha refers to internal gladness which is continual, while sasson is the external expression of one's inner happiness. In other words, sasson denotes what a person does to show that he is happy, for example wearing special clothes for holidays or playing music at happy times, while simcha is the happy feeling inside of him.
We can highlight the differences between these two forms of happiness by pointing out what the Malbim says are their antonyms. The opposite of simcha is yagon (despondency), which is the internal form of sadness. On the other hand, sasson is the antonym for aveilut (mourning), the outward way of expressing sadness, as well as anachah (which literally means “a sigh”).
Regarding the disagreement between Simcha and Sasson as to which is greater, it seems that both are correct, but their disagreement is reflective of a “chicken/egg” complex. Meaning, sometimes simcha precedes sasson because sometimes the inner feeling of happiness arrives first and bursts forth outwards in joyous expressions; whereas at other times, outward expressions of happiness rouse one’s feelings of inner happiness, and positively influence his inner thoughts and mood.
The Vilna Gaon explains the difference between simcha and sasson somewhat differently. He writes that simcha denotes the beginning of the process which leads to complete elation, while sasson refers to the realization of that happiness. He explains that both simcha and sasson are superior in different contexts, and that is why one is sometimes mentioned before the other, and the other is sometimes mentioned before the one. In “this world” simcha is more prominent because people first pursue happiness (simcha), and only then can eventually achieve the happiness that is their end goal (sasson). However, in the Messianic Era, one's ecstasy will begin with the experience of happiness (sasson), and afterwards open a person to the opportunity of attaining further happiness (simcha) depending on the merits he has accrued in this world.
With our understanding of the first two types of happiness, we can now try to understand the rest. The Malbim explains that while simcha is continual, gilah refers to a stroke of fleeting happiness which does not continue. Alternatively, the Vilna Gaon explains that simcha refers to a new happiness while it is still fresh, while gilah refers to a nostalgic happiness which recalls the joys of the past. The Midrash (Ber. Rabbah 63:1) seems to understand that gilah refers specifically to the happiness of a man when he fathers a son. Machzor Vitri — a commentary to the siddur (prayer book) written by Rabbi Simcha of Vitri, a student of Rashi — explains that rinah is the type of happiness which stirs the celebrant to sing