Moving to zsh, part 2: Configuration Files

Apple has announced that in macOS 10.15 Catalina the default shell will be zsh.

In this series, I will document my experiences moving bash settings, configurations, and scripts over to zsh.

I am preparing a book on this topic, reworked and expanded with more detail and topics. Like my other books, I plan to update and add to it after release as well, keeping it relevant and useful. You can pre-order it on the Apple Books Store now.

In part one I talked about Apple’s motivation to switch the default shell and urge existing users to change to zsh.

Since I am new to zsh as well, I am planning to document my process of transferring my personal bash setup and learning the odds and ends of zsh.

Many websites and tutorials leap straight to projects like oh-my-zsh or prezto where you can choose from hundreds of pre-customized and pre-configured themes.

While these projects are very impressive and certainly show off the flexibility and power of zsh customization, I feel this will actually prevent an understanding of how zsh works and how it differs from bash. So, I am planning to build my own configuration ‘by hand’ first.

At first, I actually took a look at my current bash_profile and cleaned it up. There were many aliases and functions which I do not use or broke in some macOS update. I the end, this is what I want to re-create in zsh:

Most of these should be fairly easy to transfer. Some might be… interesting.

But first, where do we put our custom zsh configuration?

zsh Configuration Files

bash has a list of possible files that it tries in predefined order. I have the description in my post on the bash_profile.

zsh also has a list of files it will execute at shell startup. The list of possible files is even longer, but somewhat more ordered.

all users user login shell interactive shell scripts Terminal.app
/etc/zshenv .zshenv
/etc/zprofile .zprofile x x
/etc/zshrc .zshrc x
/etc/zlogin .zlogin x x
/etc/zlogout .zlogout x x

The files in /etc/ will be launched (when present) for all users. The .z* files only for the individual user.

By default, zsh will look in the root of the home directory for the user .z* files, but this behavior can be changed by setting the ZDOTDIR environment variable to another directory (e.g. ~/.zsh/) where you can then group all user zsh configuration in one place.

On macOS you could set the ZDOTDIR to ~/Documents/zsh/ and then use iCloud syncing (or a different file sync service) to have the same files on all your Macs. (I prefer to use git.)

bash will either use .bash_profile for login shells, or .bashrc for interactive shells. That means, when you want to centralize configuration for all use cases, you need to source your .bashrc from .bash_profile or vice versa.

zsh behaves differently. zsh will run all of these files in the appropriate context (login shell, interactive shell) when they exist.

zsh will start with /etc/zshenv, then the user’s .zshenv. The zshenv files are always used when they exist, even for scripts with the #!/bin/zsh shebang. Since changes applied in the zshenv will affect zsh behavior in all contexts, you should you should be very cautious about changes applied here.

Next, when the shell is a login shell, zsh will run /etc/zprofile and .zprofile. Then for interactive shells (and login shells) /etc/zshrc and .zshrc. Then, again, for login shells /etc/zlogin and .zlogin. Why are there two files for login shells? The zprofile exists as an analog for bash’s and sh’s profile files, and zlogin as an analog for ksh login files.

Finally, there are zlogout files that can be used for cleanup, when a login shell exits. In this case, the user level .zlogout is read first, then the central /etc/zlogout. If the shell is terminated by an external process, these files might not be run.

Apple Provided Configuration Files

macOS Mojave (and earlier versions) includes /etc/zprofile and /etc/zshrc files. Both are very basic.

/etc/zprofile uses /usr/libexec/path_helper to set the default PATH. Then /etc/zshrc enables UTF–8 with setopt combiningchars.

Like /etc/bashrc there is a line in /etc/zshrc that would load /etc/zshrc_Apple_Terminal if it existed. This is interesting as /etc/bashrc_Apple_Terminal contains quite a lot of code to help bash to communicate with the Terminal application. In particular bash will send a signal to the Terminal on every new prompt to update the path and icon displayed in the Terminal window title bar, and provides other code relevant for saving and restoring Terminal sessions between application restarts.

However, there is no /etc/zshrc_Apple_Terminal and we will have to provide some of this functionality ourselves.

Note: As of this writing, /etc/zshrc in the macOS Catalina beta is different from the Mojave /etc/zshrc and provides more configuration. However, since Catalina is still beta, I will focus these articles on Mojave and earlier. Once Catalina is released, I may update these articles or write a new one for Catalina, if necessary.

Which File to use?

When you want to use the ZDOTDIR variable to change the location of the other zsh configuration files, setting that variable in ~/.zshenv seems like a good choice. Other than that, you probably want to avoid using the zshenv files, since it will change settings for all invocations of zsh, including scripts.

macOS Terminal considers every new shell to be a login shell and an interactive shell. So, in Terminal a new zsh will potentially run all configuration files.

For simplicity’s sake, you should use just one file. The common choice is .zshrc.

Most tools you can download to configure zsh, such as ‘prezto’ or ‘oh-my-zsh’, will override or re-configure your .zshrc. You could consider moving your code to .zlogin instead. Since .zlogin is sourced after .zshrc it can override settings from .zshrc. However, .zlogin is only called for login shells.

The most common situation where you do not get a login shell with macOS Terminal, is when you switch to zsh from another shell by typing the zsh command.

I would recommend to put your configuration in your .zshrc file and if you want to use any of the theme projects, read and follow their instructions closely as to how you can preserve your configurations together with theirs.

Managing the shell for Administrators

MacAdmins may have the need to manage certain shell settings for their users, usually environment variables to configure certain command line tool’s behaviors.

The most common need is to expand the PATH environment variable for third party tools. Often the third party tools in question will have elaborate postinstall scripts that attempt to modify the current user’s .bash_profile or .bashrc. Sometimes, these tools even consider that a user might have changed the default shell to something other than bash.

On macOS, system wide changes to the PATH should be done by adding files to /etc/paths.d.

As an administrator you should be on the lookout for scripts and installers that attempt to modify configuration files on the user level, disable the scripts during deployment, and manage the required changes centrally. This will allow you to keep control of the settings even as tools change, are added or removed from the system, while preserving the user’s custom configurations.

To manage environment variables other than PATH centrally, administrators should consider /etc/zshenv or adding to the existing /etc/zshrc. In these cases you should always monitor whether updates to macOS overwrite or change these files with new, modified files of their own.

Summary

There are many possible files where the zsh can load user configuration. You should use ~/.zshrc for your personal configurations.

There are many tools and projects out there that will configure zsh for you. This is fine, but might keep you from really understanding how things work.

MacAdmins who need to manage these settings centrally, should use /etc/paths.d and similar technologies or consider /etc/zshenv or /etc/zshrc.

Apple’s built-in support for zsh in Terminal is not as detailed as it is for bash.

Next: Part 3 – Shell Options

5 thoughts on “Moving to zsh, part 2: Configuration Files”

  1. Thanks for this article series. This is exactly the information I need now 🙂 Great balance of background info and practical advice like ‘put everything into .zshrc’. Looking forward to more parts!

    1. or upgrade to Catalina 😉

      Seriously, though, the upgrade to Catalina may overwrite that file…

      1. And I hope it will!

        I shared this because I wanted to start using zsh right now as my main shell before Catalina gets released officially, but didn’t like not to have the window/tab title update correctly

        I very much intend on this file to be overwritten, that’s the point

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