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Gratitude for Surviving Danger: When to say Birkas Ha-Gomel

In the current period of the year (the bein ha-zemanim period), many take the opportunity to travel to various vacation sites. At times questions arise whether one should say birkas ha-gomel – the blessing recited by travelers (and others) after their journey is safely complete. Virtually every shul is made aware of the onset of bein hazemanim by yeshiva boys who make the berachah upon their return home.

This article is thus dedicated to the birkas ha-gomel, and will seek to clarify the parameters of the berachah and details of its practical application.

The Source of the Berachah

In the hundred and seventh chapter of Tehillim, David Ha-Melech sets out the thanksgiving of those who are “redeemed from distress” (Tehillim 107:2). Based on the verses, the Gemara derives four categories that must give thanks to Hashem, namely: those who sail the sea; those who travel the desert; those who recover from illness; and those who are released from a prison.

The Gemara explains the blessing that must be made (according to the Rif, which is the version accepted in halachah): “Blessed is He Who grants acts of kindness to guilty ones, Who has done all good for me.”

The Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah 219, s.v. yordei) writes an important principle in the laws of birkas ha-gomel: “It is obvious according to all opinions that the blessing is recited regardless of the actual presence of danger, for instance if the sea was quiet, there was no storm, and so on, or the way across the desert was safe. The blessing was enacted even in such instances, even though the verse refers to getting lost in the wilderness and to a storm at sea. The blessing is not limited to cases where this actually occurred, but rather applies to situations in which such dangers are possible. One must give thanks for being saved from them.”

The Degree of Danger: Customs of Ashkenaz and Sefard

Customs are divided concerning the degree of danger over which the blessing is recited.

The Gemara does not mention regular travelers, but speaks specifically of those who travel the desert, or those who cross the ocean. This implies that after a regular intercity journey over land, which involves less danger than crossing the sea, the blessing of ha-gomel is not recited.

The Rambam (Berachos 10:8), however, writes that travelers are obligated to recite the blessing, implying all travelers without qualification. Rabbeinu Mano’ach explains that the ruling derives from the teaching of the Yerushalmi, which states, “All ways are assumed to be dangerous,” and that the blessing is recited even when the danger is not great. The Rambam derived that the blessing is recited not only after a journey in the wilderness or at sea, but even by regular travelers who journey from city to city along a well-traveled road.

The Tur writes that the question of reciting a blessing after a regular journey is contingent on different customs. The custom of Ashkenaz and France was not to recite the blessing for regular intercity journeys, “because the blessing was enacted specifically for journeys in the desert, where there are dangerous animals and bandits.” The same is true for illnesses: The blessing was enacted only for somebody whose illness endangers his life (as ruled by the Rema 219:8), and not for lighter illnesses.

In contrast, the custom in Sephard was to recite the blessing after any intercity journey and any illness. With regard to illness, the Shulchan Aruch rules that one recites the blessing after recovering from any illness that is severe enough to cause the person to take to his bed. The Ben Ish Chai (Year One, Eikev 7) adds that a person must be bedridden for at least three days for the illness to be considered sufficiently severe.

Likewise with regard to traveling, the Shulchan Aruch (219:7) rules that the blessing is recited for any journey, even from city to city, if its length is more than a parsah.

There is some debate among authorities as to the measure of a parsah. As a measure of distance, a parsah is the distance a person can cover in 72 minutes while walking at an average pace, which is approximately 4 Km. (or 4.6 Km. according to the Chazon Ish). Thus the measure has a component of time and a component of distance. With regard to birkas ha-gomel the question is if the distance is the significant component even if it can be covered by car in a very short time, and thus a certain distance from the city is a sufficient degree of danger, or, is the deciding factor the time of the journey and only a journey exceeding a certain time is considered dangerous?

Although some write that the obligation depends on the time of travel, most agree that the danger of a journey depends on the distance from the city and not on the duration of the journey, so that the obligation is contingent on distance rather than time (see Birur Halachah, Siman 110; Shevet Ha-Levi 10:21; Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 1:169; but see Shut Zichron Yehudah no. 42). This is also the common custom.

Laws that Depend on the Custom

A direct application of divergent customs is the case of a non-life-threatening illness, such as somebody who falls ill with the flu and is bedridden for a number of days. According to the Shulchan Aruch, ha-gomel is recited upon recovering, whereas according to the Rema and the Ashkenaz custom, ha-gomel is not recited since there was no danger to life.

A further application of the divergent customs is the matter of somebody who crosses a large river or lake, but not an ocean. The Biur Halachah (s.v. yordei) writes that the halachah depends on the divergent customs: According to the custom of Sephard, the blessing is recited because a large river is no less dangerous than an intercity road. However according to the Ashkenaz custom, it is possible that no blessing is recited, because the danger in crossing a large river is less than in crossing the sea.

The same rationale can be applied to the question of imprisonment that does not involve danger of death. The Magen Avraham (219:1) rules that only somebody who is imprisoned under a threat of death recites ha-gomel upon his release, because he is thereby saved from danger of death.

However, the Mishnah Berurah (219:3, and Biur Halachah s.v. chavush) cites a number of acharonim who contest the ruling, explaining that the question depends on the divergent customs of Ashkenaz and Sephard. According to the Ashkenaz custom one should only recite the blessing upon release from a truly dangerous imprisonment, as ruled by the Magen Avraham. According to the Sephard custom, there is room to argue that the blessing should be recited after any significant spell in prison.

Modern Questions of Ha-Gomel

In the modern era, a number of questions concerning birkas ha-gomel arise. We will mention some of them.

  • Travelling through the Channel Tunnel: Rabbi Roy Tzvi Tamir (Meir Nesivim 4) mentions different opinions concerning the status of the Channel Tunnel vis-à-vis birkas ha-gomel. On the one hand, traversing the Channel Tunnel entails crossing the sea and thus Rabbi Avigdor Nevenzal is quoted as stating that ha-gomel should be recited. However, the majority of authorities (including Rabbi Menashe Klein, Rabbi Shammai Gross, Rabbi Nathan Gestetner, and others) state that a blessing should not be recited, because the journey is not through the sea but rather under the sea, on dry land. Shut Nachalas Pinchas (Vol. 2, no. 17) brings proof of this from the Ketzos Hashulchan (65), who states that somebody traveling on a train in the desert should not recite ha-gomel, because the train journey does not involve the danger of animals and bandits. The same logic applies to the Channel Tunnel.
  • Short Sea Journeys: Shut Kinyan Torah (Vol. 1, no. 16, sec. 3) writes that somebody who sails across the Channel between England and France does not recite the blessing because the journey is short: Just as those who cross the desert only recite ha-gomel after a lengthy journey, so in sailing on the sea ha-gomel is only recited after a trip of significant length. The same principle applies to other short sailing trips, such as a short cruise or a fishing trip, after which ha-gomel is not recited. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo Chap. 23, Devar Halachah 5) writes that somebody who sails on the Kinneret, or near the shore, should not recite ha-gomel, because in case of trouble help can be given from the shore.
  • Intercity Travelling: According to the Sephard custom, ha-gomel is recited after journeying from city to city provided the journey takes longer than 72 minutes (Note that, in contrast with the opinions mentioned previously, this opinion maintains that a parsa with regard to hagomail is a measure of time.) According to Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef (Yabia Omer, Orach Chaim Vol. 1, no. 13) this ruling applies even today. However, Rabbi Ben-Zion Abba-Shaul (Or Le-Zion Vol. 2, no. 14) rules that nowadays (when driving does not incur the dangers that traveling involved in the past) ha-gomel should not be made, unless one drives along empty or unlit roads. However, if one drives along a particularly dangerous route (the drive to Hebron used to be a good example, though the situation has improved of late), ha-gomel should be recited even if the journey is shorter than a parsah.

Ha-Gomel after a Flight

Contemporary poskim have discussed the question of reciting ha-gomel after safely completing an airplane flight. It is true that flights are not in general dangerous, yet it can be argued that the very concept of flying in an airplane involves danger. Particularly if the flight crosses an ocean, it may be included in the category of “those who descend to the sea,” whose danger is defined by Rav Hai (quoted in the commentary of Aruch, Berachos 54b) as being that “they can be lost in a single moment.” This surely applies to airplane flights.

Shut Kinyan Torah (quoted above) mentions that there is a difference of opinion among authorities concerning this question, and tells that he once asked the Brisker Rav his opinion. After declaring that he does not give rulings to halachic questions, the Brisker Rav responded: “This much I can tell you: I arrived here, in Switzerland, from Eretz Yisrael by plane, and I did not bench ha-gomel.

Shut Chelkas Yaakov (Orach Chaim 55) points out that according to the Sephard custom, which does not require a dangerous journey to recite ha-gomel, it follows that one should recite the blessing for flights. He notes further than even according to the Ashkenaz custom, there is room to argue that flight is included in the category of those who descend to the sea. Because of the doubt involved, he concludes that one should recite the berachah without mentioning the Name of Hashem, citing a similar ruling from Rabbi Aharon of Belz.

Nonetheless, the majority of today’s poskim rule that ha-gomel should be recited after a flight, as ruled by Shut Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim, Vol. 2, no. 59) and by Shut Tzitz Eliezer (Vol. 11, no. 14). Similar rulings were issued by the Chazon Ish (cited in Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. 2, no. 104), by the Satmar Rebbe (cited in Be’er Moshe, Vol. 7, no. 68-69), and by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Halichos Shlomo, loc. cit.).

An interesting point is the question of inland flights which involve a significant journey no less dangerous than overseas flights but without actually crossing the ocean. According to Rabbi Feinstein, ha-gomel is made even after an inland flight, a ruling also stated in Halichos Shlomo. However, Rabbi Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer, loc. cit.) writes that one should not recite the blessing after an inland flight between two cities, a ruling also cited in Orchos Rabbeinu in the name of the Steipler – in particular when the flight is relatively short.

Some have the custom of reciting a berachah even after inland flights, though many refrain from doing so.

Stops En Route

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (in Halichos Shlomo, loc. cit.) writes further that somebody who stops en route should not recite ha-gomel during his stopover, but wait until reaching his final destination before doing so.

Even if the stopover lasts for a number of days, Shut Shevet Halevi (9:45) writes that if the destination has not been reached, no berachah is made. However, if the stopover is a destination in itself (such as a place that a person wishes to visit en route), and it lasts for three days or more, ha-gomel should be made.

Saved from Accidents and other Dangers

The Gemara (Berachos 45b) mentions four who are required to give thanks after being delivered from danger. The question is whether the four cases are exhaustive, or whether a person should recite ha-gomel after being saved from any dangerous situation, even if the situation does not match any of the circumstances mentioned by Chazal.

The answer to this question is in dispute among authorities. According to the Rivash (337; this is also the opinion of the Tashbatz, Riaz, and others), any person who is saved from danger recites ha-gomel, even if the danger is not listed by the Gemara. Others dispute this position, and rule that the Talmudic list is exhaustive. The Shulchan Aruch (219:9) mentions both opinions, and rules that because the matter is disputed, the berachah should be recited without mentioning the Name of Hashem. In this manner one gives thanks to Hashem, but avoids the possible transgression of a berachah levatalah. This is the common custom for Sephardic Jews (Kaf Hachaim 219:52).

However, the Mishnah Berurah (219:32) writes that the custom is that anybody who is rescued from danger recites the full birkas ha-gomel, adding, “This is mistaber.” Based on this ruling, anybody who is saved from life-threatening danger must recite ha-gomel. For instance, somebody who was involved in a car accident, somebody who was assailed by muggers, or who was shot at, fell off a ladder, or saved from fire—and the like—must recite ha-gomel.

Based on this principle, Shut Tzitz Eliezer (12:18) rules that somebody who undergoes an operation  should recite ha-gomel upon recovering from the operation. Although a broken bone (or other ailment) is not necessarily a life-threatening condition, any operation under general anesthetic is sufficient danger for the ha-gomel blessing to be recited upon recovery.

In conclusion, it is important to note that as with many Mitzvos, the spirit of the law is no less important than the letter. In the case of birkas ha-gomel this principle is all the more accentuated. The idea of the berachah is to express gratitude to Hashem for redeeming us from danger.

Of course, this is more germane to actual physical dangers than to the berachah after traveling – which is today far less a danger than in the past – but whenever we recite the berachah we have a special opportunity to give thanks to Hashem for granting favor to the undeserved.

We pray that Hashem should save us from all harm and all danger, and deliver us safely to our destinations in good life, in joy, and in peace.

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