In the current period of the year (the bein ha-zemanim period), many take the opportunity of travelling to various vacation sites, often raising questions of birkas ha-gomel—the blessing recited by travelers (and others) after their journey is complete. Virtually every shul is made aware of the onset of bein hazemanim by yeshiva boys who made the berachah upon their return home.
This article is thus dedicated to the timely affair of 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 Tehillin, David Ha-Melech sets out the thanksgiving that those who are “redeemed from distress” (Tehillim 107:2) must give. Based on the ensuing verses, the Gemara derives that four categories are obligated to give thanks to Hashem, namely: those who sail at sea; those who travel the desert; those who recover from illness; and those who are redeemed from a prison sentence.
The Gemara explains the blessing that must be made (according to the Rif, which is the version accepted in halachah): “Blessed is He who does acts of kindness to the guilty ones, who has done only 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 simple according to all opinions that the blessing is recited regardless of the actual occurrence 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 for such instances, even though the verse refers to getting lost in the wilderness, and to a storm at sea. This does not limit the blessing to cases where this actually occurred, but rather to situations in which such dangers are possible, and 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 make mention of regular travelers, but speak specifically of those who travel the desert, or those who cross the ocean. This implies that after a regular intercity journey, 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 in reciting the blessing. Rabbeinu Mano’ach explains that the ruling derives from the teaching of the Yerushalmi, which states that “all ways are assumed to be dangerous,” and that the blessing is recited even when the danger is not necessarily great. The Rambam therefore derived that the blessing is recited not only after a journey in the wilderness or at sea, but even for regular travelers who journey from city to city.
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.
By contrast, the custom in Sephard was to recite the blessing after any journey and any illness. With regard to illness, the Shulchan Aruch rules that one recites the blessing after recovering from any illness, on condition that the illness is severe enough to render the person bedridden. 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 sufficient severe.
Likewise with regard to travelling, the Shulchan Aruch (219:7) rules that the blessing is recited for any journey, even from city to city, provided that its length is more than a parsah (seventy two minutes). This is because “all ways are assumed to be dangerous.”
Laws that Depend on the Custom
A direct application of the divergent customs is the question of a non-life threatening illness, such as somebody who falls in will angina or with flu, and so on, 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.
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 lesser than an intercity road. However, according to the Ashkenaz custom, it is possible that no blessing is recited, because the danger of crossing a large river is lesser than 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 threat of the death penalty recited 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 contend 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 related questions concerning birkas ha-gomel are raised. 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 implies crossing the sea, and Rabbi Avigdor Nevenzal is therefore quoted as stating that ha-gomel should be made. 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 travelling on a train in the desert should not recite ha-gomel, because the train journey does not involve the danger of dangerous 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 recites ha-gomel after a lengthy journey, so for 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 in a similar spirit 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. 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 involved the dangers that travelling involved in the past) ha-gomel should not be made, unless one drives along empty or unlit roads. However, if one drives along a dangerous route, such as the drive to Hebron, ha-gomel should be recited even if the journey is shorter than 72 minutes.
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. In particular, if the flight crosses an ocean, it can possible 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 definition surely applies even to airplane flights.
Shut Kinyan Torah (quoted above) mentions that there is a difference of opinion among authorities concerning this question, and tells that while in Switzerland he once asked the Brisk Rav his opinion on the issue. After declaring that he does not give rulings on halachic questions, the Brisk Rav responded: “This much I can tell you: I arrived here from Eretz Yisrael by plane, and I did not ‘bench gomel.'”
Shut Chelkas Yaakov (Orach Chaim 55) points out that according to the Sephard custom, which does not require a dangerous journey for reciting 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 the flight will be 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.
However, the majority of today’s poskim rules 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 have been 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.).
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 short.
The common custom is to recite the berachah even after inland flights.
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, and 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 that must be raised is whether the four cases are exclusive, 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 the subject of a 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 recited ha-gomel, even if the danger is not listed by the Gemara. However, others dispute this position, and rule that the Talmudic list is exclusive. 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 one 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 that “this is mistaber.” Based on this ruling, anybody who is saved from life-threatening danger must recite ha-gomel. For instance, somebody who was narrowly saved from a car accident, somebody who was assailed by muggers, or who was shot at, fell off a ladder, or saved from fire—and so on—must recite ha-gomel.
Based on this principle, Shut Tzitz Eliezer (12:18) rules that somebody who undergoes an operation (under general anesthetic) should recite ha-gomel upon recovering from the operation. Although a broken bone (or other ailment) is not necessarily classified as a life-threatening condition, the actual operation under general anesthetic is sufficient danger for the ha-gomel blessing to be recited upon recovery.
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.
 We will not deal in this article with the different texts of the blessing, the question of making the blessing in front of ten people, the issue of making the berachah within three days, the matter of women making the blessing (and the different customs for women after giving birth), the issue of hearing the blessing from others, and the question of an actual obligation to recite the blessing. We will please G-d deal with these issues in a future article.