What Warrants Birchas Hagomeil?

In parshas Chukas, the Torah alludes to a miraculous salvation that the Bnei Yisrael experienced prior to entering the Holyland. Certainly an appropriate time to discuss this topic.

Situation #1: “Frequent Flyer?!”

“I daven in an Ashkenazi shul, and a Sefardi fellow who attends the shul who must be some incredible, frequent flyer. He seems to recite birchas hagomeil every Monday and Thursday, whether or not they give him an aliyah.”

Question #2: Infrequent Flyer

“I do not understand why we bensch goimel when we fly over the ocean, but not when flying over land. It is just as dangerous to fly overland — as a matter of fact, it is actually somewhat safer to fly over water, since there is a far greater chance of surviving a crash landing at sea than on land.”

Question #3: Recuperating

“I recently underwent some surgery. At what point do I recite birchas hagomeil?”

Answer:

Our Sages instituted a beracha, called birchas hagomeil, which is recited when someone has been saved from four different types of treacherous predicaments: those who traveled by sea, those who journeyed through the desert, someone who was ill and recovered, and someone who was captured and gained release (Berachos 54b). In a different essay, I discussed the Biblical and Talmudic sources for this beracha, the requirements to recite it in the presence of ten people and its relationship to the reading of the Torah. This essay will discuss some of the circumstances for which one recites birchas hagomeil.

How much traveling?

One of the four instances for which the Gemara requires birchas hagomeil is surviving a trip through a desert. However, when the Rambam quotes this Gemara, he states, “those who traveled on intercity roads recite birchas hagomeil when they arrive at a settled place,” instead of “those who traveled through the desert.” The authorities dispute what the Rambam means. The Tur assumes that he means that one recites birchas hagomeil after any trip. This is the position held by the Ramban, who writes that the Gemara mentioned those who traveled through the desert only because that is the context of the verse in Tehillim, but that anyone traveling recites birchas hagomeil upon reaching his destination safely. For this reason, the Ramban and the Avudraham record that many Sefardim recite birchas hagomeil for any out-of-town trip, for, to quote the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachos 4:4), kol haderachim bechezkas sakanah, “all highways should be assumed to be dangerous.

The Rosh, however, disagrees with the Ramban, contending that there is a difference between tefillas haderech, which one recites for any trip, and birchas hagomeil, which one recites only when one would be required to offer a korban todah. In the Rosh’s opinion, the statement kol haderachim bechezkas sakanah means that one should recite tefillas haderech any time one travels between cities, but not that one should recite birchas hagomeil upon one’s return. Reflecting this approach, the Rosh and Rabbeinu Yonah mention that, in France and Germany, the practice was to refrain from reciting birchas hagomeil when traveling from one city to the next.

The Bach also follows this approach and takes issue with the Tur’s interpretation of the Rambam. He contends that the Rambam agrees that someone traveling through an area where food and water can be readily obtained does not recite birchas hagomeil afterwards. The Bach suggests that the Tur was not quoting the Rambam, but the Ramban, and that scribes erred while redacting.

How far?

The Beis Yosef rules that one should not recite birchas hagomeil or tefillas haderech if his trip takes him a parsah, a distance of somewhat less than two and a half miles, outside a city. In practical terms, many Sefardim recite birchas hagomeil only after an intercity trip that took longer than 72 minutes, regardless of the distance covered or the method of transportation (Shu’t Yabia Omer 2: Orach Chayim #14).

Port call

Does someone on an extensive sea voyage recite birchas hagomeil each time his ship docks or only when he has reached his final destination?

If the ship pulls into port for a day or two, one does not recite birchas hagomeil until the voyage is over (Bach and Elyah Rabbah 219:1, quoting Olas Tamid; Mishnah Berurah 219:1 adds that this also holds true if someone traveling through the desert visits a city en route). However, the Bach is uncertain whether one should recite birchas hagomeil if he will be in port for an extended period of time before continuing his voyage. He also writes that someone who survives a mishap at sea should refrain from reciting birchas hagomeil until he arrives ashore. At this point, the traveler should recite birchas hagomeil on the entire voyage, including the specific accident that he, fortunately, survived.

The Biur Halacha discusses whether one travelling a short trip by river on a raft should recite birchas hagomeil. He says that it depends on the above-mentioned dispute between Ashkenazim and Sefardim whether one recites birchas hagomeil for a short intercity land trip. According to minhag Ashkenaz, that one does not recite birchas hagomeil for a short trip, one should not recite birchas hagomeil for a trip by raft; whereas, according to minhag Sefard, which recites birchas hagomeil even for a short intercity trip, one should recite birchas hagomeil for a short river trip.

Travels daily

The Minchas Yitzchak (4:11) was asked by someone who lived in Copenhagen, whose livelihood required him to travel among the nearby Danish Islands of the Baltic Sea, whether he was required to recite birchas hagomeil every time he traveled through the sea, in which case he would be reciting it almost daily.

To answer the question, the Minchas Yitzchak refers to a responsum of the Avnei Nezer, who asks why the text of the beracha is that the traveler was chayov, guilty. The Avnei Nezer explains that there could be one of two reasons why this traveler undertook this trip: one alternative is that he felt a compelling need to travel, for parnasah or some other reason, in which case he should ask himself why Hashem presented him with such a potentially dangerous situation. The traveler should contemplate this issue and realize that he needs to do teshuvah for something — which now explains why the beracha calls him “guilty.”

The other alternative is that the traveler could have avoided the trip, in which case he is considered guilty, because he endangered himself unnecessarily.

Based on the above-quoted Avnei Nezer, who explained why all four categories of people who recite birchas hagomeil are categorized as “guilty,” the Minchas Yitzchak concludes one does not recite birchas hagomeil if one lives in a place where sea travel is required each day. One cannot label a person as “guilty” for living in a place that is accepted to be a normal place to live, and if a recognized livelihood in such a place requires daily sea travel, this is not considered placing oneself in unnecessary danger.

Airplane travel

Does someone who travels by airplane recite birchas hagomeil?

In researching the different teshuvos written on this subject, I found a wide range of halachic opinion. Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that anyone traveling by airplane must recite birchas hagomeil, regardless as to whether he was traveling over sea or over land, exclusively. He contends that even those authorities who rule that one should recite birchas hagomeil only for the four types of calamities mentioned in Tehillim and the Gemara also require birchas hagomeil for flying, since flying by air is identical to traveling by ship, as the entire time that one is above ground, one’s longterm life plans are all completely dependent on one’s safe return to land (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:59). I found a ruling basically identical to Rav Moshe’s that cited a different reason. One should recite birchas hagomeil, not because air travel should be compared to seafaring, but because we rule that one recites birchas hagomeil for any type of danger to which one is exposed (Shu’t Betzeil Hachachmah 1:20).

Rav Ovadyah Yosef rules that Sefardim should recite birchas hagomeil after any air trip that takes longer than 72 minutes, just as they recite birchas hagomeil after any trip on land that takes this long (Shu’t Yabia Omer 2: Orach Chayim #14).

On the other hand, many contend that, since this is a different method of travel from what was included in the original takanas Chazal, and, in addition, air travel today is not highly dangerous, one should not recite birchas hagomeil, at least not with the Names of Hashem, out of the concern that this might result in a beracha levatalah (Shu’t Chelkas Yaakov 2:9; Rav Sion Levy, in his question to Rav Ovadyah Yosef, published in Shu’t Yabia Omer, Orach Chayim II #14).

According to what we have written thus far, there should be no distinction drawn as to the length of the flight or whether it traverses land or sea. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s approach, one should always recite birchas hagomeil for air flight, and according to those who dispute this approach, one should not. Notwithstanding the strong logic, there is a prevalent custom that people bensch gomeil when flying overseas, but not when flying domestically. The Be’er Moshe (2:68) notes this practice, which he feels has very weak halachic foundation. Nevertheless, since this is the prevalent custom, he attempts to justify it and says that people should follow the custom.

How sick?

How ill must a person have been to require that he recite birchas hagomeil upon his recovery? I am aware of three opinions among the rishonim concerning this question.

(1) Some hold that one recites birchas hagomeil even for an ailment as minor as a headache or stomach ache (Aruch).

(2) Others contend that one recites birchas hagomeil only if he was ill enough to be bedridden, even when he was not dangerously ill (Ramban, Toras Ha’adam, page 49; Hagahos Maimoniyus, Berachos 10:6, quoting Rabbeinu Yosef).

(3) A third approach holds that one should recite birchas hagomeil only if the illness was potentially life threatening (Rama).

The prevalent practice of Sefardim, following the Shulchan Aruch, is according to the second approach — reciting birchas hagomeil after recovery from any illness which made the person bedridden. The prevalent Ashkenazic practice is to recite birchas hagomeil only when the illness was life threatening, notwithstanding the fact that the Bach, who was a well-respected Ashkenazic authority, concurs with the second approach.

How recuperated?

At what point do we assume that the person is recuperated enough that he can recite the birchas hagomeil for surviving his travail? The poskim rule that he does not recite birchas hagomeil until he is able to walk well on his own (Elyah Rabbah; Mishnah Berurah).

Chronic illness

The halachic authorities rule that someone who suffers from a chronic ailment and had a life threatening flareup recites birchas hagomeil upon recovery from the flareup, even though he still needs to deal with the ailment that caused the serious problem (Tur).

Conclusion

Rav Hirsch (Commentary to Tehillim 100:1) notes that the root of the word for thanks is the same as that for viduy, confession and admitting wrongdoing. All kinds of salvation should elicit in us deep feelings of gratitude for what Hashem has done for us in the past and does in the present. This is why the blessing can be both an acknowledgement of guilt and, at the same time, an expression of the thanks that we owe Hashem.

We often cry out to Hashem in crisis, sigh in relief when the crisis passes, but fail to thank Him adequately for the salvation. Our thanks to Hashem should match the intensity of our pleas. Birchas hagomeil gives us a concrete beracha to say to awaken our thanks for deliverance. And even in our daily lives, when, hopefully, we do not encounter dangers that meet the criteria of saying birchas hagomeil, we should still fill our hearts with thanks, focusing these thoughts during our recital of mizmor lesodah, az yashir, modim or at some other point in our prayer.




The Basics of Birchas Hagomeil

Among the many topics covered in this week’s reading are the mitzvos of the woman who just gave birth. This provides an opportunity to discuss the basics of Birchas Hagomeil:

Question #1: An offering or a blessing?

“The Torah describes bringing a korban todah as a thanksgiving offering. How does that relate to the brocha of birchas hagomeil? Did someone recite birchas hagomeil while offering the korban?”

Question #2: Blessing at home?

“May I recite birchas hagomeil if I will not be able to get to shul for kri’as haTorah?”

Question #3: Exactly ten?

“Our minyan has exactly ten people today. May someone recite birchas hagomeil?”

Answer:

There are two mitzvos related to thanking Hashem for deliverance from perilous circumstances. In Parshas Tzav, the Torah describes an offering brought in the Mishkan, or the Beis Hamikdash, called the korban todah.

There is also a brocha, called birchas hagomeil, which is recited when someone has been saved from a dangerous situation. The Rosh (Brachos 9:3) and the Tur (Orach Chayim 219) explain that this brocha was instituted as a replacement for the korban todah that we can no longer bring, since, unfortunately, our Beis Hamikdash lies in ruin. Thus, understanding the circumstances and the laws of the korban todah and of birchas hagomeil is really one combined topic. This article will discuss some of the basic laws of birchas hagomeil.

Tehillim on Salvation

The Gemara derives many of the laws of birchas hagomeil from a chapter of Tehillim, Psalm 107. There, Dovid Hamelech describes four different types of treacherous predicaments in which a person would pray to Hashem for salvation. Several times, the Psalm repeats the following passage, Vayitzaku el Hashem batzar lahem, mimetzukoseihem yatzileim, “when they were in distress, they cried out to Hashem asking Him to deliver them from their straits. Hashem hears the supplicants’ prayers and redeems them from calamity, whereupon they recognize Hashem’s role and sing shira to acknowledge Hashem’s deliverance. The passage reflecting this thanks, Yodu lashem chasdo venifle’osav livnei adam, “they acknowledge thanks to Hashem for His kindness and His wondrous deeds for mankind,” is recited four times in the Psalm, each time expressing the emotions of someone desiring to tell others of his appreciation. The four types of salvation mentioned in the verse are for: someone who successfully traversed a wilderness, a captive who was freed, a person who recovered from illness, and a seafarer who returned safely to land.

Based on this chapter of Tehillim, the Gemara declares, arba’ah tzerichim lehodos: yordei hayam, holchei midbaros, umi shehayah choleh venisra’pe, umi shehayah chavush beveis ha’asurim veyatza, “four people are required to recite birchas hagomeil: those who traveled by sea, those who journeyed through the desert, someone who was ill and recovered and someone who was captured and gained release” (Brachos 54b). (Several commentators provide reasons why the Gemara lists the four in a different order than does the verse, a topic that we will forgo for now.) The Tur (Orach Chayim 219) mentions an interesting method for remembering the four cases, based on words from our daily shmoneh esrei prayer: vechol hachayim yoducha selah, explaining that the word chayim has four letters, ches, yud, yud and mem, which allude to chavush, yissurim, yam and midbar, meaning captive, the sufferings of illness, sea, and desert: the four types of travail mentioned by the verse and the Gemara. (It is curiously noteworthy that when the Aruch Hashulchan [219:5] quotes this, he has the ches represent “choli,” illness [rather than chavush, captive], which means that he would explain the yud of yissurim to mean the sufferings of captivity.)

Not all troubles are created equal!

Rav Hai Gaon notes that these four calamities fall under two categories: two of them, traveling by sea and through the desert, are situations to which a person voluntarily subjected himself, whereas the other two, illness and being held captive, are involuntary (quoted by Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #51). Thus, we see that one bensches gomeil after surviving any of these types of dangers, regardless of their having been within his control or not.

Some commentaries note that the Rambam cites the Gemara passage, arba’ah tzerichim lehodos, “four people are required to thank Hashem,” only in the context of birchas hagomeil and not regarding the laws of korban todah. This implies that, in his opinion, korban todah is always a voluntary offering, notwithstanding the fact that Chazal required those who were saved to recite birchas hagomeil (Sefer Hamafteiach). However, both Rashi and the Rashbam, in their respective commentaries to Vayikra 7:12, explain that the “four people” are all required to bring a korban todah upon being saved. As I noted above, the Rosh states that since, unfortunately, we cannot offer a korban todah, birchas hagomeil was substituted.

Thus we can answer the first question asked above:

“The Torah describes bringing a korban todah as a thanksgiving offering. How does that relate to the brocha of birchas hagomeil? Did someone recite birchas hagomeil while offering the korban?”

At the time of the beis hamikdash, birchas hagomeil had not yet been invented. We look much forward to its rebuilding so that we can again offer the korbanos and thereby become closer to Hashem this way. (However, note that the Chasam Sofer shares another possible way which disagrees with this interpretation of the Rosh and the Tur.)

A Minyan

When the Gemara (Brachos 54b) teaches the laws of birchas hagomeil, it records two interesting details: (1) that birchas hagomeil should be recited in the presence of a minyan and (2) that it should be recited in the presence of two talmidei chachamim.

No Minyan

Is a minyan essential for birchas hagomeil, as it is for some other brachos, such as sheva brachos? If someone cannot arrange a minyan for birchas hagomeil must he forgo the brocha?

The Tur contends that the attendance of a minyan and two talmidei chachamim is not a requirement to recite birchas hagomeil, but only the preferred way. In other words, someone who cannot easily assemble a minyan or talmidei chachamim may, nevertheless, recite birchas hagomeil. The Beis Yosef disagrees regarding the requirement of a minyan, feeling that one should not recite birchas hagomeil without a minyan present. However, he rules that if someone errantly recited birchas hagomeil without a minyan, he should not recite it again, but should try to find a minyan and recite the text of the brocha while omitting Hashem’s Name, to avoid reciting a brocha levatalah, a blessing in vain (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 219:3). The Mishnah Berurah follows an approach closer to that of the Tur, ruling that if one will be unable to assemble a minyan, he may recite birchas hagomeil without one. However, someone in a place where there is no minyan should wait up to thirty days to see if he will have the chance to bensch gomeil in the presence of a minyan. If thirty days pass without the opportunity, he should recite the birchas hagomeil without a minyan and not wait any longer.

When do we recite Birchas hagomeil?

The prevalent custom is to recite birchas hagomeil during or after kri’as haTorah (Hagahos Maimaniyos 10:6). The Orchos Chayim understands that this custom is based on convenience, because kri’as haTorah also requires a minyan (quoted by Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 219). The Chasam Sofer presents an alternative reason for reciting birchas hagomeil during or after kri’as haTorah. He cites sources that explain that kri’as haTorah serves as a substitute for offering korbanos, and therefore reciting birchas hagomeil at the time of kri’as hatorah is a better substitute for the korban todah that we unfortunately cannot offer (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #51). He concludes nevertheless that, under special circumstances, one may recite birchas hagomeil without kri’as hatorah, which answers the question asked above: “May I recite birchas hagomeil if I will not be able to get to shul for kri’as haTorah?” The answer is that, when there is no option of hearing kri’as hatorah, one may recite birchas hagomeil without it.

Do we Count the Talmidei Chachamim?

I quoted above the Gemara that states that one should recite birchas hagomeil in the presence of a minyan and two talmidei chachamim The Gemara discusses whether this means that birchas hagomeil should be recited in the presence of a minyan plus two talmidei chachamim, a minimum of twelve people, or whether one should recite birchas hagomeil in the presence of ten people which should include two talmidei chachamim. The Rambam (Hilchos Brachos 10:8) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 219:3) rule that the minyan includes the talmidei chachamim, whereas the Pri Megadim rules that the requirement is a minyan plus the talmidei chachamim. Notwithstanding the Pri Megadim’s objections, the Biur Halacha concludes that one does need more than a minyan including the talmidei chachamim.

No Talmid Chacham to be found

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 219:3) then adds that someone located in a place where it is uncommon to find talmidei chachamim may recite birchas hagomeil in the presence of a minyan, even without any talmidei chachamim present.

Ten or ten plus one?

There is a dispute among the authorities whether the individual reciting the brocha is counted as part of the minyan or if we require a minyan aside from him (Raanach, quoted by Rabbi Akiva Eiger to 219:3). Most authorities rule that we can count the person reciting the brocha as one of the minyan (Mishnah Berurah 219:6). Shaar Hatziyun rallies proof to this conclusion, since it says that one should recite the brocha during kri’as haTorah, and no one says that one can do this only when there is an eleventh person attending the kri’as haTorah.

Thus, we can answer the last question that was asked above:

“Our minyan has exactly ten people today. May someone recite birchas hagomeil?”

The answer is that he may.

Conclusion

Rav Hirsch (Commentary to Tehillim 100:1) notes that the root of the word for thanks is the same as that for viduy, confession and admitting wrongdoing. All kinds of salvation should elicit in us deep feelings of gratitude for what Hashem has done for us in the past and does in the present. This is why it can be both an acknowledgement of guilt and thanks.

We often cry out to Hashem in crisis, sigh in relief when the crisis passes, but fail to thank adequately for the salvation. Our thanks to Hashem should match the intensity of our pleas. Birchas hagomeil gives us a concrete brocha to say to awaken our thanks for deliverance. And even in our daily lives, when, hopefully we do not encounter dangers that meet the criteria of saying birchas hagomeil, we should still fill our hearts with thanks, focus these thoughts during our recital of mizmor lesodah, az yashir, modim or at some other appropriate point in our prayers.