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.

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