More about Birkas Hagomeil

Did Yaakov Avinu bensch gomeil after surviving his encounter with Eisav?

Question #1: “Upon reciting birkas hagomeil, an individual erred and recited the following: ‘Hagomeil tovim, shegemalani kol tuv’ (without the word “lechayavim”). Must he now repeat the beracha because he omitted a word?”

Question #2: “Thank G-d, my nine-year-old daughter is now recuperating successfully from surgery. Does she recite birkas hagomeil?”

Question #3: “Did the Chashmonayim recite birkas hagomeil upon winning their war?”

Answer:

In a different article, we learned that birkas hagomeil is to be recited by someone who has been saved from a dangerous situation. Specifically, Sefer Tehillim (107) and the Gemara mention four different types of individuals in treacherous predicaments — one who traverses a wilderness, a captive who was freed, an ill person, and a seafarer — whose safe return, release or recovery warrants reciting this beracha. The halacha is that one recites birkas hagomeil after surviving any life-threatening situation. This article will discuss some aspects of this beracha that were not yet covered.

Someone else reciting

May someone else recite some form of birkas hagomeil on behalf of the person who actually was in the difficult circumstance? In this context, we find the following Gemara passage (Berachos 54b):

“Rav Yehudah had been ill and recovered. When Rav Chona of Baghdad and other scholars came to visit him, they said to Rav Yehudah, ‘Blessed is the merciful One (in Aramaic, rachmana), Who returned you to us and not to the earth.’ Rav Yehudah responded, ‘You have exempted me from reciting birkas hagomeil!’”

Thus, we see that Rav Yehudah ruled that the praise recited by his visitors exempted him from reciting birkas hagomeil, notwithstanding the fact that Rav Chona and the others had not been ill and had no requirement to recite birkas hagomeil.

The Gemara proceeds to ask several questions about this conversation: “But do we not require a minyan for birkas hagomeil?” to which the Gemara replies that there indeed were ten people present when Rav Chona visited Rav Yehudah.

The Gemara then questions how Rav Yehudah could have fulfilled birkas hagomeil if he himself had not recited the beracha, to which it replies that he answered “Amen” to the blessing of Rav Chona of Baghdad.

Deriving Halacha

In addition to what we noted above, the above Gemara discussion teaches several additional halachos about birkas hagomeil:

1. Although the authorities quote a standardized wording for birkas hagomeil, we see that one fulfills his requirement even if one recited a version that varies considerably from the usual text, as long as it is a beracha that thanks Hashem for the salvation.

2. The person who was saved can fulfill his obligation by answering amen when he hears someone else thank Hashem, even though the person reciting the beracha has no requirement to bensch gomeil. This is a unique halachah, because usually one may fulfill a beracha or mitzvah by hearing it from someone else only when the person reciting the beracha is equally required to observe the mitzvah. Despite this rule, Rav Yehudah discharged his responsibility through Rav Chona’s beracha,even though Rav Chona personally had no requirement to recite birkas hagomeil.

3. We can also derive from this anecdote that someone may fulfill the requirement of birkas hagomeil through someone else’s beracha, even though the person who recited the beracha did not intend to recite it on behalf of the person who is obligated. This is also an unusual facet of birkas hagomeil, since in all other instances, the person fulfilling the mitzvah does so only if the person doing it intends to be motzi him.

4. Some authorities ask: Since Rav Chona was unaware that Rav Yehudah would fulfill the mitzvah, why was he not concerned that he would be reciting a beracha levatalah, a blessing recited in vain?

The answer is that Rav Chona of Baghdad’s recital was certainly praise to Hashem and thanks for His kindness, and therefore this blessing would certainly not be a beracha levatalah, even if no one fulfilled any requirement through it (Tur, Orach Chayim 219).

Uniqueness of birkas hagomeil

From these last rulings, we see that the concept of birkas hagomeil is unlike other berachos, and therefore, its rules are different. As long as the person obligated to thank Hashem is involved in an acknowledgement that Hashem saved him, he has fulfilled his obligation.

What about mentioning Hashem’s name?

One should not infer from the above story that one can fulfill reciting birkas hagomeil without mentioning Hashem’s name. This is because the word rachmana, which translates literally into English as “the merciful One,” also serves as the Aramaic word for G-d. Thus, Rav Chona of Baghdad did mention Hashem’s name in his blessing.

What about mentioning malchus?

The Rishonim note that from the way the Gemara quotes Rav Chona of Baghdad, “Blessed is the merciful One Who returned you to us and not to the earth,” one might conclude that it is sufficient to recite Baruch Ata Hashem for birkas hagomeil, and that one does not need to say also Elokeinu Melech haolam, the standard text prefacing all berachos. This would be very novel, since all berachos require an introduction that includes not only mention of Hashem, but also requires proclaiming that Hashem is King. However, the Tur and the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 219) reject this conclusion, contending that one does not fulfill birkas hagomeil unless one does mention sheim and malchus. We must therefore assume that the Gemara abbreviated the beracha recited by Rav Chona of Baghdad and that he had indeed mentioned Hashem’s monarchy in his blessing.

The text

What is the optimal nusach, the exact text, of this beracha?

Although our Gemara (Berachos 54b) quotes a wording for birkas hagomeil, it is apparent that different rishonim had variant readings of the text of the beracha. The most common version recorded is: Baruch Atta Hashem Elokeinu Melech haolam, hagomeil lachayovim tovos, shegemalani kol tov. “Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who grants good to those who are guilty, for He granted me much good.” The assembled then respond with “Amen,” and then add, Mi shegemalcha kol tov hu yigmalecha kol tov sela, “May He Who has granted you much good continue to grant you much good forever.” The established Sefardi custom is to recite two pesukim prior to reciting the beracha, which calls people to attention so that they can focus on the beracha and respond appropriately (Kaf Hachayim, Orach Chayim 219:14).

The wording of the beracha sounds unusual, for it implies that the person who recited this beracha is assuming that he was deserving of Divine punishment, yet was saved because of Hashem’s kindness. Why should the saved person make this assumption?

The Maharam Mintz (Shu”t #14), an early Ashkenazi authority, explains that someone who became ill or was imprisoned should be introspective, seeking to learn a lesson by discovering why this happened to him. In so doing, he should realize that he is indeed guilty of things for which he needs to do teshuvah. In this context, the Avnei Nezer (Shu”t Orach Chayim #39) asks the following: while the Maharam Mintz’s reason explains why a person who was captured or imprisoned should consider himself guilty, it is not clear how it applies to someone who survived a journey on the high seas or through the desert, since he himself chose to undertake the trip. To this, the Avnei Nezer answers 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. In either instance, we can now appreciate why the person reciting the beracha refers to himself as being “guilty.”

What about a child?

If a child survived a situation that would require an adult to recite birkas hagomeil, does he do so?

Early halachic authorities rule that a child under the age of bar or bas mitzvah does not recite birkas hagomeil. The Maharam Mintz explains that it is inappropriate for a child to recite the wording hagomeil lachayovim tovos, “Who grants good to those who are guilty.” Harm that befalls a child is not a result of his own evildoing, but of his father’s; thus, a child reciting this text implies that his father is guilty, which is certainly improper for a child. Furthermore, to modify the beracha is unseemly, since one should not change the text of the beracha handed down to us by Chazal (quoted by Elyah Rabbah 291:3).

Some authorities are dissatisfied with this last answer, since we see that Rav Yehudah felt that he had fulfilled his requirement to recite birkas hagomeil when Rav Chona said, “Blessed is Hashem that returned you to us and not to the earth,” which is quite different from the text, “Who grants good to those who are guilty, for He granted me much good.” It would seem that any beracha text that includes a praise acknowledging thanks for Hashem’s rescue fulfills the requirement (see Shaar Hatizyun 219:5). Thus, it should be relatively easy to structure a birkas hagomeil text for children.

The above-quoted Avnei Nezer similarly disapproves of the rationale presented by the Maharam Mintz, although he agrees with the ruling that a child should not recite birkas hagomeil – but for a different reason. The Avnei Nezer explains that although any text thanking Hashem fulfills the mitzvah of reciting birkas hagomeil, the preferred way is for the person to say “I, who am guilty,” something that a child cannot say. Although one could modify the text so that a child would be able to recite birkas hagomeil and omit this concept, having a child recite a different beracha would no longer accomplish the mitzvah of chinuch, which requires a child to fulfill the mitzvah the way he would as an adult.

On the other hand, the Chida (Birkei Yosef 219:1) quotes authorities who disagreed with the Maraham Mintz, and ruled that a child should recite birkas hagomeil, although the Chida does not cite the rationale for this ruling. Presumably, these authorities contend that having a child recite this beracha is no different than any other mitzvah in which we are required to educate our children. Most authorities agree with the rulings of the Maharam Mintz and the Avnei Nezer and, as a result, in most communities, both Ashkenazi and Sefardi, children do not recite birkas hagomeil (Kaf Hachayim 219:2).

How much traveling?

One of the four instances for which the Gemara requires birkas hagomeil is surviving a trip through a desert. However, when the Rambam quotes this Gemara, he states, instead of those who traveled through the desert, “those who traveled on intercity roads recite birkas hagomeil when they arrive at a settled place.” The authorities dispute what the Rambam means, the Tur assuming him to mean that one recites birkas hagomeil after any trip. This position is certainly held by the Ramban, who writes (Toras Ha’adam, page 49) that the Gemara mentioned those who traveled through the desert only because that is the text of the verse in Tehillim, but the halacha is that any traveler recites birkas hagomeil upon arrival at his destination. For this reason, the Ramban and the Avudraham record that many Sefardim recite birkas 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 (Berachos 9:3), however, disagrees with the Ramban, contending that there is a difference between tefillas haderech, which one recites for any trip, and birkas hagomeil, which one recites only when one would be required to offer a korban todah. The verses in Chapter 107 imply that one is required to offer a korban todah only when one survives a major calamity. Thus, in the Rosh’s opinion, the statement kol haderachim bechezkas sakanah means that one should recite tefillas haderech any time one travels intercity, but not that one should recite birkas hagomeil. Reflecting this approach, the Rosh and Rabbeinu Yonah mention that in France and Germany the practice was to refrain from reciting birkas 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, contending that even the Rambam is referring only to someone traveling through a completely barren area similar to a desert, but that the Rambam agrees that someone traveling through an area where food and water can be readily obtained does not recite birkas hagomeil afterwards. The Bach suggests that the Tur was not quoting the Rambam in support of this position, but the Ramban, and that scribes erred while redacting.

Airplane travel

Does someone who travels by airplane recite birkas 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 birkas 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 birkas hagomeil only for the four types of calamities mentioned in Tehillim and the Gemara require birkas hagomeil for flying, since flying by air is identical to traveling by ship, as the entire time that one is above ground, one’s long-term life plans are all completely dependent on one’s safe return to land (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:59). I found another authority who agreed with Rav Moshe’s conclusion, but for a different reason. One should recite birkas hagomeil, not because air travel should be compared to seafaring, but because we rule that one recites birkas hagomeil for any type of danger to which one was exposed (Shu”t Betzel Hachachmah 1:20). Rav Ovadyah Yosef rules that Sefardim should recite birkas hagomeil after any air trip that takes longer than 72 minutes, just as they recite birkas 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 birkas hagomeil, at least not with the names of Hashem, which they are concerned might result in a beracha levatalah (Shu”t Chelkas Yaakov 2:9; Rav Zion Levy, in his question to Rav Ovadyah Yosef, published in Shu”t Yabia Omer, Orach Chayim II #14).

According to what we have thus far written, there should be no distinction drawn on the length of the flight or whether it traverses land or sea. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s approach, one should always recite birkas hagomeil for air flight, and according to those who dispute, 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.

Conclusion

Returning to our opening question:  Did Yaakov Avinu bensch gomeil after surviving his encounter with Eisav?

We can ask further: Did Yitzchak Avinu recite birkas hagomeil after the akeidah? Did Chananyah, Mesha’el, and Azaryah recite birkas hagomeil upon exiting the furnace, or Daniel after waving good-bye to the lions? Did the kohen gadol recite birkas hagomeil upon exiting the kodesh hakodoshim on Yom Kippur? Did Rabbi Akiva recite birkas hagomeil over the fact that he was the only one who had studied the deepest secrets of the Torah (called “pardes”) and remained physically and spiritually intact?

The Chida, in his Machazik Beracha commentary to Shulchan Aruch (219:1-3), presents a lengthy correspondence on this question that transpired between his father and another talmid chacham, Rav Eliezer Nachum. Rav Yitzchak Zerachyah Azulai, the Chida’s father, contended that only someone who was placed in a situation involuntarily, including one who traveled by sea or through the desert because circumstances compelled him to endanger himself, recites birkas hagomeil, but not someone who chose to give up his life to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem. Even when someone in the latter situation is saved by an obvious miracle, he should not recite birkas hagomeil since, had he lost his life, he would immediately have been elevated above all that this world could possibly offer. Similarly, he rules that the kohen gadol does not recite birkas hagomeil upon leaving the kodesh hakodoshim, since his entering was to fulfill a mitzvah of Hashem. Furthermore, he adds, that a kohen gadol worthy of his position was never in any danger to begin with – only an unworthy kohen gadol need be concerned of the dangers of entering the kodesh hakodoshim on Yom Kippur.

Rav Eliezar Nachum disagreed strongly with Rav Azulai’s position. Rav Nachum notes several midrashic and Talmudic passages that mention the tremendous songs of praise that were sung by the angels and by the great tzadikim mentioned above upon surviving these travails. Certainly, upon surviving these dangers one is required to recite birkas hagomeil to thank Hashem for his salvation.

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