The Text of Birchas Hagomeil
After Eliezer’s extensive travels through the desert, he presumably recited birchas hagomeil. Did he use the same text that we use?
Question #1: Slip up in shul
Not long ago, I received the following question in an e-mail. Upon reciting birchas hagomeil, the individual erred and recited the following:
“Hagomeil tovim, shegemalani kol tuv,” thereby omitting the word lachayavim in “Hagomeil lachayavim tovim.” Must he now repeat the bracha because he omitted a word?
Question #2: Minor acknowledgements
“Thank G-d, my nine-year old daughter is now recuperating very successfully from surgery. Does she recite birchas hagomeil?”
Question #3: Daily thanks
“Does someone who travels daily recite birchas hagomeil?”
In a previous article, we learned that birchas hagomeil is to be recited by someone who has been saved from a dangerous situation. Specifically, Sefer Tehillim (107) and the Gemara (Brachos 54b) mention four categories of people who survived treacherous predicaments: someone who traversed a wilderness, a captive who was freed, an ill person who recovered, and a seafarer who returned to terra firma. A safe return, release or recovery warrants reciting this bracha, although the halacha is that one recites birchas hagomeil after surviving any life-threatening situation. This article will discuss some aspects of this bracha that were not yet covered.
Someone else reciting
May someone else recite some form of birchas hagomeil on behalf of the person who actually was in the difficult circumstance? In this context, we find the following Gemara passage (loc. cit.):
“Rav Yehudah was ill and then 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 birchas hagomeil!’”
Thus, we see that Rav Yehudah ruled that the praise recited by Rav Chona exempted him (Rav Yehudah) from reciting birchas hagomeil, notwithstanding the fact that Rav Chona had not been ill and had no requirement to bensch gomeil.
The Gemara proceeds to ask several questions about this conversation: “But do we not require a minyan for birchas hagomeil?” to which the Gemara replies that there indeed were ten people present when Rav Chona visited Rav Yehudah.
Subsequently, the Gemara questions how Rav Yehudah could have fulfilled the requirement to recite birchas hagomeil, if he himself had not made the bracha, to which it replies that he answered ‘Amen’ to the blessing of Rav Chona of Baghdad.
Thus, we see a second halacha. Someone who is required to recite birchas hagomeil need not recite the entire bracha himself, but can fulfill his responsibility by answering amen to someone else thanking Hashem.
In addition to what we noted above, this Gemara discussion teaches several other halachos about birchas hagomeil:
1. Although the authorities quote a standardized text for birchas hagomeil, we see that one fulfills the requirement to recite the bracha even if one recited a version that varies considerably from the standard text. As long as one recites or responds to a bracha that acknowledges appreciation to Hashem for the salvation, he has fulfilled his obligation.
2. The person who was saved can fulfill his obligation by answering amen when he hears someone else thank Hashem, even though the other person who recited the bracha has no requirement to bensch gomeil. This is a unique halacha, because usually one may fulfill a bracha or mitzvah by hearing it from someone else only when the person reciting the bracha is equally required to observe the mitzvah. Nevertheless, Rav Yehudah discharged his responsibility through Rav Chona’s bracha, even though Rav Chona had no requirement to recite birchas hagomeil.
3. We can also derive from this anecdote that someone may fulfill the requirement of birchas hagomeil through someone else’s bracha, even though the person who recited the bracha did not intend to recite it on behalf of the person who is obligated. This is also an unusual facet of birchas hagomeil, since, in all other instances, the person fulfilling the mitzvah does so only if the person reciting the bracha intends to be motzi him.
4. Some authorities ask: How could Rav Chona of Baghdad have recited a blessing, when he did not know that Rav Yehudah would fulfill the mitzvah with this recital? Since Rav Chona was unaware that Rav Yehudah would fulfill the mitzvah, why was he not concerned that he would be reciting a bracha 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 bracha levatalah, even if no one fulfilled any requirement through it (Tur, Orach Chayim 219).
Uniqueness of birchas hagomeil
From these last rulings, we see that the concept of birchas hagomeil is unlike other brachos, 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 birchas 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 birchas hagomeil, and that one does not need to say also Elokeinu Melech haolam, the standard text prefacing all brachos. This would be very novel, since all brachos require an introduction that includes not only mention of Hashem, but requires also proclaiming that Hashem is King. However, the Tur and the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 219) reject this conclusion, contending that one does not fulfill birchas hagomeil unless one does mention sheim and malchus. We must therefore assume that the Gemara abbreviated the bracha recited by Rav Chona of Baghdad, but that he had indeed mentioned Hashem’s monarchy in his blessing.
What is the optimal nusach, the exact text, of this bracha?
Although our Gemara (Brachos 54b) quotes a wording for birchas hagomeil, it is apparent that different rishonim had variant readings of the text of the bracha. The most common version recorded is: Baruch Atta Hashem Elokeinu Melech haolam, hagomeil lachayavim 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 yigmalcha 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 bracha, which calls people to attention, so that they can focus on the bracha and respond appropriately (Kaf Hachayim, Orach Chayim 219:14).
The wording of the bracha sounds unusual, for it implies that the person who recited this bracha 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, and, 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 bracha 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 bracha refers to himself as being “guilty.”
What about a child?
If a child survived a situation that would require an adult to recite birchas hagomeil, does he do so?
Early halachic authorities rule that a child under the age of bar or bas mitzvah does not recite birchas hagomeil. The Maharam Mintz explains that it is inappropriate for a child to recite the wording hagomeil lachayavim tovos, “Who grants good to those who are guilty.” Since the evil that befalls a child is not a result of his own evildoing, but of his father’s, a child reciting this text implies that his father is guilty, which is certainly improper for a child. Furthermore, to modify the bracha is unseemly, since one should not change the text of the bracha 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 he had fulfilled his requirement to recite birchas hagomeil on the basis of the bracha in the form of praise recited by Rav Chona of Baghdad, “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 bracha 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 birchas hagomeil text for children.
The above-quoted Avnei Nezer similarly disapproves of the reason presented by the Maharam Mintz, although he agrees with the ruling that a child should not recite birchas hagomeil – but for a different reason. The Avnei Nezer explains that although one could modify the text so that a child would be able to recite birchas hagomeil, having a child recite a different bracha 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 birchas hagomeil, although he does not cite the rationale for this ruling. Presumably, they contend that having a child recite this bracha is no different from 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 birchas hagomeil (Kaf Hachayim 219:2).
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 birkas hagomeil every time he traveled through the Sea, in which case he would be reciting it almost daily.
Based on the above-quoted Avnei Nezer, who explained why all four categories of people who recite birkas hagomeil are categorized as “guilty,” the Minchas Yitzchak concludes that one does not recite birkas hagomeil if one lives in a place where each day requires sea travel. One cannot consider someone “guilty” for living in a place that is considered a normal place to live, and if a recognized livelihood in such a place requires daily sea travel, this cannot be considered placing oneself in an unnecessary danger.
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 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. Birkas hagomeil gives us a concrete bracha to say to awaken our feelings of gratitude for deliverance. And even in our daily lives, when, hopefully, we do not encounter dangers that meet the criteria of saying birkas hagomeil, we should still fill our hearts with thanks. It is certainly appropriate to focus these thoughts during our recital of mizmor lesodah, az yashir, modim or at some other point in our prayer.