Birkat Ha-Gomel

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l 

Scope of the Law*

            The Gemara in Berakhot (54b) states:

Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav: There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving: those who have crossed the sea, those who have traversed the wilderness, one who has recovered from an illness, and a prisoner who has been set free. Whence do we know this of those who cross the sea? Because it is written: "They that go down to the sea in ships … these saw the works of the Lord … He raised the stormy wind … they mounted up to the heaven, they went down to the deeps … they reeled to and fro and staggered like a drunken man … they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distresses. He made the storm a calm … then were they glad because they were quiet … Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy, and for His wonderful works to the children of men" (Tehilim 107:23-31). Whence for those who traverse the desert? Because it is written: "They wandered in the wilderness in a desert way; they found no city of habitation … Then they cried unto the Lord … and He led them by a straight way … Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy" (ibid. vv. 4-8). Whence for one who recovers from an illness? Because it is written: "Crazed because of the way of their transgressions and afflicted because of their iniquities, their soul abhorred all manner of food … They cried unto the Lord in their trouble. He sent His word unto them… Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy" (ibid. vv. 17-21).  Whence for a prisoner who was set free? Because it is written: "Such as sat in darkness and in the shadow of death … Because they rebelled against the words of God … Therefore He humbled their heart with travail … They cried unto the Lord in their trouble … He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death … Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy" (ibid. vv. 10-15).

What blessing should he say? Rav Yehuda said: "Blessed is He who bestows lovingkindnesses.' Abaye said: And he must utter his thanksgiving in the presence of ten, as it is written: "Let them exalt Him in the assembly of the people" (ibid. v. 32). Mar Zutra said: And two of them must be rabbis, as it says: "And praise Him in the seat of the elders" (ibid.). R. Ashi demurred to this: You might as well say that all should be rabbis! Is it written: "In the assembly of elders"? It is written: "In the assembly of the people"! Let us say then, in the presence of ten ordinary people and two rabbis [in addition]? This is a difficulty.

            The verses upon which the Gemara bases the laws governing Birkhat Ha-Gomel are taken from Tehilim 107, where the verse "Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy, and for His wonderful works to the children of men" is repeated several times. The Gemara lists four categories of people who are obligated to offer thanksgiving: a person who has recovered from an illness, those who have sailed at sea, a prisoner who has been set free, and those who have traversed a desert (the initial letters of the Hebrew terms – choleh, yordei, yotze, midbar – forming the word chayyim, "life").

In Which Cases is the blessing Recited?

            The fact that the Gemara focuses on these four categories invites two questions:

1)         A quantitative question: Is it just these four categories of people who are obligated to offer thanksgiving, or may others be added to the list?

2)         A qualitative question: Even if the list before us is not exhaustive, must the cases that may be added be similar to the aforementioned cases, or may they be of an entirely different nature?

The Rivash (no. 337) provides a clear answer to the first question:

You asked further: That which is stated in chapter Ha-Ro'e (54b): "There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving," based on the verses of the psalm - do we say: Just these, because we rely on the verses. If so, even if a wall collapses upon a person or he is saved from being trampled or gored by a bull, or other such miracles, he is not obligated to recite a blessing. Or do we say that all the more so is such a person [obligated to recite a blessing]?

Answer: It seems that [such a person] must recite a blessing, for surely those who have crossed a desert who are obligated to offer thanksgiving – this is because of the danger of lions and thieves found on the roads. This being the case, if a lion threatened to tear him to pieces, even in the city, [or] if thieves came, and they are night bandits, and he was saved from them, and other such miracles, all the more so must he offer thanksgiving. Scripture mentions these four only because they are commonly found in the natural way of the world among most people. And for this reason they are mentioned by Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav, author of this statement. But all the more so, a person for whom a miracle had been performed, and he was saved from death itself, for surely [the Sages] established another blessing to be recited whenever he passes that place, "Blessed is He who performed a miracle for me in this place," as is stated at the beginning of chapter Ha-Ro'e…. All the more so, then, immediately upon his rescue must he offer thanksgiving, in the manner of the four who are obligated to offer thanksgiving. And he is not exempt from the blessing of thanksgiving because of the blessing, "Who has performed a miracle," which they obligated him to recite when he once again passes through that place, for perhaps he will never pass through there [again], and he will never recite that blessing. Rather, he certainly recites the thanksgiving blesing in any event.

            The Rivash establishes that the Gemara does not mean that only these four must recite the Ha-Gomel blessing, but rather it must be recited by anyone who has been saved from mortal danger. The Rivash adduces proof from the blessing, "Who has performed a miracle for me in this place." If passing though the place where a miracle had once been performed for a person obligates him to recite a blessing, then certainly he must recite a blessing over the miracle itself.

Is the blessing over the afflictions that have ended or over the rescue?

            The Rivash also proposes that what creates the obligation to recite the blessing is the fact that the person had been saved from death. That is to say, the obligation stems from what might have happened but never actually happened. If this is the case, we must clarify the level of exposure to danger and the level of the danger that obligate a blessing. In any event, the obligation follows from a concern about what is liable to have happened.

            It seems, however, that there is room for an entirely different understanding of the Gemara. It may have been argued that the blessing was not instituted because of what might have happened, but rather because of what actually happened. In the four cases described by the Gemara, the various people experienced troubles and suffering, and their lives had been put in danger. The wording of the Gemara and even more so the verses cited therein imply that the suffering and difficulties of the various events are what obligate the blessing. The Gemara troubles itself to emphasize the fact that those who had crossed the sea "were mounted up to the heaven, and went down to the deeps," and those who were released from prison sat for many days "in darkness and in the shadow of death."[1][1] If what we say is correct, then the obligation to recite a blessing does not stem from the danger itself, but from life lived in the shadow of distress, difficulty and fear.

            If we accept this understanding, it follows that if a person had been in a clearly dangerous situation, but he was unaware of the peril, he is not obligated to recite a blessing, for he had never gone through a period of fear and suffering. It is reasonable to assume that even if the person had been aware of the danger awaiting him, if it was a momentary danger, he would not be obligated to recite the Ha-Gomel blessing, because he too did not experience a long period of suffering. The Rivash, as stated above, disagrees with this understanding, and explicitly states that the very exposure to danger is what obligates a blessing.

The Shulchan Arukh's Ruling

            The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 219:1,9) is in doubt regarding the Rivash's novel position. He therefore brings two opinions on the matter:

There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving: those who had gone out to sea when they return to land; those who cross the desert when they reach civilization; one who has recovered from an illness, and a prisoner who has been set free. And your sign is "And all the living (ha-chayyim) shall thank you. Sela", chole, yissurim, yam, midbar [= chayyim].

Not just these four, but rather the same applies to anyone on behalf of whom a miracle had been performed. E.g., where a wall collapsed upon him, or he was saved from being trampled or gored by a bull, or a lion found in the city threatened to tear him to pieces, or if thieves came, and they were night bandits and he was saved from them, or anything like this, they all must recite the Ha-Gomel blessing. And some authorities say that Birkat Ha-Gomel is recited only by these four categories of people. And it is preferable to recite the blessing without mentioning the name of God or His kingship.

            In explanation of the second opinion cited by the Shulchan Arukh, which disagrees with the Rivash and maintains that only the four explicitly mentioned in the Gemara are obligated in the blessing, the Mishna Berura states as follows (no. 31):

Only these four – since they are most common, [the Sages] instituted for them Birkat Ha-Gomel. But in the other cases which are not all common, the Ha-Gomel blessing should not be recited. Rather, in those cases where a miracle was performed, he should recite "Who has performed a miracle for me" when he comes to that place. And someone who was traveling on a road, even in a place that is not dangerous, and bandits came upon him to kill him, and he was saved, all agree that he recites Birkat Ha-Gomel.

            The wording of the Shulchan Arukh implies that there are only two possibilities. One possibility is that the blessing is recited only in the four cases mentioned in the Gemara. The other possibility is that the obligation may be expanded to include other cases as well. The Mishna Berura explains that the first possibility is connected to the frequency of the four cases mentioned in the Gemara. If we accept this explanation, then logically speaking it should be possible to expand the circle of the blessing to include other frequent cases as well.

The level of danger that obligates a blessing

            Even if the blessing is limited to the cases mentioned in the Gemara, it is still legitimate to ask for a precise definition of those cases. For this purpose, let us focus on the most common case – a person who has recovered from an illness.

            The Hagahot Maimuniyot (Hilkhot Berakhot 10:8, no. 5) writes:

Rabbenu Yosef explained: Only if the sick person was bedridden. But if he [only] had a headache or a stomachache, but was not bedridden, he is not obligated to recite a blessing. However, the Arukh (s.v. arba'a) explained in the name of Rav Hai Gaon, that even if a person had a headache or a sore throat, it was customary  to recite a [Ha-Gomel] blessing following the Torah reading.

            Rabbenu Yosef uses a criterion borrowed from the laws of Shabbat – a sick person who is bedridden. The Rema (Orach Chayyim 328:37) rules that a sick person who is bedridden is categorized as a sick person who is not dangerously ill, and therefore is permitted to take medications on Shabbat, the rabbinic decree based on a concern about grinding medicines not applying. Here too it may be argued that a sick person who is bedridden has reached the level of illness that obligates a blessing. Rav Hai Gaon adopted an entirely different position, according to which a blessing is recited even when a person gets over a small pain. This understanding fits in well with what we suggested earlier that the obligation to recite the Ha-Gomel blessing does not stem from the danger to life, but from the experience of pain and suffering.

The dispute between the Ra'avad and the Ramban

            The issue in disagreement between Rav Hai and Rabbenu Yosef was also a subject of controversy between the Ra'avad and the Ramban.[2][2] We will deal with this controversy later in the lecture, but now we will merely cite the words of the Ra'avad regarding the obligation of a person who has recovered from an illness to recite the Ha-Gomel blessing:

And similarly the blessing recited by a sick person [who recovered from his illness] only applies to a deadly injury that involves a danger.

The Ra'avad explicitly states that the obligation to recite the Ha-Gomel blessing stems from a mortal danger.

The Ramban disagrees, arguing as follows:

As for the blessing recited by a sick person [who has recovered from his illness], this is not only in the case of a dangerous illness or a deadly wound, but rather, anyone who had been bedridden and then recovered must offer thanksgiving, because it is as if he had been taken up to the gallows for judgment, who requires great advocates to be saved, and God's mercies became his advocates. Similarly regarding the road, all travelers must offer thanksgiving. Even though R. Yehuda speaks about those who "traverse the desert," he seized the wording of the verse, but all roads are included. And we read in the Yerushalmi Talmud regarding the traveler's prayer (Berakhot 4:4): "R. Shimon bar Abba said in the name of R. Chanina: All roads are presumed to be dangerous."[3][3] When R. Yannai went to a lodging house, he would leave instructions [regarding his death] in his house. When R. Mana would go to a bathhouse with a fire, he would leave instructions in his house. R. Chanina the son of Rabbi Avahu and R. Shimon son of R. Avahu said in the name of R. Yehoshua b. Levi: All sick persons are presumed to be in danger. Therefore, they all must offer thanksgiving.

            At the beginning of the passage, the Ramban explicitly asserts that the Ha-Gomel blessing must be recited by anyone who had been bedridden. But what he says in the continuation may be understood in one of two ways[4]:

1)         Whenever a person is sick enough to be bedridden, there exists a certain element of danger, even if there is no apparent threat to the person's life. The Ramban speaks about the advocates that a person needs when he is sick, and this fits in well with his general outlook, according to which everything that happens in the world is a miracle, and therefore even recovery from a minor illness obligates thanksgiving. Thus, the fact that a person is bedridden is in itself cause for reciting the Ha-Gomel blessing.

2)         Being bedridden is a sign of the mortal danger which the sick person is facing. The Ramban does not speak explicitly about such a danger, but in those days this was indeed the case – people died even from a light pneumonia or a passing throat infection.[4]

The Ramban expresses himself in a similar manner regarding travelers, and there too there is room for the two interpretations. It may be argued that the very travel obligates a blessing, or alternatively that all travel involves a certain element of danger, as is implied by the Yerushalmi cited by the Ramban.

The second understanding of the position of the Ramban brings us closer to the approach of the Ra'avad, who requires actual danger in order to obligate the Ha-Gomel blessing – which is also the position of the Rivash. The first understanding, on the other hand, is more similar to the proposal that we had suggested: The obligation to recite the Ha-Gomel blessing stems from the situation in which the person had been found, unconnected to the actual danger to his life. Even if this is not the position of the Ramban, it seems to have been the view of Rav Hai Gaon, as we saw earlier.

The normative law

            The dispute among the Rishonim finds expression in the Shulchan Arukh, who brings two positions (219:7-8):

(7) In Ashkenaz and Tzarefat, the blessing is not recited when traveling from one city to the next, for [the Sages] only required a blessing of those who crossed deserts, where wild beasts and bandits are found. In Spain, it is customary to recite the blessing, because all roads are presumed to be dangerous. However, when traveling less than a parsa, a blessing is not recited. If it is a place that is presumed to be particularly dangerous, [a blessing is recited] even for less than a parsa.

(8) In every case of illness, a blessing must be recited, even if it is not a dangerous illness, or a deadly wound. Rather, whenever a person was bedridden and he recovered, [he recites the blessing] because it is as if he had been taken up to the gallows for judgment. And there is no difference between one who has a fixed pain which afflicts him from time to time, and one whose pain is not fixed.

Rema: Some authorities say that a blessing is recited only over an illness that involves a danger, like a deadly wound.

            We see then that there are two opinions both with respect to travelers and with respect to people who have recovered from an illness. In halakha 7, the Shulchan Arukh brings the two opinions; in halakha 8, where he omits the second position, the Rema fills in the lacuna, the dispute being clear. Practically speaking, Sefardi Jewry were accustomed to recite the Ha-Gomel blessing over every journey. This is also the ruling of Rav Ovadia Yosef, shelita. Regarding a person who has recovered from an illness, the Mishna Berura (no. 28) notes that the custom of some Ashkenazim follows that of the Sefardim:

And so it is the custom in Ashkenaz. And the Magen Avraham writes that some are accustomed to act in accordance with the position of the Shulchan Arukh, and so is the opinion of the Elya Rabba. And so writes the Magen Gibborim that whoever was sick throughout his body such that Shabbat could be desecrated on his behalf by way of a non-Jew, recites the Ha-Gomel blessing [he brings this also in the name of the Radbaz]. In similar manner writes the Chayyei Adam. He, however, writes that in any event a person should only recite the blessing if he was bedridden for at least three days. See Be'ur Halakha, that if his illness involves a danger, then even if he was bedridden for less than three days, he must recite the blessing.

            The Mishna Berura recognizes the fact that some have not accepted the ruling of the Rema, but he sets two conditions: First, the illness must have lasted for at least three days, and second, the illness must have involved a certain degree of danger.

 

We will continue this shiur next week.

*This lecture was not reviewed by HaRav Lichtenstein.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 

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This shiur has been sponsored by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family
in honor of the yahrtzeits of our esteemed grandparents:
Neil Fredman (Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, 10 Tevet),
Clara Fredman (Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid, 15 Tevet),
and Walter Rosenthal (Shimon ben Moshe, 16 Tevet).
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This shiur is dedicated in memory of Ephraim and Rachel Rosen z"l.

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[1] See Bava Batra 8b regarding the redemption of captives: "Rava asked Rabba b. Mari: Whence is derived the maxim of the Rabbis that the redemption of captives is a religious duty of great importance? He replied: From the verse: 'And it shall come to pass when they say unto you, Whither shall we go forth, then you shall tell them, Thus says the Lord, Such as are for death, to death, and such as are for the sword, to the sword, and such as are for famine, to the famine, and such as are for captivity, to captivity' (Yirmiya 15:2). And [commenting on this], R. Yochanan said: Each punishment mentioned in this verse is more severe than the one before. The sword is worse than death… Famine again is harder than the sword… Captivity is harder than all, because it includes the sufferings of all."

[2] The source of the passage is in Torat ha-Adam, sha'ar ha-sof, inyan ha-refu'a. The Ma'arava edition of the Ramban prints this passage in Berakhot 54b.

[3] This proof of the Ramban is very puzzling. Tefilat ha-Derekh is recited before embarking on the journey, as a prayer for a safe and successful journey. This being the case, the blessing, by its very nature, does not depend on a particular situation, it being entirely a prayer regarding the future. Birkat ha-Goemel would appear to be an entirely different type of blessing. This blessing does not relate to what will take place in the future, but to what has already taken place. If a person underwent a certain journey, and did not encounter any enemies, bandits or the like, there should be no reason to recite the blessing.

[4] Similar to the well known distinction between "sign" (siman) and "cause" (siba).