Birkat Ha-Gomel (II)

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha of Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

In memory of Itsie Mordkhe ben Khaim Benyumin Schaechter

 

            In the previous lecture, we dealt with the various cases in which a person is obligated to recite Birkat Ha-Gomel. We saw the various opinions among the Rishonim regarding the question whether the blessing is recited only in cases where a person safely emerged from a situation of real danger or even in cases of lesser danger. We showed that the disagreement on this issue depends on the nature of Birkat Ha-Gomel: Is the blessing recited over rescue from danger, or over a situation that could have developed into danger.

Birkat Ha-Gomel In Less Clearly Defined Cases

            One can easily come up with situations that are not so clearly defined. For example, a person whose doctors have found a large tumor in his body and have decided to perform a biopsy. The results of such a test, whether the tumor is benign or malignant, are often not available for several days. During that period, the patient is not bedridden, but he experiences great anxiety as he awaits the outcome. In the end, the doctors conclude that the tumor is benign, and that there is no room for concern.

            According to the rules set down by the Posekim, such a person has not cause to recite a blessing – he was fit and healthy from the very beginning, and he was not bedridden for even a day. Undoubtedly, however, such a person has a strong desire to thank God for the lovingkindness that He has showed him. It might be argued that God did not really perform any greater lovingkindness for him than He performed for any other person, who did not have a tumor at all. But the nerve-racking wait that this person had been forced to endure certainly seems to be grounds for a Ha-Gomel blessing – much more reasonable grounds than that of a person who was sick in bed for three days with a common cold.

            According to the criteria set by the Rivash, that the Ha-Gomel blessing is recited whenever a person had been in a situation of danger, there is no room to recite the Ha-Gomel blessing in the case described above. The person may have thought that he had been exposed to danger, but in reality – there was nothing. He was fit and healthy from the very beginning. As mentioned above, however, a person with religious sensibilities would surely harbor a deep desire to recite a blessing in such a case, and especially according to the Ramban and Rav Hai Gaon who rule that a blessing must be recited in the aftermath of far less serious circumstances.

Reciting The Blessing Without Mentioning The Name of God or His Kingship

            Obviously, if there are no halakhic grounds for a blessing, a person's desires will not change the picture. The Shulchan Arukh, however, has an interesting suggestion (end of no. 219):

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.

            The Shulchan Arukh's proposition would appear to lack a halakhic basis. The Gemara in Berakhot (12a) explicitly states that a blessing that does not mention the name of God or His kingship is not a blessing.[1] Thus, the nature of the Shulchan Arukh's compromise is far from clear. The Posekim mention this strange suggestion in other cases of uncertainty regarding Birkat Ha-Gomel as well. The Tashbetz, for example, was in doubt about the father of a child who had recovered from an illness, whether or not he can recite the Ha-Gomel blessing on behalf of the child. He suggests that the father should recite the blessing without mentioning God's name or His kingship. From a psychological perspective, this proposal may be satisfying to a person – it allows him to feel that he is doing something – but from a halakhic perspective, it seems to be meaningless.

            The fact that this novel suggestion is made specifically with respect to Birkat Ha-Gomel should raise a number of questions. For surely we encounter uncertainties regarding blessings in many halakhic realms, but nowhere is it suggested that a person should recite the blessing without mentioning God's name or kingship, merely in order to set his mind at ease. On the contrary, since the rule is that in cases of uncertainty with respect to blessings, we practice leniency,[2] a person who is in doubt about a particular blessing does not recite the blessing at all.

The source for the Shulchan Arukh's novel suggestion is the Ra'avad, who relates to the Gemara in Berakhot (54b), where the following story is related:

Rav Yehuda was ill and recovered. Rav Chana of Bagdad and other rabbis went to visit him. They said to him: "Blessed be the All Merciful who has given you back to us and has not given you to the dust." He said to them: "You have absolved me from the obligation of giving thanks." But has not Abaye said that he must utter his thanksgiving in the presence of ten! There were ten present. But he did not utter the thanksgiving? There was no need, as he answered after them, Amen.

            This passage raises two questions:

1)        How could Rav Yehuda have discharged his obligation through a blessing recited by other people? The Gemara itself raises this question, and answers that Rav Yehuda responded after them, Amen. This answer is far from satisfying, for the general rule is that if a person is obligated in a certain blessing, he cannot discharge his obligation by responding Amen to a blessing recited by another person who is not obligated in it.

2)        The more difficult question is how could Rav Yehuda have discharged his obligation through the blessing recited by the various Sages. Surely, their blessing did not mention God's name[3] or His kingship, and therefore it should not have been regarded as a blessing at all!

The Ra'avad raises the second question, which leads him to a far-reaching conclusion:

R. Avraham bar David, of blessed memory, wrote: I have a difficulty. How did Rav Yehuda exempt himself by answering Amen to this blessing, when it does mention [God's] kingship? Rather, we are lenient regarding any blessing that does not have a fixed place [in the liturgy]. The proof for all cases is the zimmun blessing, which does not mention God's name or His kingship. So too you will find regarding the traveler's prayer, which does not mention God's kingdom, and so too the condensed [Amida] prayer.  These also do not open with "Blessed." All this because they do not have a fixed time. For not every journey is fit for this prayer, but only after a parsa. And so too the condensed [Amida] prayer [is] only [recited] in a place of danger. And the zimmun blessing is not recited by any three people who ate, but only if they reclined. And so too the blessing recited by sick people [who have recovered] is only recited in the case of a deadly wound that presents a mortal danger.

            The Ra'avad explains that the mention of God's name and His kingship is only necessary for a fixed blessing, but not for an incidental one. The Ra'avad offers several examples of incidental blessings, though he does not formulate a rule that defines them. In any event, according to the Ra'avad, we have a model for a blessing that does not mention God's name or His kingship, for the Gemara in Berakhot 12a relates exclusively to fixed blessings.

            The Ramban absolutely rejects the position of the Ra'avad:

He spoke at great length about this, but his words are not correct, for all [blessings] require mention of God's and His kingship. That which he brought into the discussion here regarding a blessing's opening is irrelevant. For [the Sages] enacted [mention of God's name and kingship] as part of the formula of blessings, but they did not make such an enactment regarding blessings of joining, e.g., "Let us bless," or "Bless the Lord who is blessed" in the synagogue. And similarly the prayer for mercy on the road is not included in this rule, for it is merely a prayer, and they made it short. According to the Rabbi [= the Ra'avad], the blessing of Ha-Zan [in Birkat Ha-Mazon] should not require mention of God's name or His kingship, nor the blessing recited after eating of the seven species, for not every eating is fit for a blessing, unless the person ate the quantity of an olive or the quantity of an egg. And that which he said regarding the zimmun blessing that it requires inclining – this is not true, and they only said this regarding the ha-motzi blessing. We have already clarified the matter above with absolute proofs.

            The Ramban continues with a refutation of the other proofs that the Ra'avad had brought in support of his position.

Birkat Ha-Gomel – A Fulfillment of Thanksgiving

            If we accept the position of the Ramban, we must explain the previously cited Gemara, which states that Rav Yehuda fulfilled his obligation regarding Birkat Ha-Gomel with his disciples' statement of "Blessed be the All Merciful." It may be argued that the Ha-Gomel blessing differs in its very nature and essence from other blessings. In the case of all other blessings, the mitzva being fulfilled is that of reciting a blessing. In the case of the Ha-Gomel blessing, on the other hand, the mitzva being fulfilled is that of offering thanksgiving, the fulfillment of which can be achieved by way of a blessing. In other words, Chazal instituted the blessing so that the thanksgiving would have a fixed formula, but this does not detract from the fact that it is thanksgiving that remains at the heart of the matter. This being the case, any expression of thanksgiving is acceptable, even if does not fulfill the classic requirements of the world of blessings.[4]

A Careful Reading of the Rambam

It is the Rambam who opens the door to such an understanding. In Hilkhot Berakhot (10:8) he writes as follows:

Four categories of people are required to offer thanksgiving: A person who had been sick and has recovered, a prisoner who has been released from prison, voyagers when they have landed, and travelers in the desert when they reach settled territory. The thanksgiving is to be offered in the presence of ten persons, of whom two, at least, must be scholars; as it is said: "Let them exalt Him in the assembly of the people and praise Him in the seat of the elders" (Tehilim 107:32). How is this thanksgiving offered, and what is the form of the blessing? The individual [who has occasion for gratitude] rises in the assembly and says the following blessing: "Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who bestows favors on the undeserving, and has shown me every kindness." All the hearers present say: "May He who has shown you every kindness ever deal kindly with you."

            At the beginning of his ruling, the Rambam cites the wording of the Gemara: "Four categories of people are required to offer thanksgiving." When he describes the blessing itself, he adopts a somewhat verbose and unclear formulation: "How is this thanksgiving offered, and what is the form of the blessing?" It seems that the Rambam should simply have asked: "What is the blessing?" Why does he mention the idea of thanksgiving? It is certainly possible that the Rambam understood as we do, and therefore he insists that the fulfillment of Birkat Ha-Gomel is first and foremost one of thanksgiving, and only secondarily one of blessing.

            A person who recites Birkat Ha-Gomel must internalize and feel the desire to thank God, and only then can he recite the blessing.

The Thanksgiving Offering as a Birkat Ha-Gomel

            This understanding, which emphasizes the obligation to offer thanksgiving, arises in another context as well. In the seventh chapter of Vayikra the Torah deals with a special kind of peace offering – the thanksgiving offering. As is the case with all peace offerings, the thanksgiving offering is a free-will offering, but nevertheless it seems that it is brought in connection with an important event in the life of the person bringing the offering.[5] The Gemara in Zevachim (7a) relates to the thanksgiving offering in the framework of a discussion about changes of intention regarding a sacrifice. Without getting into the details of the passage, let us take note of a comment of Rashi:

No, his own – Even if they are not brought for one [cause of] thanksgiving, for four categories of people are required to offer thanksgiving, as it is stated in Berakhot. And it says: "And let them sacrifice the sacrifice of thanksgiving" (Tehilim 107:22). And he slaughtered a thanksgiving offering when he disembarked from a sea voyage for the sake of a thanksgiving that he had set aside for having been released from prison.

            There are two novel ideas in Rashi's comment:

1) There is an obligation to bring a thanksgiving offering.

2) The obligation falls upon the four categories of people mentioned in the Gemara in Berakhot.

It is not very clear why Rashi mentions these four, but in light of the explanation that we proposed above, one thing is evident: This quartet is obligated, first and foremost, to offer thanksgiving, and this thanksgiving can assume a variety of forms. The form mentioned in the Gemara is Birkat Ha-Gomel, but there is no reason to rule out other forms of thanksgiving, e.g., a thanksgiving offering. An offering is one possible way of expressing thanksgiving, just as is the Ha-Gomel blessing.

"Donating" a Birkat Ha-Gomel

            A third expression of thanksgiving may be found in a novel idea mentioned by the Tur and the Bet Yosef (219), according to which the possibility exists of "donating" a Birkat Ha-Gomel. The Tur relates to the aforementioned story related by the Gemara in Berakhot, and writes:

If another person recited a blessing as follows: "Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has shown you every favor," and he answered, Amen – he has fulfilled his obligation. For we read in chapter Ha-Ro'e: "Rav Yehuda was ill and recovered. Rav Chana of Bagdad and other rabbis went to visit him. They said to him: 'Blessed be the All Merciful who has given you back to us and has not given you to the dust.' He said to them: 'You have absolved me from the obligation of giving thanks.'" And you must say that they mentioned God's name and His kingship, e.g.: "Blessed be the All Merciful, the King, who has given you back to us," for all blessings require mention of God's name and His kingship. And the Gemara concludes: Where he answered, Amen. And my father and master, of blessed memory, explained: Even though one who hears a blessing fulfills his obligation by hearing [even] without answering Amen, that is only when the one who recites the blessing is also obligated in that blessing. Then the hearer fulfills his obligation without answering Amen. But here – since they were not obligated in that blessing, therefore he had to answer Amen. The fact that they were not obligated in [the blessing] did not turn it into a blessing recited in vain, for they offered praise and thanksgiving to the Omnipresent in the manner that people offer praise to the Omnipresent for the good that He bestows upon them.

            The Tur explains that, fundamentally speaking, the Sages who had come to visit Rav Yehuda were not obligated in that blessing, but they volunteered to recite it. Nevertheless, it is not a blessing recited in vain, for anyone who feels a strong desire to thank God is permitted to recite Birkat Ha-Gomel, even if he is not obligated to do so. The Bet Yosef also brings this idea, but he gives expression to a certain reservation:

From the fact that our Rabbi [= the Tur] writes that it was not a blessing recited in vain, that which they recited a blessing even though they were not obligated to do so, because they offered praise and thanksgiving to the Omnipresent for the good that He had bestowed upon them – we may learn that what some men do when their wives give birth - [that is], they stand up and recite Birkat Ha-Gomel - is not a blessing recited in vain. For just as Rav Chana of Bagdad and the other Sages, even though they were not obligated in the blessing, nevertheless they recited it in order to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Omnipresent for the good that He had bestowed upon them, namely, that Rav Yehuda was saved, so too someone whose wife gives birth – even though he is not obligated in a Birkat Ha-Gomel, he can recite the blessing in order to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Omnipresent for the good that He had bestowed upon him that his wife was saved. I have found, however, that the Rashba writes (Berakhot 54a, s.v. ha-ro'e): "Even though the Yerushalmi asks (Berakhot 9:1): What is the law about reciting a blessing over a miracle performed for one's master, and the issue is not resolved – the issue can be resolved from the incident involving Rav Chana appearing below in the Gemara (54b)." He seems to be saying that Rav Chana of Bagdad and the other Sages recited a blessing over Rav Yehuda's recovery, only because he was their master. And so writes R. Mano'ach (Sefer Ha-Menucha 10:9). According to what they say, we cannot learn from there regarding someone who is not his master, even if he is as dear to the person as the person himself, that he should recite a blessing over his recovery. Nevertheless, I found that R. Mano'ach writes (ibid.): "But other people are not required. It stands to reason, however, that if they derive benefit from his recovery that they recite the blessing." As for the Halakha, since all agree that he is not obligated to recite a blessing, he should not do so, and if he recited a blessing, we rebuke him, for perhaps it is a blessing recited in vain.

            At the end of his words, the Bet Yosef argues that a person cannot "donate" a Birkat Ha-Gomel as he pleases, and that the Tur's ruling in the name of the Rosh applies only to a person's principal teacher.[6] In the case of a person's principal teacher, however, a person is permitted to donate a Ha-Gomel blessing, for it constitutes a fulfillment of a person's inner desire to offer thanksgiving for a miracle that had been performed for him.

Birkat Ha-Gomel – A Blessing Recited In Vain?

            Logically speaking, there is room to say that the whole idea of a blessing recited in vain does not apply to the matter at hand, because it is impossible to decide to what degree and at what level a person wishes to offer thanksgiving. As we have seen, however, the Bet Yosef has reservations about people freely reciting the Ha-Gomel blessing. It seems that it was precisely for this reason that he proposed the compromise mentioned above – reciting the blessing without mentioning God's name and His kingship. Earlier we suggested that a blessing lacking mention of God's name and His kingship is not regarded as a blessing, and its sole purpose is to set the mind of the person who recites the blessing at ease. In light of what we have said now, however, such a blessing is not merely a psychological compromise, but rather a perfect fulfillment of the basic obligation. For a person is obligated to offer thanksgiving for the good that had been bestowed upon him, in any manner that he chooses: a full-fledged blessing that includes mention of God's name and His kingship, a thanksgiving offering, or a blessing that lacks mention of God's name and His kingship. All three possibilities – each at its own level – give expression to a person's feeling of gratitude toward his Creator, and therefore all three are acceptable not only as a compromise, but as a fitting fulfillment of the basic obligation falling upon a person. This being the case, a person who is in doubt about Birkat Ha-Gomel can and is required to make use of the Shulchan Arukh's suggestion, not merely as a technical compromise, but as a fitting fulfillment of the obligation cast upon him.

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 


[1] All the Rishonim accept the position of Rav that a blessing that lacks mention of God's name is not a blessing. R. Yochanan adds that a blessing that lacks mention of God's kingship is also not a blessing. The major Posekim accept his position as well, though we do find that some of the Tosafists disagree and say that there are blessings that lack mention of God's kingship. A question that has not been decided even by the Acharonim is what kingship must be mentioned. Lekhatchila, one must certainly mention "King of the universe," but the Acharonim disagree about the law in a case where a person merely said "King" and not "King of the universe." Some Acharonim have ruled that in such a case the blessing must be repeated, whereas others have ruled that in cases of uncertainty with respect to blessings, we practice leniency (see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 214, and Mishnah Berura, ad loc., no. 6).

[2] The rule that in cases of uncertainty with respect to blessings, we practice leniency has two exceptions: 1) According to a number of opinions, it does not apply to Birkot Ha-Nehenin (blessings recited over food and drink and other such pleasures). Such blessings must be recited even in cases of uncertainty (see Tosafot, Berakhot 12a, s.v. lo, and Gilyon Ha-Shas, ad loc.); 2) A number of Acharonim understand that the leniency under question is a leniency regarding blessings recited in vain: in a case of uncertainty with respect to a blessing, we practice leniency, and therefore we are not concerned about the problem of blessings recited in vain, and so the blessing may be recited. Both of these positions are exceedingly novel. We have assumed the more accepted positions.

[3] Unless we say that the Aramaic term "Rachamana" ("All Merciful") fulfills the requirement of mentioning God's name. This assumption is by no means simple, but this is not the forum to discuss the issue.

[4] The flexibility of the text of this blessing finds expression not only in the omission of God's name and His kingship, which is mentioned in various different contexts in sec. 219 of the Shulchan Arukh, but also in the explicit assertion of the Mishna Berura in no. 4: "This text is not indispensable, provided that he gives expression to the gist of the blessing."

            It should be noted that the Meiri in Berakhot 44b puts forward an argument that is just the opposite of what is being proposed here. According to him, all the blessings recited upon seeing various phenomena do not require mention of God's name and His kingship (as argued by the Ra'avad). Birkat Ha-Gomel, however, requires mention of God's name and His kingship, because it is different in nature, since its fulfillment is a communal fulfillment in the presence of ten persons. Our contention above was that Birkat Ha-Gomel is different from all other blessings, and therefore it is does not require mention of God's name and His kingship.

[5] Regarding this, see Rav Perla's commentary to Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon's Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, 259.

[6] The plain sense of the Shulchan Arukh (219) implies that he retracted what he had said in the Bet Yosef, and is inclined to rule that a one may recite the Ha-Gomel blessing on behalf of another person. Thus also rules the Magen Avraham. The Be'ur Halakha has reservations regarding this ruling, and decides the matter in accordance with the words of the Bet Yosef, and against the ruling found in the Shulchan Arukh, that the possibility of reciting Birkat Ha-Gomel for another person is limited to a person's father or teacher.