Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass
1. HA-GOMEL: OBLIGATORY?
Though the gemara states "Four MUST give thanks," Acharonim argue about whether this blessing is a "chova" (requirement) or a "reshut" (usually translated as optional). The Magen Avraham (OC 219:1) asks why, in his time, women were not accustomed to make this blessing, and answers, "Perhaps because these blessings are a 'reshut.'" The Peri Megadim (OC 219:1) argues that these blessings are obligatory.
2. TYPE OF DANGER
"FOUR must give thanks." Rishonim argue about whether in just these four cases (sickness, prison, sea voyage, desert travel) one must give thanks, or whether anyone who survives any dangerous situation must recite the blessing. The Rivash (337) holds that anyone who survives danger should recite birkat ha-gomel, whereas the Avudraham quotes an opinion that only these four people should recite ha-gomel.
3. LEVEL OF DANGER
There is an argument about what level of danger obligates making birkat ha-gomel.
The Ri Migash says that not only one whose imprisonment was related to corporal punishment, but even one imprisoned for monetary matters makes the berakha when he is released from prison. Though it is possible that the Ri Migash saw any imprisonment as a danger to life, it is likely that he holds that the blessing applies even when there is a lower level of danger. The Arukh (entry "Arba") writes that it includes, "One who was sick and became healthy, even if it was a headache or a throat ache." Even if there was no mortal danger involved there is still an obligation of birkat ha-gomel.
According to the Ra'avad (quoted in the Ramban's "Torat Ha-adam," "On Medicine" - p. 49), however, "The same is true for the blessing of the sick [i.e., the birkat ha-gomel]; it is only made over an internal wound that involves danger to life." [The Ramban himself does not accept this.]
There is a dispute about the text of the blessing.
A. Our text of the Talmud reads, "What should he say? ... 'He who does good acts of kindness' ('Barukh gomel chasadim tovim')."
B. The Rif's text reads, "Blessed is He who does acts of kindness to the guilty ones, who has done only good for me (Barukh gomel la-chayavim tovot she-gemalani kol tuv)." This is also the version accepted by the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 10:8).
C. Some have "Who has done only good for US (she-gemalaNU)."
5. "SHEM U-MALKHUT"?
There is even an argument about whether the name of God and a declaration of His royalty ("shem u-malkhut") are essential parts of the blessing. The Ra'avad (in the Torat Ha-adam, Medicine, p. 49 and in his glosses on the Rif 44a) writes that, "All of these blessings ... are optional and not obligatory. ... The proof is that there is no need to mention God's name and His royalty."
The Tosafot (Berakhot 54b s.v. Patartan) argue that the name of God and His royalty are essential to the blessing.
6. HOW MANY PEOPLE PRESENT?
There is an argument between the Amoraim quoted by the gemara about how many should be present when birkat ha-gomel is made: "Abaye says that one must thank before ten ... Mar Zutra says: Two of them must be sages ..." Each of them quotes verses to support their opinion. "Rav Ashi countered [based on these verses]: Perhaps all of them must be sages ... Perhaps there must be ten of the general population plus two sages ..." The gemara concludes with the expression "Kashia!" (this is difficult), indicating that there is substance to Rav Ashi's objections.
There is a dispute between the Rishonim about how to rule based on the gemara. R. Yehuda Ha-chasid rules that twelve (ten people and two sages) are needed, whereas the Rambam rules that ten people, two of them sages, suffice.
7. TEN PEOPLE ESSENTIAL?
Rishonim argue about how crucial it is to have ten people (or twelve) present when the blessing is made. Rabbeinu Yona holds that the blessing cannot be made without ten, while the Ritva holds that the presence of ten people is ideal but not essential.
What is the basis of the need for ten according to Rabbeinu Yona, who holds that they are an essential requirement?
If the ten must be men and the speaker is counted, there simply seems to be a need for a minyan, similar to the marriage blessings, which must be recited in the presence of a minyan (see Ketubot 7b and the Arukh Ha-shulchan Even Ha-ezer 62:13).
The need for twelve, though, is puzzling. So is the Maharnach's approach, that there must be ten present besides the speaker. The Magen Avraham is also certainly not working with the concept of a minyan, for he says that a woman can make the blessing before nine women and one man.
8. HEARING BUT NOT SAYING IT
One last problematic gemara (Berakhot 54b) and a dispute among the Rishonim who comment on it:
"Rav Yehuda was sick and recovered. ... They said to him, 'Blessed be the Merciful One who gave you back to us.' ... He said to them, 'You have absolved us from giving thanks' ... But he did not give thanks [personally]? There is no need, for he answered 'amen'."
This gemara is difficult, because based on the principle, "hearing a pronouncement is like saying it ('shome'a ke-oneh')," there should not have been a need for him to answer amen. In fact, the Re'ah says that he really fulfilled his obligation without the amen.
The Ritva explains that amen was essential because the one who exclaimed "Bless God for returning you," did not intend for him to fulfill his requirement of birkat ha-gomel. This is also problematic, for even if the obligated person answers amen, the one speaking must intend for him to fulfill his obligation (see OC 213:3) [though the Ritva might argue against this.]
The Rosh (quoted by the Tur) answers differently: "Since they were not obligated in this blessing, he was required to answer amen." The Rosh seems to argue with the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:11) who says that in order for "shome'a ke-oneh" to take effect, both the speaker and the listener must be obligated in the mitzva.
THE NATURE OF BIRKAT HA-GOMEL
In order to understand the conceptual basis of these eight disputes, we must look into the nature of birkat ha-gomel. Our starting point is the argument between Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona and the Ritva (7 above) about the need for ten. Rabbeinu Yona's approach, that ten are essential, needs explaining, especially if it is not a requirement for a minyan (according to the Maharnach [ten plus him] and the Magen Avraham [9 women and a man] quoted above). Why should a blessing require the presence of ten people?
Rabbeinu Yona might hold that birkat ha-gomel is not only a blessing, but a requirement to GIVE THANKS (hoda'a), in line with the gemara's formulation, "Four must give thanks." Giving thanks must be performed as a public pronouncement, before a congregation of people. The Maharnach's approach, that there must be ten people besides him, makes sense according to this understanding of the mitzva.
The Ritva may say that thanks can also be offered in private, but that the presence of ten enhances it. He might also say that birkat ha-gomel is, by nature, an ordinary blessing, but that when ten are present there is an added dimension of public thanks.
This issue, the nature of birkat ha-gomel, might also be at the heart of the Rambam and R. Yehuda Ha-chasid's argument (6 above) about whether there must be ten or twelve people present for the blessing. The Rambam might say that it is a blessing that requires just a minyan. R. Yehuda Ha-chasid might say that, based on the verses the gemara quotes, birkat ha-gomel is a pronouncement of thanks that requires ten plus an extra two sages.
The Ra'avad (5 above), who holds that birkat ha-gomel does not require the name of God or a mention of His royalty, might also say that its nature is that of a pronouncement of thanks and not a blessing. The Tosafot and Ramban say that, like any other blessing, these are required.
The Peri Megadim (OC 219:1) seemed to understand that there are two elements to birkat ha-gomel, for he says that if one is in doubt about whether he said birkat ha-gomel he should say it without mentioning God's Name and His royalty, "For [at least] thanks (hoda'a) are required."
Some of the other issues that came up in the Rishonim might also be related to how much birkat ha-gomel is a standard blessing and how much it is a pronouncement of thanks.
TEXT OF THE BLESSING (4 above):
The text the Rif quotes, "Who does all good things for ME," adds a personal touch that is in line with a pronouncement of thanks, whereas the other text, "Who does good things for the undeserving," is more objective, a standard form for a blessing.
TYPE OF DANGER (2 above):
A blessing, with its formal aspect, is likely to be limited to four specific situations, whereas a pronouncement of thanks, with its spontaneous aspect, might apply to all types of salvations.
LEVEL OF DANGER (3 above):
The blessing, with its formal side, might apply to the four instances, no matter how dangerous the situation was. Anyone who got out of prison or was healed from a sickness must make the blessing. But the requirement for a pronouncement of thanks might involve having been in a certain intense danger. The Ra'avad and the Ramban seem to be consistent in their approaches. According to the Ra'avad one makes birkat ha-gomel on all types of salvations, but only when the danger was intense. The Ramban limits the blessing to the four cases quoted by the Talmud, but holds that it should be said no matter how intense the danger.
The Meiri quotes an opinion that holds that though there is no obligation to make birkat ha-gomel over other salvations outside the four categories mentioned by the gemara, it is still permissible to do so. There is no obligation - because of the formal requirements of a blessing; however, if one wants to make birkat ha-gomel over some other salvation it is permissible. Because there is an extra element to birkat ha-gomel, that of a declaration of thanks, one can (when he wants to) make it even where not formally required.
THE THANGSGIVING OFFERING
A parallel distinction is made with regard to the korban toda - the thanksgiving sacrifice. Rashi (Menachot 79b) and the Tosafot Rid (Rosh Hashana 5b) distinguish between an obligatory and an optional thanksgiving sacrifice. The toda sacrifice is only obligatory if one experienced one of the four salvations listed in the gemara in Berakhot, based on Tehillim 107.
There seem to be two tracks of the toda sacrifice, parallel to the two tracks of birkat ha-gomel we have related to: A) a formal sacrificial obligation for the four salvations; and B) an option to donate a thanksgiving offering, even though one is not obligated, if one experienced some other type of salvation. This second track is not a sacrificial obligation but rather the ability to express thanks through a sacrifice. This parallel is supported by the Rosh's assertion (Berakhot 9:3) that birkat ha-gomel was instituted in place of the korban toda.
If birkat ha-gomel is part of the system of blessings, it is most likely obligatory, like other blessings. If, however, it is an expression of thanks, we are open to the option that one is not obligated to give thanks, but fulfills a mitzva when he chooses to say ha-gomel. The Ra'avad is once again consistent, proving that it is not an obligation from the gemara about R. Yehuda's sickness we quoted above. Since the blessing said by the visitors in the anecdote was recited without mentioning God's Name or royalty, it is clearly not an obligatory blessing.
The Ramban rejects the Ra'avad's proof: perhaps birkat ha-gomel is an obligation only for the person who went through the experience himself; an outsider is permitted to give thanks for his friend's salvation, but not through a blessing mentioning God's Name and royalty.
The Shulchan Arukh (OC 219:3) writes: "If he made the blessing [birkat ha-gomel] with less than ten [present], some say that he fulfills his obligation, and some say that he does not. It is proper [if less than ten were present] to repeat it before ten but without mention of God's Name and His royalty." In 219:9 he writes "These four [sickness, prison, desert, sea] are not exclusive. ... and some say that one should [make birkat ha-gomel] only for these four. It is best to make the blessing [for other dangers] without mention of God's Name and His royalty."
The Mishna Berura explains these halakhot based on the principle, "In the laws of berakhot, one is lenient in situations of doubt." Because of a dispute between the authorities, there is doubt about whether one is obligated to make the berakha when ten people are not present, or for a salvation that is not one of the four special cases; hence, in these cases, one does not mention God's name and His royalty in the berakha. In effect, he says a non-berakha. We offered an alternate explanation, namely, that one is able to fulfill a pronouncement of thanks without the essential elements of a formal berakha. Without ten people and outside the four special cases of salvation mentioned in Tehillim 107, one is not required to make a berakha but does make a pronouncement of thanks.
HEARING THE BERAKHA
R. Akiva Eiger explains: "Here (birkat ha-gomel), the principle that 'hearing is like saying' does not apply, because he (the one who was healed) must say a different text, 'who did good things for ME.' However, through answering amen he thereby also praises and gives thanks, and fulfills his obligation." According to R. Akiva Eiger, the amen does not relate the berakha to the person, but is the pronouncement of thanks itself. Such an explanation is only possible if all that is required is a pronouncement of thanks and not a formal berakha.
Based on this, the Ritva's assertion - that in the gemara's anecdote Rav Yehuda was able to fulfill his obligation by answering amen even though the guests did not intend for him to - is understandable. The amen itself was his pronouncement. The Rosh's answer - that he had to answer amen even though they were not obligated in ha-gomel - also seems to be based on the same approach. It was not "hearing is like saying" that allowed him to fulfill his obligation, but the amen itself.
THE RA'AVAN: TWO TRACKS
When formulating the law of birkat ha-gomel, the Ra'avan adds a word: "Four are obligated to BLESS and give thanks." According to the Ra'avan there are two obligations, to make a blessing and to give thanks. When he mentions the need for ten he also adds a word: "He must GIVE THANKS before ten." It seems that one fulfills his obligation of a blessing when there are less than ten, but giving thanks requires a public pronouncement. The Ra'avan also mentions the anecdote about Rav Yehuda and says, "If others visit him and say, 'Blessed is He who saved you before us,' and he answered 'amen,' he fulfills giving thanks." It seems that through his amen he fulfills the requirement of giving thanks, but not that of making a blessing. His friends are not obligated in a blessing, and he can, through his amen, only fulfill the obligation of giving thanks.
(Daf Kesher #85, vol. 1, pp. 345-348.)