The criteria of ‘Birkat HaGomel’ were formulated in accordance with the reality in the past, in which every illness could have deteriorated to death, and every journey was life threatening * The rabbinic decree was to recite the Gomel after leaving a dangerous situation, and therefore today one should recite the blessing only in situations of exceptional risk * Even for those who go according to the Shulchan Aruch, the bracha should not be recited over ordinary patients who lie in bed because of their illness * Also on inter-city rides the blessing should not be recited, since the chance of road accidents does not make it a real danger * Regarding airplane travel, the poskim disagree, but for those used to flying – it is correct for them not to recite the blessing
Birkat HaGomel for Sephardi Minhag (custom)
Q: I practice Sephardic minhagim, and according to our custom, every patient – even a patient with a mild flu who has to lie down one day in bed – should recite the ‘HaGomel’ blessing after he has been cured, as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 219:8), that anyone who is forced to lie down on his bed due to his illness, when he recovers and gets up from his bed, recites the ‘Gomel’. According to the Rema, the ‘Gomel’ is recited only after a certain life-threatening illness, for which Shabbat is profaned.
Similarly, anyone who travels on a road that takes more than seventy-two minutes should recite the ‘Gomel’ blessing, as is explained in the Shulchan Aruch (219:7), but according to the Ashkenazic custom one does not recite the ‘Gomel’ when travelling from city to city, “for only those who travel in deserts where there are wild animals or thieves is obligated to recite the ‘Gomel’. But according to Sephardi minhag it is customary to recite the blessing, because all roads are presumed to be dangerous. However, if the travel is less than a parsah, one does not recite the blessing.” And since a parsah is approximately 72 minutes, according to the Sephardi minhag, the ‘Gomel’ blessing should be recited over any travel that takes 72 minutes.
However in practice, I have not encountered a situation in which a person who was ill for one day recites the ‘Gomel’, and even a person with the flu, I do not recall him reciting the blessing of “HaGomel”. As for the traveler on urban roads, where Rav Ovadiah Yosef ruled that if during the day a person traveled for seventy-two minutes, he should recite the ‘Gomel’, there is no one who does so in practice, since many people travel in this fashion to their work every day and do not recite the ‘Gomel’ every day. The question is: Does the minhag of the Sephardim who do not recite “HaGomel” have what to rely on?
A: Let us begin with the law concerning an ill person, and from there we will continue with the law of the traveler and the other laws of the “Gomel” blessing.
What Ill Person Should Bless
In practice, all Sephardim and Ashkenazim should recite “HaGomel” only after an illness that is in danger of justifying desecration of the Sabbath in order to heal the patient. And even though the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch states that every patient who is cured should recite “HaGomel”, this is because in the past, every person who fell ill was considered to be in a somewhat dangerous situation, because many times they did not know whether it was the flu, or heart disease, if the patient had angina, or was a diabetic patient who was in a dangerous condition. And as we sometimes find in stories from the past, people who functioned as perfectly healthy fell ill suddenly, and died the following day. Therefore, many of the Rishonim, led by Maimonides, Nachmanides and the Rashba, have instructed that anyone who fell ill – even if they thought that there was no danger in his illness – should recite the ‘Gomel’ when he recovers, for perhaps his illness was dangerous, as is brought down in the Beit Yosef from the words of the Yerushalmi: “All the roads are presumed to be dangerous…every illness is presumed to be dangerous” (Berachot 4:4). As the Ramban wrote, and in his language, quoted in the Shulchan Aruch:” In every sickness one must bless, even if he is not dangerously ill … rather, anyone who had to lie down on his bed and recovered, since he is similar to one who has been sent to the gallows to be judged”(219:8), and a person sent to the gallows naturally enters danger.” It is also explained from what was copied in the Beit Yosef the words of the Rashba in his teshuva (1: 82): “There is no difference between having a permanent ailment coming occasionally or regularly, and on the contrary, the more regular it is, the stronger it is. And even though miracles have been performed for him many times and he has been saved from them, from the heavens they have pitied him, and miracles do not occur at all times (Megillah 7b).” And thus ruled the Shulchan Aruch. We see that according to all opinions ‘Gomel’ was recited only because of the danger of an illness, but according to the Shulchan Aruch every illness to a certain extent is dangerous, whereas the Rosh and the Rama ruled that only a disease whose danger was known and acknowledged should be blessed upon.
It should be added that in recent generations we have become more spoiled, and many people lie on their beds because of diseases that in the past were considered only as ailments that do not require lying down. And perhaps this is why the Ben Ish Chai ruled that only someone who had been lying down for three days should recite “HaGomel”. However, many disagreed with him and wrote that even a patient who lied in bed less than three days should bless according to the customs of the Sephardim. However, it seems clear that in the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch, in any case, a blessing should not be recited over an illness that was clearly not dangerous.
Only an Ill Person who was in Danger Blesses
Therefore, after medical science has developed, and it is now possible to diagnose a patient’s condition and determine whether there is a danger of his illness, the members of all communities, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, should be instructed to recite the blessing only after an illness that had a certain danger. And the sign is that this is a disease that is permitted to violate the Sabbath in order to save the patient. True, sometimes we desecrate the Sabbath and drive a sick person to the hospital out of doubt, and in the end it turns out that the patient was not in danger, and obviously it is clear that he does not bless “HaGomel”; but after an illness in which the patient was in mortal danger to the point where the Sabbath should be desecrated for him, the ‘Gomel’ blessing should be recited.
Passengers on the Road are not in Danger
The same applies to travelers: All poskim agree that the blessing is for the saving from danger; rather, they disagreed about whether the blessing should be recited on the relatively distant danger of walking from city to city. Nevertheless, in the past there was a far greater danger than the danger of traveling on the roads in our time, for in the past when people walked or rode on animals, someone who damaged his leg or was injured by a fall might find it difficult to complete his trip and die of thirst, or an untreated infection. The danger of the robbers was great, too, and sometimes the robbers murdered the property owners or sold them as slaves. Therefore, it is said in the Yerushalmi: “All roads are presumed to be dangerous” (Brachot 4: 4). This was one of the reasons why people rarely traveled, and most people throughout their lifetimes did not leave their area of residence, and consequently did not have to recite “HaGomel” as a traveler. According to this, the machmirim (stringent poskim) have ruled to bless on every travel on inter-urban roads.
However, today the roads are safe. This is one of the great achievements of the modern era that transportation and the moving of goods have been made easy and safe, and thus reduced the cost of food and clothing and other products, and it becomes more profitable to invest in further technological developments that can also be transported and marketed globally.
The Danger of Accidents is not considered to be a Danger to Life
There are those who wish to argue that today as well, because there are road accidents, the roads are very dangerous. However, although every accident is extremely painful, statistically speaking, this is a very low risk, which has been decreasing over the years. It seems that if we consider the time in minutes people go down stairs compared to the time they spend on the road, we will find that no less people are killed and injured on stairs, and no one would think of reciting the “Gomel” blessing after going down stairs. Similarly, if we consider the people who drown in the sea, or die because of slipping in a bath, we find that the danger of the roads is much smaller. Obviously, my words do not detract from the importance of education for road safety, because by virtue of this education the danger of accidents is indeed significantly reduced.
In conclusion, according to all minhagim, “HaGomel” should not be recited for trips between cities in progressive countries.
The Blessing of “HaGomel” is intended for Special Cases
It should be added that the “HaGomel” blessing is intended for special cases and not as a routine blessing. Proof for this is that some say that anyone who needed to recite “HaGomel” in the times of the Temple would have had to sacrifice a korban todah (thanksgiving offering). This is what the Rosh, Or Zaru’a, and S’mag wrote. And the ‘Chayei Adam’ went as far as writing the order of reciting the korban todah sacrifice for the four required to give thanks, and wrote that those who recite the Gomel should contribute tzedakah to those who study Torah equal to the value of sacrifice, because it is inconceivable that in the wake of the destruction of the Temple, the sinners should be rewarded. Nevertheless, according to many poskim, it was a mitzvah and not an obligation to bring a korban todah for those who needed to recite “HaGomel” (Rashi, Leviticus 7:12). In any case, one can understand that this is not a blessing that a person blesses frequently. (It should be noted that the main halachic rulings on “Ha-Gomel” blessing after a trip were written about 70 years ago by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and Nitivei Am).
Should a Blessing be recited after a Flight
In recent generations a question has arose concerning those who fly in airplanes. Some poskim have ruled that they do not have to recite the blessing because air flight is not more dangerous than traveling in a car (Chelkat Yaacov, Be’ztel HaChochma; in the name of the Ga’on of Trzebinia, and the Rebbe of Belz. This is also the opinion of Rabbi Goren).
On the other hand, many poskim ordered to recite “HaGomel” after a flight. Rabbi Feinstein clarified that the blessing of “HaGomel” was based on the departure of man from the regular order to a dangerous situation, such as the seafarers, for example, that it is not natural for a person not to drown in the sea, and after having crossed the sea safely thanks to having been on a boat – when one arrives at his destination, he should recite “HaGomel”. Despite the fact that there are almost no disasters today with regards to ships, since a person leaves his home to the danger of being at sea, and is saved by virtue of being on a ship, he blesses. All the more so in regards to flying on an airplane, which is naturally more dangerous than sailing on a ship, for it is not natural for a person to remain in the air and not fall, and since there is a rescue from danger, “HaGomel” should be recited after the flight. (Thus is written in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Halichot Shlomo, and was stated in the name of Chazon Ish). However, some of the poskim wrote that only after a flight of at least seventy-two minutes should one recite the blessing (Tzitz Eliezer 11:13, and Yichivei Daat). In practice, it seems that it is correct for anyone who is accustomed to flying not to bless, since the “HaGomel” blessing was based on an exceptional situation. And even for those who are not used to flying – it is preferable not to bless, since today flights have become natural and routine for people, and are not more dangerous than car trips. If someone who is not accustomed to flying wants to recite the blessing, he can rely on those poskim who believe that one should recite a blessing, because for him a flight is a special event involving a certain fear (for the blessing “HaGomel” is not only dependent on danger, but also a traumatic event such as imprisonment, in which there is no danger).
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated form Hebrew.