Rabbi Zvi Alon
Former Rosh Kollel in Montevideo
The Gemara (BT Brachot 54b) is the source for birkat hagomel (the thanksgiving blessing):
“Four [groups] must give thanks – seafarers, travelers in the wilderness, one who was ill and then was cured, and one who was imprisoned in jail and came out.”
Before we address our specific topic, I would like to discuss several common mistakes.
When should birkat hagomel be recited?
Ideally, birkat hagomel should be recited within three days of the “event” about which the person wishes to give thanks. Often, people think that it is preferable to wait until kriat haTorah and only then to recite the brachah. However, if more than three days will have elapsed, the poskim concur that the brachah should be recited even without kriat haTorah. After all, reciting birkat hagomel during kriat haTorah is the accepted practice, but it is not me’akev (binding). Here are two examples:
- A sick person, lo aleinu, who was cured on Sunday but was still too weak to go to shul on Monday, should not wait to recitebirkat hagomel on Thursday. Rather, he should assemble a minyan and recite the brachah in their presence at his convenience.
- Ideally, one who lands [we will discuss flying later in this article] on Monday morning but is unable to make it to shul that morning should recite the brachah by Wednesday and not wait until Thursday. (According to most opinions, b’di’avad, he can also recite the brachah afterwards.)
How should birkat hagomel be recited?
Birkat hagomelshould be recited in the presence of ten men. Ideally, two of them should be talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), but this is not me’akev.
We can now address our main topic.
Does flying on an airplane meet the criteria of the four who “must give thanks”?
In order to answer this question, we must determine the purpose of birkat hagomel. Is one giving thanks that the potentialsakanah (danger) did not occur, and if so, what is the definition of “sakanah”? Or, is one giving thanks for arriving at one’s destination?
In reference to travelers, the Rambam states:
“Road travelers, upon arrival at their place of residence, must give thanks.”
A study of Tehillim 107 – the Gemara’s source – reveals that on one hand, the p’sukim imply that one should give thanks for being saved from danger:
“They strayed in the wilderness, in the desolation of the road… Hungry as well as thirsty… They rise heavenward, they descend to the depths.” (Tehillim 107:4-5, 26)
According to these p’sukim, one need only recite the brachah if one was saved from danger. Yet, on the other hand:
“And He guided them to the region of their desire.” (Tehillim 107:30)
Thus, one must give thanks over the potential danger inherent in travel and for reaching one’s destination. In this regard, there is no difference between a “traveler in the wilderness” and one flying on an airplane.
The Meiri cites the opinion that the brachah is only recited in a dangerous situation but then rejects this view:
“And even though a simple understanding of the text demonstrates this… I do not accept it. Rather, every road is considered to be dangerous.”
Similarly, the aforementioned Rambam seems to indicate that one gives thanks for reaching one’s destination.
In contrast, the Rogatchover wonders if one who flies in an airplane can, in fact, be compared to a road traveler, because the Mishnah requires road travelers to recite the brachah. Interestingly, the Rogatchover quotes the Gemara in Masechet Chulin, which discusses the mitzvah of shiluach hakan (sending away the mother bird). The Gemara asks if one who finds a nest at sea must do shiluach hakan, and the Gemara responds:
“He is obligated because it says, ‘He Who made a way (derech) in the sea.’ (Yeshaya 43:16)”
And, when discussing shiluach hakan, the Torah says:
“If a bird’s nest chances before you on the road (derech).” (Devarim 22:6)
The Gemara then asks if one must fulfill the mitzvah if the nest is found in the air, because it says:
“The way (derech) of an eagle in the heavens.” (Mishlei 30:19)
But the Gemara responds:
“The way of an eagle is called; an unspecified way is not called.”
In other words, the air cannot be referred to as a “derech”. Hence, the Rogatchover holds that tefillat haderech (the traveler’s prayer) should not be recited in an airplane, and, as a result, one should not recite birkat hagomel either.
However, Rav Feinstein explains that any place which is not considered a “normal” human thoroughfare is potentially dangerous and is deemed to be a sakanah. If a person does travel in such a location, he must recite birkat hagomel. The air, the sea and the wilderness all meet this criterion and therefore are considered as places where people do not “normally” travel.
Rav Ovadiah rejects the Rogatchover’s approach and even suggests that the Rogatchover was merely making a point rather than a specific halachic ruling. According to Rav Ovadiah, one must recite birkat hagomel for any flight longer than an hour and achomesh (literally, a fifth). [Rav Ovadiah’s ruling is based on the fact that the laws of birkat hagomel for travelers are derived from the laws of tefillat haderech. Tefillat haderech must be recited for a parsah (a certain distance) of travel, but this applies to the time involved rather than the distance itself.]
Rav Feinstein also rules that birkat hagomel should be recited on an airplane.
However, Rav Goren zt”l opines that one should not recite birkat hagomel during an airplane flight.
On a lighthearted note, we can say that “although there is no proof for the matter, there is an allusion to the matter,” as it says:
“Those who go down to the sea in ships… They rise heavenward, they descend to the depths.” (Tehillim 107:23, 26)
In conclusion, our teacher Rav Kook zt”l explains why birkat hagomel contains the phrase, “hagomel lichayavim tovot” (“He Who bestows good upon the guilty”). Why “the guilty”? We sometimes get caught up in our daily lives and forget to give thanks for every second and every breath we take. We tend to take everything for granted and act as if we are entitled to it all. However, lo aleinu, when we have been spared from danger and understand how grateful we must be to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, we finally realize that we must give thanks for each and every second and not just for the “miracles”. Thus, we are “guilty” that we did not think about thanking Hashem beforehand.
May we be privileged to remember to thank HaKadosh Baruch Hu for each and every thing, and:
“Therefore, the organs which You set within us and the spirit and the soul which You breathed into our nostrils… each and every one of them will thank… Your Name… forever.”