About two months ago, my wife, my daughter and I were sideswiped by another car on the Saw Mill River Parkway. Thank God, no one was hurt, but our car was totaled. Needless to say, we were pretty shaken up by the experience.
The next day, before I even called our insurance company to report a claim, I attended shul with my wife—and together we recited Birkat haGomel, in gratitude for having survived the car crash without being injured.
Although I have heard the blessing recited at shul by others, and even have recited it myself once or twice, I admit that I knew very little about this prayer before the accident occurred. So after my harrowing experience, I did a little research about this interesting blessing—when it is said, its origins, and why it has become a part of our liturgy.
During the era of the First Temple and Second Temple, an individual who survived a potentially life-threatening situation brought a korban todah, a thanksgiving offering, to express his gratitude to Hashem. Since the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed and we can no longer bring sacrifices to the altar today, we substitute a public declaration of gratitude to Hashem in place of an offering. Someone who survives a dangerous experience (as defined by the Gemara) is required to recite the Birkat haGomel prayer.
What constitutes a life-threatening experience that would require one to recite the blessing? The Gemara (Berachot 54b) identifies four people who are obligated to recite Birkat haGomel:
1) Someone who was freed from jail.
2) Someone who was sick and was healed.
3) Someone who traveled at sea.
4) Someone who traveled through the desert.
Over the years, this prayer has expanded to include many other other life-and-death situations, such as surviving a car accident. Our sages have actually encouraged us to broaden the categories of people who can recite the blessing—up to a point, though.
With respect to someone who is sick, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 219:8) suggests that the prayer is appropriate for anyone who is confined to bed for three days. The Rama says it should be recited only after an illness where there appears to be a threat to our life, parallel to the parameters used for violating Shabbat. Tosafot did not want to make this blessing too common, and emphasized the fact that it is not designed for people who might simply have a headache or stomach ache. It’s specifically geared for those rare instances when our lives are placed in danger … those specific events that disturb us, and make us deeply grateful that we have survived.
There seems to be mixed feelings about reciting the prayer after crossing an ocean or other body of water. Many people still recite the blessing after traveling to Israel and back, for example. Others skip saying the blessing in such cases, given how common international travel is today (at least in pre-pandemic times … and hopefully once again soon).
Birkat haGomel should be recited in the presence of a minyan of 10 adult males, within three days of the event that triggers the blessing. Preferably it should be recited in front of a Torah scroll, and in fact, it is customary for males to get an aliyah before they recite the blessing (although it is not required). Women are also obligated to recite the prayer.
Fortunately, in our community, it’s extremely rare that this prayer is recited by anyone being released from prison. Even if someone completes a jail sentence, the blessing is only recited if there was a real danger to a person’s life while being incarcerated. Centuries ago, it was more common for Jews to be imprisoned for various crimes they may or may not have committed—and their lives were certainly placed in jeopardy while they were in jail.
Although not specifically mentioned by the Gemara, it is customary for women to recite Birkat haGomel after childbirth. Historically, it was common for a Maariv minyan to be arranged at the home of the woman who gave birth so she could say the blessing; today, women more often attend shul after childbirth and recite the blessing there.
As to the wording of the blessing, which describes Hashem as rewarding those undeserving with goodness, the sentence is a throwback to Yaakov’s prayer for safety while being pursued by Eisav, when he humbly asks Hashem, “I am unworthy of all the kindness You have steadfastly shown to Your servant.” Like Yaakov, those who recite Birkat haGomel should approach the recitation of this blessing with a sense of reverence and humility after having survived a dangerous ordeal.
It is somewhat odd that we talk about being unworthy at a time when we simply are attempting to be grateful. Couldn’t the blessing have skipped the phrase “hagomel lachayavim tovot” (who rewards the undeserving with goodness) and simply said, “shegemalani kol tov” (who has rewarded me with goodness)? Why does the blessing include both phrases?
Perhaps if we feel that we deserve something or are entitled to something, we are less likely to be grateful to God. It is when we feel unworthy that we tend to be more appreciative of life’s blessings.
It’s also unusual for a blessing that we recite to have a full sentence that is said in response, but that is exactly the format used for Birkat haGomel. Author Ellen Frankel suggests that the prayer is meant to counter any feelings of unworthiness on the part of a person who is reciting the blessing that still might remain afterwards. Oftentimes survivors feel guilty about making it through a situation that others have not—in fact there is a medical term called “survivor’s guilt” that describes this phenomenon. By saying the blessing in front of others in the community, the survivor actually hears his neighbors and friends affirm the blessing, which also helps to counteract any guilt the survivor might have.
Most of all, the blessing is a show of gratitude—and the recognition that in many cases there is power in our prayers. Think of it as the culmination of the mi shebeirach prayer for healing the sick. Sometimes we say this prayer for weeks or months while a person is hospitalized with a serious illness. How appropriate it is to mark an individual’s recovery from such an illness with another public blessing, one that expresses gratitude to Hashem for the miracle of life and good health.
May we never have a situation where we need to recite this prayer, while at the same time understand that if we are unfortunately faced with such an occurrence, we have the appropriate blessing to acknowledge our gratitude.