A Question of Jewish Law

July 22, 2010

A Precarious Life

Filed under: Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 10:31 am

Question: Is a person who has flown on an airplane obligated to recite the Hagomel blessing?

Answer: The Hagomel is a blessing recited to thank God for redemption from danger. The Talmud [Brachot 54b] says: Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Four are obligated to give thanks, one who has gone to sea, one who has travelled trough the desert, one who was ill and has recovered and one who has been imprisoned and released.

All four of these circumstances can be derived from the verses of Psalm 107: Praise the Lord for He is good … Some lost their way in the wilderness … Others go down to the sea in ships … in their adversity they cried to the Lord, and He saved them from their troubles. Based on this, Maimonides, [ MT Brachot, 10:8] rules that people who have been on the road must recite the Hagomel blessing once they have reached civilisation.

In the early days of air travel there was some debate amongst the Rabbis as to whether travel through the air counted as being ‘on the road’. Now it is universally accepted that air travel is also included in this obligation.

A more interesting question is, given current safety statistics and our attitude to flying, whether air travel is dangerous enough to justify reciting a blessing. This forces us to consider what this blessing is really about.

Menachem HaMeiri [Catalonia, 13 Cent.] writes “There are those who say that the Hagomel is only required of one who was travelling through the desert and got lost, or went to sea and was caught up in a storm, or who was dangerously ill – for in all these cases there was a miracle. If, however, a person was in no real danger there is no obligation to say the blessing. Although the verses [of Psalm 107] support this commentary – I do not agree with it. For all roads are dangerous, and all travel has an element of risk.”

Behind this comment lies a different understand of Hagomel. It is not a blessing about being saved from danger, but rather, it is a blessing about the precariousness of life. The blessing reminds us of the simple fact that we are frequently at risk and that all life is uncertain. Hanging between heaven and earth in a plane, being hundreds of miles out at sea or lying under the surgeon’s scalpel are by definition dangerous – no matter how used to these things we have become. It is at moments such as these that we are expected to thank God for looking after us, and not only at those times when things have gone wrong.

Finally, we must consider whether all journeys require a blessing. The Talmud [Brachot 30a] tells us that tefilat haderech, (traveller’s prayer) is only recited if one is going a distance of at least one Parsa. This is approximately 4 kilometres. On foot that would take 1.2 hours. Following this reasoning, the obligation to recite Hagomel applies only if one has gone on a journey of at least an hour and 12 minutes.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on R. Ovadia Yossef, Yachve Da’at,  2, 26.

This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Germany (The Rhineland).

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  1. Crossing the road is short but can be dangerous, but a ramble (non-circular) is long although mainly not on made up road. Does it count as ‘desert’?

    Comment by Jeff Lesser — July 22, 2010 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

    • We say the Hagomel on the 4 occasions mentioned in the main article. Rambam already extended the ‘journey in the dessert’ to any out-of-town journey. As I explained, only lengthy journeys qualify.

      Your question as to why we don’t say Hagomel at other times we are in danger, such as crossing a busy road, touches on a more basic issue. There are many times one would perhaps spontaneously recite blessings. Why do we wait for specific times and circumstances?

      Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel addressed this question in his book ‘Man’s Quest for God’. There he discusses the question as to why pray at set times, rather than when we feel like it.

      He writes:

      The time to pray is all the time. There is always an opportunity to disclose the holy, but when we fail to seize it, there are definite moments in the liturgical order of the day, there are words in the liturgical order of our speech to remind us.

      In the same way – there may be moments when we feel the precarious nature of existence. That is not what the blessing is for. The liturgy – as set prayer – is for the moments when we take life for granted. It reminds us that life is precarious when don’t necessarily feel it is so. Such activity is limited to certainly times and places because otherwise we wouldn’t have a life. It is all a matter of balance.

      Comment by chaimweiner — July 26, 2010 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

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