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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July 15, 2010

A One Handed Blessing

Filed under: Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 10:34 am

Question: What blessing does a person whose hand is in a cast, or who only has one hand, recite when washing before a meal?

Answer: At first sight it is tempting to compare this to a rule that was formulated in the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 120:3) which deals with the requirement to immerse utensils before using them for the first time. The Shulchan Aruch states that if one is immersing only one item, one should recite the blessing in the singular: al tevilat klee.  If there are two or more items to be immersed, the blessing is recited in the plural: al tevilat keilim . Using this logic, one might think that a person who is only washing one hand should recite the blessing al netilat yad in the singular,  instead of the normal blessing in the plural: al netilat yadayim.

This is not the case. The rule is that a person should use the normal formula of the blessing –  al netilat yadayim – whether they have one hand or two. The same rule applies when donning tefillin in the morning. The word tefillin is plural – referring to both the box that goes on the arm and the one on the head. The singular form of the word is tefilla. If a person dons only one part of the tefillin – either on the arm or the head – we still use the blessing להניח טפילין in the plural. This is because we always use the standard formula of a blessing, even in those cases where there isn’t a perfect match between the blessing and reality.

Behind this rule lies an important distinction between two different types of religious activity – prayer and liturgy. Prayer is a personal outpouring of the heart directed towards God. Prayer is usually spontaneous and personal. What we recite in the synagogue isn’t prayer – it is liturgy. Liturgy is a formalised service, like the service of God in the temple. Liturgy has fixed words – and there are always rules that guide the right way and the right time to recite it. Liturgies are passed down from generation to generation. Although we moderns have an instinctive attraction to prayer, there is a special magic to liturgy, which comes from familiarity and recognition. If you have ever been moved by the intensity of the Kol Nidrei service – then you have experienced the power that liturgy can hold over us.

Although there is room for personal prayer in the Jewish tradition, our regular prayers and blessings are liturgies. This can be best summed up by the statement of the Talmud: R. Yossi says: Anyone who changes the formulas that were established by the Rabbis has not fulfilled their obligation. [BT Brachot: 40b] Getting back to our original question – the fixed formula of the blessing is al netilat yadayim – and we recite this blessing whether we have washed one hand or two.

We still need to ask, why does the formula of the blessing change when immersing vessels?  Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef  explains that it is not unusual to immerse only one pot or plate and therefore, the Rabbis established a standard blessing for this occurrence. Since we sometimes immerse one vessel and sometimes immerse many – there is a standard blessing for one and a standard blessing for many. It is extremely rare for a person to have only one hand and therefore there is no fixed blessing for this case. The standard form of the blessing is in the plural – and we use it whether we are washing one hand or two.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner


Based on R. Ovadia Yossef, Yachve Da’at,  2, 19.

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

For Details: CLICK HERE or jewishjourneys@supanet.com .

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