Surviving Self-Endangerment

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by R. Gil Student

Life consists of risk-taking in big and small ways. Those who are completely risk-averse never leave their homes out of fear. We consciously rate the risks involved in various activities and judge whether we want to accept those risks. Some people are even willing to take risks that are universally recognized as serious life threats, with substantial possibility of death. At times, doing so is even a mitzvah. Should we thank God if we survive those risks?

The Gemara (Berakhos 54b) lists four groups of people who recite the Gomel blessing thanking God for saving them. Sephardim recite the blessing after any illness for which they are bed-ridden (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 219:8); Ashkenazim only after an illness that is so serious we would violate Shabbos to treat it (Mishnah Berurah, ad loc. 48). Do we say the blessing if we emerge from a life-threat we willingly accepted? After someone engages in a foolhardy extreme sport, should he bentch Gomel?

In his Machazik Berakhah (219:1), Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida) quotes a debate on this subject. His father, Rav Yosef Azulai, ruled that the blessing was only enacted for someone who survived an external life threat, not something willingly undertaken. However, Rav Eliezer Nachum (author of Chazon Nachum) ruled that the blessing applies to anyone who survives. This debate has many practical implications. Rav Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halakhah, Berakhos, Harchavos 16:4) lists three:

  1. Elective Surgery – Whenever anyone is placed under full anesthesia, he undergoes a life risk. Does someone who chooses to undergo surgery bentch Gomel when and if he recovers? Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 10:25:23) rules that someone who donates a kidney does not bentch Gomel on his recovery because he chose to enter this dangerous situation. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 4:14) follows the view that you should recite a blessing on surviving a willingly undertaken danger and therefore rules that a kidney donor should bentch Gomel after recovery.
  2. Suicide Attempt – Someone who is rescued from a suicide attempt has been saved from a life-threatening situation. However, he was the threat! Does he still bentch Gomel? Rav Chaim Palaggi (Responsa Lev Chaim 3:53) rules that he should recite the blessing because he was saved, as does Rav Azriel Hildesheimer (Responsa Rav Azriel, vol. 1 no. 29). However, Rav Ovadiah Yosef (ibid.) disagrees. Even though he generally rules that you should bentch Gomel when saved from self-imposed danger, he considers a suicide attempt different. Attempting suicide is a sin. How can someone recite a blessing generated by the sin?
  3. Release From Prison – Some people who are convicted of a crime can avoid prison by paying a fine or ransom. If they choose not to pay and instead suffer the prison sentence, do the bentch Gomel on release? The Ri Mi-Gash (no. 90) rules that he should recite the blessing. However, while other authorities quote the Ri Mi-Gash as ruling that way, the Sha’arei Teshuvah (219:2) quotes him as concluding that one should recite the blessing without God’s name. Rav Melamed does not quote this but R. Simcha Rabinowitz (Piskei Teshuvos, vol. 2 219:11) sees this Sha’arei Teshuvah as a companion to the general view (of Rav Yosef Azulai) that someone who puts himself in danger should not bentch Gomel if he is saved.
  4. Additionally, Rav Chaim Elazar Shapira (Minchas Elazar 4:47) discusses whether you may place yourself in life-threatening danger in order to learn Torah or earn money. He concludes that it is forbidden and that others may not quote a Torah insight in the name of someone who endangers his own life in order to learn Torah (based on Bava Kamma 61a). However, if someone did place his life in danger for pure purposes in order to learn Torah and was saved, he may bentch Gomel, but not someone who undertook the danger for monetary profit. When it comes to profit, no ones intention is ever completely pure.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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