by R. Gil Student
Jonathan Pollard is now a completely free man, having finished last Friday his five years of parole following 30 years in jail after pleading guilty to spying on the United States. There are two possible responses to release after such a long captivity. One is to become bitter over the time lost, the life that could have been lived. The other is to be grateful for the end of the ordeal, the new beginning. I cannot fathom the depth of his experience but I hope he can find his way to seeing the opportunities in his future. Reportedly, he will be making aliyah and starting a life in the promised land.
On completion of his parole, Pollard faces an interesting halachic question: Should he bentch gomel, recite the traditional blessing thanking God for salvation? This is a response of hope, of seeing the end of the past and the beginning of the future. His ability to recite this blessing lies in the conditions of his parole. As always, the details make all the difference.
The Gemara (Berakhos 54b) says that four people need to bentch gomel: someone who travels by sea, journeys in the desert, becomes healed from illness or exits prison. These four categories are derived from Ps. 107.
Two general approaches emerge in the commentaries regarding this blessing. Ashkenazic authorities tend to see this blessing as reserved for those who emerge from life-threatening situations. For example, the Rosh (Berakhos 9:3) says that the custom in Germany and France is to refrain from reciting this blessing when traveling from city to city because there is no danger to life. The Ra’avad (quoted in Birkei Yosef, Shiyurei Berachah, Orach Chaim 219:1) rules that the blessing only applies to a life-threatening illness.
However, the Rosh notes, the Arukh implies that even someone whose headache goes away should recite this blessing. Similarly, in a responsum, the Ri Migash (no. 90) rules that someone who is released from debtors’ prison–i.e. who faced no threat to life–should recite the blessing. According to the Ri Migash, the blessing on release from prison is about regaining freedom, not salvation from death.
The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 219:8) rules that you recite this blessing after recovering from any serious illness, even if it was not life threatening. However, the Rema (ad loc.) says that the Ashkenazic practice is to only recite the blessing after a life threatening illness. Similarly, the Magen Avraham (ad loc., 1) writes that you only recite the blessing after exiting a life threatening imprisonment. The Birkei Yosef (ibid.) argues that release from any prison sentence merits recitation of the blessing, like the Ri Migash.
The Mishnah Berurah (219, Bi’ur Halakhah sv. chavush) explains that the Magen Avraham‘s view is based on a life threat. Regardless of the sentence, if the prisoner faced a life threat–such as being held in a highly dangerous prison–then he should recite the blessing. However, the Kaf Ha-Chaim (219:11) rules that even someone imprisoned in a comfortable prison for a monetary matter should recite the blessing. Following the Ri Migash, he explains that the blessing here refers to a lack of freedom. Once that freedom is regained, you should say the blessing.
The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (209:25) adds another consideration. On the one hand, he rules leniently that even someone released from prison on a monetary matter recites the blessing. However, he explains that this view–of Ri Migash–connects the blessing to renewed freedom. This only applies if he is truly free without any conditions. If, for example, he is subject to home arrest then he cannot recite the blessing because he is not truly free. Presumably, when those conditions end, then he recites the blessing because he is truly free.
Should Jonathan Pollard bentch gomel at the end of his parole? Among the conditions of his parole were that he had to obey a curfew, wear a GPS monitoring device, and required permission to leave Manhattan. He certainly could not travel to Israel. I once saw Pollard shopping in Flatbush and learned that he had to obtain special permission for that unusual shopping trip. In other words, his movement was severely restricted. Should he bentch gomel now, when these restrictions are lifted?
On the one hand, Pollard was never given a death sentence so a simple reading of the Magen Avraham would imply that he should not recite the blessing, both when he left prison and when the restrictions are lifted. However, the Mishnah Berurah adds that any threat to life while in prison would merit a blessing on release. If his prison stay was at any time life threatening, then he would recite the blessing. On his release, he became free from the position of possibly being in a life threatening prison situation. This does not apply to the lifting of parole restrictions.
Other authorities are more open to the blessing on regaining freedom. According to this approach, Pollard should have recited the blessing when he was released from prison. However, due to the conditions of his parole, Pollard was not truly free on his release. According to the Arukh Ha-Shulchan the parole restriction on his movement mean that Pollard will only be fully released from captivity when his parole concludes. If that is the case, presumably he should bentch gomel now, when he gains freedom of movement and the ability to fulfill the great mitzvah of moving to Israel. But I leave that to his rabbi to decide.