Hagomel after Losing the Way

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: My son and I went hiking in a quite isolated area (no cell phone service) and took a wrong turn and walked a couple hours without seeing signs of civilization. We were almost out of water and weak before finding someone who directed us to safety. How should we thank Hashem for getting us through the danger?

Answer: There are four main possible steps to thank Hashem for being saved from danger. 1) Reciting Birkat Hagomel in front of a minyan (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 219:1-3). 2) Making a seudat hodaya (thanksgiving meal to thank Hashem) (see Living the Halachic Process VI, G-8.) 3) Giving tzedaka (Mishna Berura 218:32). 4) Reciting the beracha of “she’asa li nes bamakon hazeh” when one comes to the place of his miraculous salvation (Shulchan Aruch, OC 218:4). 

We will deal first with the easier questions. The Shulchan Aruch does not mention seudot hodaya, and it apparently is never an obligation. On the other hand, a few gemarot relate to such a practice, and it can be very positive (see Living the Halahic Process ibid.) and is essentially without “risk.” So, if you perceive you were in real danger, a seudat hodaya is a wonderful albeit optional expression of gratitude. The same is true of giving tzedaka.

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 218:9) cites two opinions whether the beracha upon coming to the place of his miracle is only for miracles that seem to defy nature or even for more commonplace salvations. He recommends making the beracha without Hashem’s Name. From your description, it sounds unlikely that the prospects for survival were low enough to qualify the salvation as a miracle on any level. Therefore, if you ever make it back to that place, no beracha seems warranted, certainly not with Hashem’s Name.

Is Hagomel called for? The gemara (Berachot 54b) prescribes reciting Birkat Hagomel for people who emerged safely from the following predicaments, which are referred to in Tehillim 107’s description of thanking Hashem: traveling by sea and through a midbar, disease, and prison. The Shulchan Aruch (219:9) brings two opinions as to whether the beracha is prescribed for any danger (e.g., a dangerous animal attacked him, a wall collapsed on him). While he recommends making the beracha without Hashem’s Name in such cases, the accepted minhag, based on multiple Acharonim, is to make the regular beracha for extrication from any danger (Mishna Berura ad loc. 32; Igrot Moshe, OC II;59). However, as above, it is difficult to ascertain whether the level and perhaps type of danger you were in qualifies as warranting a beracha that is not found in the “official list.” 

Might this case fit into the category of those who travel in a midbar? The Rambam (Berachot 10:8) lists, as one of the four situations for Hagomel, walking on roads outside the city (without mentioning desert). The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 7) cites the Sephardi minhag to recite Hagomel after traveling outside the city a parsa (app., 4 kilometers; Yabia Omer I, OC 13 says that it goes by the time it takes to walk a parsa = 72 minutes). (This is the criterion for tefillat haderech – ibid. 110:7). This is because of a general assumption of danger in inter-city roads. The Ashkenazi minhag is to make Hagomel only after a “midbar,” where there are bandits and wild animals, and not for uneventful land travel (regarding air, see Igrot Moshe ibid.). 

The Mishna Berura (219:31) says that if a traveler on a normal road is attacked by robbers, all agree he recites Hagomel. The combination of factors (road plus danger) justifies the beracha (see Sha’ar Hatziyun ad loc. and Igrot Moshe ibid.), making it equivalent to a desert, and that applies to your case – lost with little water on path. Furthermore, walking lost in an isolated area is walking in a midbar (which includes wilderness) itself, one of the four definite Hagomel cases. While poskim mention animals and bandits, that is in addition to what the p’sukim (Tehillim 107:4-7) discuss – being lost in a wilderness with limited food and drink (see Ish Matzliach, II, OC 11; Imrei Shefer 29).

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.

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