Do Soldiers Bentch Gomel?

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by R. Gil Student

I. When to Recite Gomel

One of the thankful and praiseful blessings we recite is Gomel, in which we thank God in public for preserving us in a dangerous situation. A soldier engaged in combat certainly qualifies as emerging from danger. If he returns home for a few days during the war for a brief rest, does he recite the blessing on returning home even if he knows he will return to the battlefield? This is all subject to contemporary debate.

The Gemara (Berakhos 54b) lists four types of people who recite the Gomel blessing: 1) someone who travels by sea, 2) someone who travels in the desert, 3) someone who was healed from an illness, and 4) someone who was released from prison. There are three main debates about this blessing about which Ashkenazim and Sephardim generally disagree. The first disagreement is about the scope of the blessing. Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel) says that anyone who survives a dangerous experience outside the four case listed above should, at most, say the blessing without God’s name (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 219:9). This is the Sephardic practice. Rav Yisrael Kagan (20th cen., Poland) says that Ashkenazic practice is to recite the full Gomel blessing on surviving any life-threatening experience (Mishnah Berurah 219:32).

The second disagreement is that Rav Karo says that Jews from France and Germany (i.e. Ashkenazim) do not recite the Gomel blessing when traveling from one city to another. In other words, Ashkenazim restrict category 3 to strictly desert travel. In contrast, Jews from Spain (i.e. Sephardim) recite the blessing on intercity travel because at the time it was very dangerous (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 219:7). The third disagreement is that Rav Karo says that anyone who is so sick that he needs to lie down in bed (some add: for three days) recites Gomel, even if his life was never in danger (ibid., 8). In contrast, Rav Moshe Isserles (16th cen., Poland) says that the blessing is only recited after recovery from a deadly illness (ad loc.). In other words, Sephardim who follow Rav Karo do not require deadly danger for the Gomel blessing while Ashkenazim who follow Rav Isserles do.

II. Returning Home From War

Does a soldier recite the Gomel blessing on returning home from war? According to Ashkenazic practice, if the soldier experienced combat then he survived a life-threatening situation and should recite the blessing. However, according to Sephardic practice, the combat does not fall into any of the four specific situations and therefore the soldier should only recite the blessing without God’s name. Rav Chaim David Halevi, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv in the late twentieth century, points out that a soldier certainly travels from city to city. Therefore, by traditional Sephardic practice, he should recite the Gomel blessing over the dangerous intercity travel. However, since intercity travel is different than it was in pre-Modern times, it is not clear whether anyone should recite a blessing on intercity travel. It is best that a Sephardic soldier recite the Gomel blessing having in mind both the intercity travel and the combat, so that there are two arguments to permit the full blessing (Mekor Chaim, vol. 2 94:3,11).

What if the soldier is merely on leave and will return to the battlefield? Does he recite the Gomel each time he returns home or only after his war service is complete? Rav Nachum Rabinovitch (21st cen., Israel) points out that Rambam writes that the Gomel blessing is recited by someone who travels by sea when he alights and someone which travels in the desert when he reaches a settlement (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Berakhos 10:8). Rambam sees the blessing as appropriate only when the experience is completely over. Rav Rabinovitch also quotes Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (19th cen., Russia) who says that someone who is released from jail but is on bail does not recite the Gomel blessing because he is not yet fully free (Arukh Ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim 219:5). It would appear from this that a soldier on leave who will return to battle should not recite the Gomel blessing.

However, Rav Rabinovitch quotes Rav Chizkiyahu Medini (19th cen., Crimea) who notes the practice of charity collectors from Israel who would recite the Gomel blessing each time they arrived in a new country by boat (Sdei Chemed, Asifas Dinim, Ma’arekhes Berakhos 2:11). Even though these emissaries would travel from place to place and then return to Israel, they would recite the blessing at each stop. Rav Medini argues that because each stop is intended as a destination, it merits a blessing even if they are additional destinations. If so, Rav Rabinovitch argues, a rest at home from battle is also an intended destination and merits a Gomel blessing. According to this, a soldier should recite Gomel every time her returns home on leave from battle. However, Rav Rabinovitch points out that contemporary practice is not to recite the blessing and that should be followed, particularly when dealing with a rabbinic blessing (Melumedei Milchamah, no. 33). Rav Simcha Rabinowitz (cont., Israel) follows Rav Rabinovitch’s logic without his deferral to common practice (Piskei Teshuvos 219:7 n. 32).

Similarly, Rav Eliezer Melamed (cont., Israel) seems to say that a soldier who returns home from a specific mission should recite Gomel even if after his leave he will continue to another dangerous mission (Peninei Halakhah, Berakhos 16:10). The Dirshu Mishnah Berurah (219:1 n. 1) quotes Rav Shmuel Wosner (21st cen., Israel) as ruling similarly (Shevet Ha-Levi, vol. 9, no. 45). Rav Shlomo Aviner (cont., Israel) quotes Rav Ovadiah Yosef (21st cen., Israel) as saying that a soldier should recite Gomel every time he returns home on leave but Rav Aviner says that Ashkenazim should only recite Gomel at the end of one’s service (Rav Aviner’s edition of Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, 61:1, vol. 2, p. 257).

I asked on social media what people are seeing in shuls in Israel when soldiers return on leave from the war in Gaza. The response is mixed: some soldiers recite Gomel each time they return home on leave and some wait until the end of their service.

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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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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