Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
A person who has been saved from a dangerous situation recites the "gomel" blessing, acknowledging that HaShem does good even to sinners (SA OC 219).
There are many unusual halakhic features of this blessing:
1. The gomel blessing should be said only in the presence of ten. Yet generally, the only blessings which require ten people are blessings on mitzvot where the mitzva itself requires a quorum (such as the blessing on Torah reading or Megila).
2. The gomel blessing can be said even by a friend or relative of the person who has been saved; the subject then says "amen" to affirm the blessing. Yet in general, one person can fulfill the obligation of another to make a blessing only if he too is obligated in the same blessing. (Rosh HaShana 29a. The only exception is blessings on mitzvot.)
3. According to many opinions, the friend or relative is not required to make a blessing. Yet in general, any blessing that is not obligatory is in danger of being a "vain blessing" and we refrain from saying it. (See for example SA OC 17:2.)
4. The Shulchan Arukh brings an Aramaic formulation for the blessing of the friend or relative, and this formula- tion is commonly used. Yet we are usually scrupulous always to use the exact Hebrew language of each blessing (SA OC 113:9).
The last three rules are learned from the following story in the gemara (Berakhot 54b): Rav Yehuda became ill and recovered. Rav Chana Bagadtaa and other sages came to see him. They said to him [in Aramaic], "Blessed be the Merciful Who has given you to us, and has not given you unto dust". He [answered "Amen and then] said, "You have exempted me from my obligation to give thanks".
We can explain all of these features if we understand that an essential part of the gomel blessing is that a person's loved ones and com- munity are also thankful for his or her deliverance. Thus, the thanks must be made in the presence of the community, and all those present add their own thanks: "May He who has repaid you with goodness, repay you only good- ness forever".
Since the gratitude of the community is part of the very essence of the blessing, somebody close to the rescued person can also say the blessing. Yet since the thanks must be given only once, it is impossible to make this an obligation on any specific individual; as long as the blessing has not been said, any loved one can be the first to say it.
Rav Kook connects even the Aramaic formulation to this idea. In the time of the gemara, Hebrew was the language of the learned, Aramaic the language of the common people. (Indeed, the other place we find this unusual Aramaic structure of a blessing is where we learn that Binyamin the shepherd - in the time of the gemara, a shepherd was often a symbol of ignorance used to bless on his bread in this way Berakhot 40b, SA OC 167:10). The students of Rav Yehuda wanted to express that without the guidance of their beloved Rebbe, they were reduced to the status of common people (Ein Ayah).
The source of this aspect of the gomel blessing can be found in its origin in the thanksgiving offering, the korban todah. (See Tur OC 219 who writes that the gomel blessing is based on this sacrifice.) The todah had to be brought with forty loaves of bread, much more than any other private sacrifice. The vast majority of these loaves are not for the Kohanim but rather for the offerer and those accompanying him or her. (See Rambam Maaseh HaKorbanot ch.9.) Furthermore, it is improper to bring any sacrifice to disqualification by offering it without having the time and the opportunity to eat it; this means that each todah had to be eatenby a large group of celebrants. Again, we see that the communal aspect of thanks is an inherent part of the mitzva.
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