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Corona and reciting Hagomel

Tammuz 5780 | July 2020
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Seeing the Good: Understanding Birkat Hagomel

The three week period between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av is a time to mourn the loss of the beit hamikdash and other calamities.1 This year in particular, with all of its challenges, it is helpful to explore coping mechanisms within Jewish sources. In particular, how does one develop and sustain feelings of hakarat hatov, the ability to acknowledge the good which surrounds us amidst all the uncertainty?

There is a well-known hasidic tale (and now a popular children’s book) in which a woman complains that her house is too small and crowded. The rebbe advises her to take in a bunch of farm animals, which makes it even tighter. Then he tells her to remove them and she is grateful for how much space she has. It is human nature to be more aware and appreciative of the good after experiencing challenging times. Perhaps for this reason there is a special bracha which is said only after distress and suffering: birkat hagomel. What is the purpose and meaning of this bracha?

One of the korbanot listed in parshat Tzav2 is the korban todah, a sacrifice which is an expression of thanksgiving. Rashi explains that there were four instances in which one would bring such a korban, all after a person experiences a personal miracle such as: a) being healed from an illness, b) being freed from prison, c) crossing a desert or d) sailing across a sea (all derived from Psalm 107). Chazal instituted a bracha to be said after experiencing these 4 forms of danger/distress, the birkat hagomel. Rav Kook, in Olat Reiyah,3 explains that it is human nature to become indifferent to the basic goodness we are granted each day, leading us to complain about everyday life. But after a traumatic experience one is given a new perspective on life. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the bracha must be said in the presence of a minyan and the listeners respond with affirmation.4 This gives the listeners the opportunity to shift perspective on life and feel appreciation as well.

This message resonates particularly now, with the ups and downs of the coronavirus pandemic. Coronavirus is still not fully understood and people who get it can be asymptomatic or get a wide range of symptoms, from mild to very severe. What role can birkat hagomel play in helping people through this challenging period?

The Shulchan Aruch and Rema differ somewhat on the question of who should say birkat hagomel after an illness. The Shulchan Aruch states that one who is ill enough to be confined to bed can say the birkat hagomel after healing, while the Rema holds that only someone who was in “danger,” meaning, sick enough that one would violate Shabbat to save them should say hagomel.5 Modern poskim argue that given today’s medical advances, only after an illness which had “sakkanah,” danger, should one say the bracha.6 It would follow that in the case of coronavirus, only if one was within some sakkanah should they recite birkat hagomel.7

Whether or not one needs to God forbid recite hagomel during this time, studying and exploring the essence of the bracha can be a source of comfort and meaning as we wade through this journey and pray for health and safety for am Yisrael and the world.

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  1. Mishna Taanit 4:5
  2. Vayikra 7:12
  3. Olat Reiyah I, 309-312
  4. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 219:3
  5. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 219:8. The Tur (Orach Chayim 219) includes the debate among rishonim about whether one should say this bracha after any illness or only after an illness involving sakkanah.
  6. Rabbi Melamed, Peninei Halakha, Brachot, 16:4.
  7. This is how Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg paskens in his responsa to Eretz Chemdah.

Karen Miller Jackson

is a Jewish educator and writer, who studies and teaches at Matan HaSharon and recently completed Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakha program. She has an MA in Talmud and Midrash from NYU.