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From Parsha to Halakha – Vayigash – The Traveler’s Prayer

Tevet 5784 | December 2023


The danger of travel is evident in several descriptions in this week’s parsha, such as Yaakov’s trepidation of Binyamin’s journey down to Egypt, even temporarily, lest “a disaster befall him on the way” and Yosef’s warning to his brothers not to “agitate on the way.”[1]

Roads are dangerous, travel is risky – that’s clear from Yosef’s past; he took a journey to meet his brothers and never returned. Even though it didn’t actually happen, the notion that “a wild animal ate him” was plausible.[2] There are also bandits and raiders who abduct people and sell them into slavery. Whether it was Yosef’s brothers who unfortunately filled this role, or it was the Midianites who raised Yoseffrom the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, the dangers of travel are apparent. “Here be wild animals and bad people.”[3]

“Don’t agitate on the way”

Chazal used Yosef’s instructions to his brothers to infer guidelines for travelers. Yosef sent them on their way in early morning, when there was still plenty of daylight to travel; he told them not to distress on the way – meaning not to tarry or preoccupy themselves with Torah so they could reach a safe place to camp before dark.[4]

Chazal did encourage people to learn Torah while traveling, to provide them with spiritual protection. Nevertheless, they cautioned travelers to avoid in-depth study that could lead to distractions or disputes and suggested review instead.[5] The sages looked for the “middle road” that balanced between the risks and rewards, a way for travelers to occupy themselves in the mitzvah of Torah study as a safeguard, but still avoid risky behaviors like being overly distracted or allowing for tensions to develop between fellow travelers.

Interestingly, Torah study itself involves some risk, and the sages also instituted prayers for guidance and safeguarding so learning would not lead to mistakes or issues, one prayer upon entering and another recited when exiting the Beit Midrash (House of Study). Learning Torah can protect those on a journey, but the questions and disputes that inevitably arise when studying together present new risks.

Praying in a dangerous place

Much like the opposing concerns of Torah study on the road, there are also two almost contradictory approaches to prayer while traveling. Chazal established that a traveler who stops to pray in a dangerous place should not recite their regular prayers, but a much shorter prayer:

“Rabbi Yehoshua said: Someone traveling in a dangerous area recites a short prayer. They say: ‘Hashem, grant salvation to your people, the remnant of Israel, may their needs be before You at every transition. Blessed are you Hashem who listens to prayer.”[6]

This rule is based on the assumption that someone who is traveling in a risky area is unable to concentrate on a lengthy prayer.[7] Just as it’s impossible to delve into Torah study, it’s similarly difficult to concentrate on the full Amida prayer; instead one should pray a short and general prayer with intention. Nevertheless, we rule that the traveler should make up the prayer that they missed when they arrive in a settled area, and can settle their thoughts.[8]

The Traveler’s Prayer

While the Amida prayer is shortened, another prayer is added – a unique Traveler’s Prayer for protection against the dangers of the road.

“Eliyahu said to Rav Yehuda, the brother of Rav Sala Chasida, ‘Do not get angry and you will not sin, do not get drunk and you will not sin, and when you set out to travel, consult with your Creator and set out.’ What does ‘consult with your Creator and set out’ mean? Rabbi Yaakov said in the name of Rav Chisda: ‘This is the Traveler’s Prayer.’ And Rabbi Yaakov said in the name of Rav Chisda: ‘Anyone who sets out on a journey must pray the Traveler’s Prayer.’”[9]

The ensuing gemara teaches that this prayer is said, “When someone sets out… to a parsa (the distance a person can walk in 72 minutes, generally considered about four km.).”

Rashi and Ran explain that this prayer serves to ask permission to embark on the journey, ‘consult with your Creator and then go.’[10] Consequently, Rashi explains that one recites this prayer in the beginning of their journey, when they first set out. The scholars in this camp recite the prayer before they leave the home, as it’s appropriate to ask permission before setting out.[11]

Bahag and those who agree with him teach that the prayer asks for protection from the dangers of the road, so as long as there are still risks one may recite it. The “parsa” discussed by the gemara defines the length of the journey, since the risks are greater when one travels this distance between settled areas. As such travel was generally considered dangerous, there are those that say that one should also say Birkat HaGomel, a blessing of thanksgiving for Divine protection.[12] Consequently, in cases where the completion of a journey does not warrant Birkat HaGomel, the beginning would not warrant the Traveler’s Prayer.

We mentioned two major dangers travelers used to face on the road – wild animals and bandits. As these are not nearly as prevalent today, contemporary halakhic authorities debate if it is still appropriate to say the Traveler’s Prayer. We certainly don’t follow the other guidelines they set out for such journeys, such as only traveling during the day, and we also travel long distances significantly more frequently. Wild animals and kidnappers are unlikely, but there are new dangers such as  traffic accidents and hostile locals. Some people don’t say the Traveler’s Prayer, or recite it without the blessing at the end with God’s name.[13] Others believe that these new dangers on the road warrant prayer, and since the Traveler’s Prayer is established and covers these risks we should still say them, with a blessing.[14]

The sages learned from the stories of our ancestors as well as their own observance of the world around them. The risk presented by travel led to both religious and practical instructions – the institution of a prayer to ask for permission or protection upon traveling and guidelines on road safety – one should set out when there is plenty of daylight, at safer times of day, and avoid rushing. Torah study must be balanced – enough to stay occupied with Torah, but not so much that one is preoccupied by in-depth study that could lead to anger or discord or loss of concentration on the road. The Torah gives us two complementary and necessary ways to deal with dangerous situations – to figuratively lift our gaze to the heavens above in prayer, while physically – carefully and prudently – keeping our eyes on the road ahead.


[1] Bereishit 42:38; 45; 24.

[2] Bereishit 37:33.

[3] See Rashi on Bereishit 37:28 and compare to Rashbam ad loc.

[4] Bereishit 45:24; TB Taanit 10b; TB Pesachim 2a.

[5] TB Taanit 10b: “Don’t distress on the way,” Rabbi Eliezer said: Yosef told them, ‘Don’t engage in halakhic matters, as it may cause distress on your way.’ Is this true? Didn’t Rabbi Ilay bar Berakhiya say: ‘When two Torah scholars journey without discussing words of Torah together on the way are fit to be burned, as it says, “They were walking and speaking and a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated them,” why? because they spoke [Torah]! And without speaking [Torah] – they would have been burned!’ There is no contradiction (between the two initial statements) – this one (the latter) – is about review, this one (the former) – iyun (in depth learning.”

See Maharsha Chiddushei Agadot ad loc.

[6] Mishna Berakhot 4:4

[7] Shulchan Arukh OC 110:3.

[8] ad loc.

[9] TB Berakhot 29b.

[10] This is similar to the explanation that we make birkat hanahenin, blessings before physical enjoyment, to ask permission to enjoy God’s world. As the gemara explains, “It’s logical, a person may not take enjoyment from this world without a blessing.”

[11] Taz OC 10:7.

[12] See the discussion in Igrot Moshe OC 2:58.

[13] Minchat Shlomo Tanina (2-3), 60.

[14] For example: Yabia Omer IX OC 108; Responsa Shevet HaLevi X 21; Teshuvot v’Hanhagot 5:46.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.