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Q & A: ‘HaGomel’ When Traveling By Car

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QUESTION: Just the other day I was heading toward Connecticut on the New England Thruway. There was stop and go traffic. Eventually I saw the reason for the logjam. There had been a horrible accident involving a number of vehicles in one of the opposite lanes, with numerous ambulances and police present. In our direction of traffic we were all rubbernecking. I have no idea what the condition of those involved in the accident was. But I was wondering whether we should all say HaGomel whenever we arrive at home in one piece.

I am told that you discussed this problem or a similar one before. Is it possible to elaborate on this topic again?

Moshe Jacobowitz
Brooklyn, NY

ANSWER: Your question is very pertinent and we have, indeed, discussed it before.

The Talmud (Berachot 54b) states that R. Yehuda says in the name of Rav: Four [categories of people] are required to offer thanks, that is, recite the blessing of “HaGomel” [when
they have been delivered from danger (see Rashi ad loc.)] – those who have crossed the sea, those who have traveled through the desert, one who was sick and was healed, and one who was incarcerated and has been set free. The Talmud bases this ruling on Psalm 107.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 219:9,10) quotes a controversy (between the Rivash and Rav Gershon - see Be’er HaGolah ad loc.) whether only these four categories necessitate the recitation of Birkat HaGomel, or whether people who find themselves in “similar situations” also recite the blessing of HaGomel. It concludes that in cases other than the four specific situations mentioned above it is preferable to recite the blessing without Shem U’Malchut -
that is, without mentioning the Name and title of G-d (Sha’arei Teshuva ibid.).

The question now arises: what constitutes danger, and who is considered to have been delivered from danger? The text of the Shulchan Aruch regarding those “similar cases” points
to cases of unusual danger. Driving a vehicle, even for a long distance, is considered a normal activity by today’s standards. It is not considered unusually dangerous even if there are many careless drivers on the road.

Rabbi Yosef Caro (ibid. 219:7) underscores the fact that [even] in Germany and France [of old] one did not recite Birkat HaGomel when going from one city to another, since that blessing is only recited by those who traveled in the wilderness where untamed animals and robbers roam. However, the blessing was said by those who traveled in Spain [of old], because all the roads there were considered dangerous.

HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein states in his Iggrot Moshe (Orach Chayyim Chelek 2, Siman 59) that there is a difference between those who travel by land and those who travel by sea. When traveling by land, we do not particularly worry about safety unless we have heard that untoward incidents have occurred. But a trip across the sea is inherently fraught with danger. A person cannot survive any length of time in the water, and the boat or ship is what keeps the person from drowning.

Rav Feinstein therefore posits that an airplane that travels over water is the same as a boat in that it alone protects its passengers from the dangers of the water. Thus we would think that we might infer that an airplane traveling over land is different. However, Rav Feinstein concludes that whether an airplane travels over water or over land, one should say the blessing of HaGomel. With this decision he disputes those who rule that Birkat HaGomel should not be
recited in such a case. Rav Feinstein does not make any reference to travel in an automobile.

In recognition of the dangers inherent in any travel – whether by automobile in our days, or any other landbound vehicle such as a train, or even more ancient means of transportation like a horse and carriage - our Sages, in accordance with the view of R. Yaakov in the name of R.
Hisda (Berachot 29a-30b), instituted Tefillat HaDerech, the Wayfarer’s Prayer, to be said when setting out on a journey as soon as one has left the city limits. (See Shulchan Aruch,
Orach Chayyim 110:7 and Mishna Berura ad loc.)

There is also the view of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (see the column ‘Halachic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’ by Rabbi A. Ziegler, J.P. 1/8/99), that today’s danger on the roads, in times of peace, does not stem from highwaymen, as was the case many years ago, but rather from traffic accidents. It is the automobile itself that is a contributing factor to the danger. Regarding the question of whether it is appropriate to recite Tefillat HaDerech before
a trip in an automobile, his opinion is that when one sets out on a journey one could recite Tefillat HaDerech as soon as one enters the car, even while one is still within the city limits. He emphasizes, however, that this does not apply to short trips within the city, since the Rabbis originally instituted the prayer for those intending to travel outside the city.

Insofar as Birkat HaGomel is concerned, all agree that travel on land is not dangerous in and of itself, as long as it is not across a desert or in an area that is known to be dangerous, such as ancient Spain where highwaymen and wild animals were to be found. And while we can safely assume that we will not encounter wild beasts on our travels, we should follow the principle of (Devarim 4:15) “Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem” when we have to drive for
many hours, and it is advisable to stop several times along the way in order to rest.

It is now obvious from all of the above that our present-day practice is correct. You can derive the desired satisfaction of reciting a blessing for a journey by saying Tefillat HaDerech
when you are setting out on the trip.

We also have the Talmudic rule that “Milta delo shechicha, lo gazru bah Rabbanan”: the Rabbis did not issue prohibitory edicts for rare occurrences (Beitza 2b). Since most people who drive an automobile do not experience accidents, we do not consider someone who has just completed a trip in a car as having been delivered from a dangerous situation, a sakana. On the other hand, if one has in fact been involved in a vehicular accident, such a case would then come under the category of “similar situations” mentioned by the Mechaber.

* * *

For our readers’ welfare, we include the Driver Safety Test of the Torah Safety Commission of Hatzalah, with some additions of our own:

1) Are you driving like a mentch, or are you endangering your life and the lives of others? 2) Are you a speed driver? 3) Do you signal when necessary? 4) Do you begin driving while the light is still red? 5) Do you and your passengers buckle-up? 6) Is your vehicle in proper driving condition? 7) Do you watch out for children playing in the street? 8) Are you always alert when you drive? 9) Do you drive defensively?

If you have given the obvious answers to all the questions above, then you are indeed a safe driver who fulfills the Biblical injunction “Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem,” as mentioned earlier.

We hope that in light of these extra precautions all our readers will drive carefully and enjoy their summer vacations.

Error Notice: In the synopsis of the Q&A series Hachana (which concluded on 7/4/03) there is an error. Where it states, ‘In order to prepare food on one day of a holiday for the next day of that holiday … an eruv tavshilin is prepared…’ The actual halacha and indeed as we stated in the first installment (J.P., Q&A 5/23/03) is that an eruv is prepared only on erev yom tov for the Shabbat that follows.Y.K.

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About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

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