We bentch Gomel (recite the “Gomel” blessing) on being saved from a dangerous situation. How does that apply to the coronavirus? Arguably, everyone in the world is in a potentially life-threatening situation, those in the New York region and above the age of 65 even more so. Additionally, we are now in some form of quarantine. When we return to work and school, should we bentch Gomel on surviving this pandemic, similar to someone who survives a disease or similar to someone released from jail? I defer to those greater than I and encourage you to ask your rabbi. But I think only some of us should bentch Gomel on the coronavirus.
I. Four Salvations
The Gemara (Brachot 54b) says that four people need to bentch Gomel: someone who travels by sea, journeys in the desert, becomes healed from illness, or is released from prison. These four categories are derived from Psalm 107:
1. travel by sea: “they who go down to the sea in ships” (v. 23)
2. journey in the desert: “they wandered in the wilderness in a desert way” (v. 4)
3. healed from illness: “He sent His word, and healed them, and delivered them from their graves” (v. 20)
4. released from prison: “such as sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron” (v. 10)
Tosafos (Brachot 54b sv. Arba’ah) point out that the Gemara’s list follows a different order than the Psalm’s verses. Why does the Gemara skip back and forth? Tosafos answer that the Bible lists the cases in decreasing order of danger: first those traveling in the desert, then those sitting in prison, then those suffering illness, and finally those traveling by sea. In contrast, the Gemara lists the cases in order of frequency, those more common appearing earlier in the list. However, Talmidei Rabbenu Yonah (quoted in Ma’adanei Yom Tov, Brachot 9:30) quote a responsum of Rav Hai Ga’on in which he explains it the opposite way. According to Rav Hai Ga’on, the Gemara lists the cases in the order of danger while the Bible lists them in order of frequency. It seems that according to Tosafot, both the imprisonment and illness on which this blessing is recited must be life threatening. According to Rav Hai Ga’on, this need not be true because they are less severe than traveling by sea and journeying through the desert.
Two general approaches emerge in the commentaries regarding this blessing. Ashkenazic authorities tend to see this blessing as reserved for those who emerge from life-threatening situations. For example, the Rosh (Brachot 9:3) says that the custom in Germany and France is to refrain from reciting this blessing when traveling from city to city because there is no danger to life. He also quotes the Ri Migash, who rules that only someone who recovers from a serious illness should recite this blessing. The Ra’avad (quoted in Birkei Yosef, Shiyurei Brachah, Orach Chaim 219:1) rules that the blessing only applies to a life-threatening illness.
However, the Rosh notes, the Aruch implies that even someone whose headache goes away should recite this blessing. According to the Aruch, the blessing is about being healed, not necessarily about being saved from death. Similarly, in a responsum, the Ri Migash (no. 90) rules that someone who is released from debtors’ prison—i.e., who faced no threat to life—should recite the blessing. According to the Ri Migash, the blessing on release from prison is about regaining freedom, not salvation from death.
Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 219:8) rules that you recite this blessing after recovering from any serious illness, even if it was not life threatening. As long as you were forced to lie down due to the illness, you recite the blessing on recovery. However, the Rema (ad loc.) says that the Ashkenazic practice is to only recite the blessing after a life threatening illness. However, Magen Avraham (ad loc., no. 8) says that some Ashkenazim follow Shulchan Aruch on this and Taz (ad loc., no. 5) says that someone who is bedridden for three days should bentch Gomel. Mishnah Berurah (ad loc., no 28) seems to be more lenient and allows Ashkenazim to bentch Gomel if they recover from a potentially deadly illness for which one would violate Shabbos.
Magen Avraham (ad loc., 1) writes that you only bentch Gomel after exiting a life-threatening imprisonment. In contrast, the great Sephardic authority Birkei Yosef (ibid.) argues that release from any prison sentence merits recitation of the blessing, like the Ri Migash mentioned above.
Based on all the above, it would seem that Sephardim—who generally follow Shulchan Aruch and Birkei Yosef—would bentch Gomel on recovery from any illness that left one bedridden for a single day and on release from any confinement. Ashkenazim—who generally follow Magen Avraham and Mishnah Berurah—would only recite the blessing on recovery
from a potentially deathly illness and release from a physically dangerous imprisonment.
On the one hand, the coronavirus can be deadly. However, most people suffer only mild symptoms. It seems that both Sephardim and Ashkenazim would only bentch Gomel on recovery from a case of the coronavirus serious enough to render someone bedridden. In such a case, the symptom would place the person in potential danger and permit Shabbos violation as well.
In terms of imprisonment, the “shelter at home” rules in general do not constitute imprisonment because we are allowed to leave our homes. Those who exhibit symptoms or who otherwise require quarantine might be considered more confined. Ashkenazim still would not bentch Gomel at the end of quarantine because the imprisonment was not itself life threatening, unless the illness itself requires the blessing. I suspect that Sephardim also would not bentch Gomel on the confinement unless there were guards enforcing the quarantine. There are many ways to express gratitude to God even when we cannot bentch Gomel.
I write all this tentatively and defer to halachic authorities greater than I.
Rabbi Gil Student is editor of TorahMusings.com.