Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Jonathan Pollard is scheduled this week for release after spending 30 years in prison. He was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to spying on the United States. There are two possible responses to release after such a long sentence. One is to become bitter over the time lost, the life that could have been lived. The other is to be grateful for the end of the ordeal, the new beginning. I cannot fathom the depth of his experience, but I hope he can find his way to seeing the opportunities in his future.

If he is released, he will face an interesting halachic question: Should he bentch gomel, recite the traditional blessing thanking God for salvation? This is a response of hope, of seeing the end of the past and the beginning of the future. His ability to recite this blessing lies in the conditions of his imprisonment and release. As always, the details make all the difference.

The Gemara (Berachos 54b) says that four people need to bentch gomel: someone who travels by sea, journeys in the desert, becomes healed from illness or exits prison. These four categories are derived from Tehillim 107.

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 (Berachos 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. The Ra’avad (quoted in Birkei Yosef, Shiyurei Berachah, 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. 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.

The 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. However, the Rema (ad loc.) says that the Ashkenazic practice is to only recite the blessing after a life-threatening illness. Similarly, the Magen Avraham (ad loc., 1) writes that you only recite the blessing after exiting a life-threatening imprisonment. The Birkei Yosef (ibid.) argues that release from any prison sentence merits recitation of the blessing, like the Ri Migash.

The Mishnah Berurah (219, Bi’ur Halachah sv. chavush) explains that the Magen Avraham‘s view is based on a life threat. Regardless of the sentence, if the prisoner faced a life threat—such as being held in a highly dangerous prison—then he should recite the blessing. However, the Kaf Ha-Chaim (219:11) rules that even someone imprisoned in a comfortable prison for a monetary matter should recite the blessing. Following the Ri Migash, he explains that the blessing here refers to a lack of freedom. Once that freedom is regained, you should make the blessing.

The Aruch Ha-Shulchan (219:5) adds another consideration. On the one hand, he rules leniently that even someone released from prison on a monetary matter recites the blessing. However, he explains that this view—of Ri Migash—connects the blessing to renewed freedom. This only applies if he is truly free without any conditions. If, for example, he is released on bail then he cannot recite the blessing because he is not truly free.

Should Jonathan Pollard bentch gomel on his release? On the one hand, he was never given a death sentence, so a simple reading of the Magen Avraham would imply that he should not recite the blessing. However, the Mishnah Berurah adds that any threat to life while in prison would merit a blessing on release. If his prison stay was at any time life threatening, then he would recite the blessing. On his release, he will be free from the position of possibly being in a life-threatening prison situation.

Other authorities are more open to the blessing because they see it as a response to regaining freedom. On his release, Pollard will gain his freedom and therefore, presumably, should recite the blessing.

However, the conditions of his release also make a difference. If he is released to home arrest then everyone agrees he should not recite the blessing. Additionally, if his movement is restricted within the country, he would not recite the blessing because he lacks freedom. According to news reports, he will not be allowed leave the country. Therefore, perhaps he should not recite the blessing, but I leave that to his rabbi to decide.

By Rabbi Gil Student

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