Birchas haGomel & COVID-19


Tzav 5780


“If he shall offer it for thanksgiving, he shall offer with the thanksgiving offering unleavened loaves mixed with oil, unleavened wafer smeared with oil, and loaves of scalded fine flour mixed with oil.” (Vayikra 7:11-12).

The Korban Todah (thanksgiving offering) is ostensibly a form of Shelamim (peace offering) and should therefore be voluntary. Its purpose, as alluded to by its name, is to enable a person to thank Hashem for His overwhelming kindness. Curiously, Rashi explains that this Korban is actually an obligation upon somebody who was saved from a danger:

If [the Korban is brought] as thanksgiving for a miracle that was performed for him, such as seafarers, those who travel through deserts, those who were incarcerated, [or] a sick person who was healed – for these people need to offer thanks, as is written, “They should gave thanks to Hashem for His kindness, and for His wonders to mankind, and they should slaughter thanksgiving offerings” (Tehilim 107:21-22). If it was for one of these reasons that he pledged peace offerings, they are Shalmei Todah…

 

According to Rashi, not every Korban that is set aside in order to offer thanks to Hashem is automatically considered a Korban Todah. Only if a person salvation from one of the perilous circumstances described above does he have grounds for offering this Korban. Moreover, Rashi’s use of the phrase “need to offer thanks” implies that this Korban is obligatory and not voluntary[1].

The source of the concept that there are four circumstances that lead to an obligation to offer thanks for their salvation is found in the Gemara in Brachos (54b) that derives these categories from Pesukim in Tehilim 107. Interestingly, the Gemara makes no mention of Korban Todah – it merely discusses the parameters of the Mitzva of Birchas haGomel. Evidently, Rashi derived from this that these were also the parameters of the Korban Todah and in fact, this is clearly implied by the Pasuk he cites which states – ‘“They should gave thanks to Hashem for His kindness, and for His wonders to mankind, and they should slaughter thanksgiving offerings

 

This also appears to be the view of the Rosh (Brachos 9:3). The Rosh asks why it is that specifically those who traverse deserts must recite Birchas haGomel but those who journey in other areas do not. Surely, any travel carries a level of danger (as stated by the Yerushalmi )Berachos 4:4) – “Kol haderachim b’chezkas sakono”). He answers that while the fact that travel is dangerous is a reason to recite Tefilas haDerech, Birchas haGomel was instituted in place of the Korban Todah[2] which is only offered by the four people delineated by the Gemara.

There are several difficulties with this approach. The Chasam Sofer (Shu”t O.C. 51) asks that Birchas haGomel is already alluded to in another verse in this Perek of Tehilim (“viRomemuhu b’Khal Am”) which means that it cannot have been instituted by the Chachamim only after the destruction of the Beis haMikdash as a replacement for the Korban Todah. Furthermore, neither the Pesukim nor the Gemara give any indication that those who experience salvation are obligated to offer a Korban Todah. Rather, the Torah implies that the Korban Todah is merely a subsidiary of Korban Shelamim which is offered voluntarily (Shita Mekubetzes, Menachos 89b). Due to this difficulty, the Pri Megadim (O.C. 219, Eishel Avraham 1) contends that Rashi only means to say that there is an obligation mi’d’Rabbanan.

Regardless, there is certainly an obligation to recite Birchas haGomel if one experienced a salvation from one of the four perilous situations stated above. The Poskim discuss the details and extent of the danger that would lead to a person’s obligation to recite this Bracha. We will focus on the person who recovered from illness.

There are three views among the Rishonim as to which illnesses warrant Birchas haGomel upon one’s recovery:

 The Aruch (Erech 4, cited by the Rosh ibid.) holds that a person must recite Birchas haGomel when recovering from the slightest complaint, even a sore throat or headache and even if he wasn’t bedridden. The Rosh adds that according to the Aruch, recovery from a bout of intestinal discomfort would also be cause for Birchas haGomel

Tosfos (Brachos 54b, s.v. v’Eima) cite haRav R’ Yosef who rules that a person recites Birchas haGomel only if he was bedridden and not if he suffered from a mere headache or intestinal discomfort. The Ramban (Toras haAdam, Inyan Hoda’ah) and Rosh (ibid.) concur.

Tosfos imply, and the Ramban (as cited by Beis Yosef O.C. 219) states explicitly, that one needn’t have been dangerously ill or grievously injured to be obligated in Birchas haGomel – so long as one was bedridden. Their reasoning is that whenever a person takes ill, even though he may not be in mortal danger, Heavenly judgment is passed upon him at that time as explained by the Gemara in Shabbos (32a):

The Rabbis taught: If somebody is ill and is on the verge of death, we instruct him, “Confess” for all those who are executed confess. If a person goes out to the market – it shall be in his eyes as though he is being handed over to an officer of a foreign army. If he has a headache – it shall be in his eyes as though he has been placed in chains. If he retires to his bed – if shall be in his eyes as though he has been taken up to the executioner’s gallows; for anybody who is taken up to the executioner’s gallows, will be saved if he has great defendants, but if not – he will not be saved. And these are man’s defendants – repentance and good deeds.

Based on this Gemara, the Rishonim distinguished between somebody who is merely suffering from a headache and somebody who is bedridden (though not dangerously ill). One who is bedridden should consider that judgment is hanging over him and that he will require great merits (such as repentance and good deeds) in order to be saved. The Mishna Berura (219:25) also adds that any illness that confines a person to his bed has the potential to develop complications that will ultimately endanger his life, unlike milder complaints. The Rashba (Shu”t 1:82) writes similarly.

The Tur (O.C. 219) cites the Ra’avad who appears to hold a third view (though the Tur appears to equate it with that of R’ Yosef):

Similarly, regarding a sick person – haRav R’ Yosef writes that it only applies to a sick person who is bedridden but somebody who has a head or stomachache needn’t recite the Bracha. The Ra’avad writes similarly – only with an internal injury that entails a danger.

It is unclear whether the Tur holds that R’ Yosef’s opinion is identical to the Ra’avad’s, but it is certainly clear that the Ra’avad holds that one only recites Birchas haGomel upon recovery from a life-threatening illness or injury (see below).

The Tur also contends that the Rambam concurs with the Aruch, and recovering from even the slightest illness is cause for Birchas haGomel:

“…but the Rambam writes that for every journey and every illness one is obligated to give thanks, as we find in the Yerushalmi, ‘Kol haderachim b’chezkas sakono’ (and all who are ill are ‘b’chezkas sakono’), and so did the Aruch write that even one who has eye pains or a headache is required to recite Birchas haGomel, and this is the custom in Spain.”

The Beis Yosef notes that the Rambam does not write this clearly and the correct text in the Tur should be “Ramban” rather than “Rambam”.  However, this approach raises its own problems, as the Tur writes explicitly that this opinion sides with the Aruch and, as explained above, the Ramban and Aruch differ. Perhaps the Beis Yosef merely meant that the Tur intended to group the Rambam (or Ramban) and Aruch together only in the sense that they disagree with the Ra’avad and don’t require a life-threatening illness or injury in order to be obligated to recite Birchas haGomel.

The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 8) rules like Tosfos and the Ramban that anyone who was bedridden must recite Birchas haGomel. The Rema cites the opinion of the Ra’avad and attests that the custom in Ashkenaz was in line with his view. The Mishna Berura, however, cites the majority of the Acharonim who rule that one should be concerned for the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch and therefore recite Birchas haGomel even when recovering from a non-life-threatening illness[3].

Today, there are many people who have recovered from COVID-19. Are they obligated to recite Birchas haGomel?

It seems clear that those who tested positive for the virus but who were asymptomatic should not recite the Bracha, even according to the Aruch. Though the Aruch rules that if somebody recovers from a mild headache (that may just be a result of slight dehydration) he must say Birchas haGomel, and COVID-19 is an actual disease which also carries a risk to life, if a person does not display any symptoms he should not recite the Bracha, even if he is considered high-risk of developing dangerous complications.

The rationale is that although modern diagnostic methods can detect the presence of disease even in the absence of illness, this does not have any bearing on Halachos such as Birchas haGomel. If someone’s immune system has successfully fought the virus and he has not been affected at all, he is considered thoroughly healthy according to Halacha, even if others in his state have developed serious illness or complications due to this particular virus. In this regard, the virus is not a “Machala” for which one says Birchas haGomel – even though a common headache is!

According to the Shulchan Aruch, who holds that there is only and obligation of Birchas haGomel if a person was bedridden (though not endangered), the same would apply to COVID-19. If a person developed a fever that confined him to bed, particularly if he also experienced other symptoms (and certainly if he remained for three full days in bed), he should recite Birchas haGomel.

According to the Rema, one only recites Birchas haGomel when recovering from a life-threatening illness. In the case of COVID-19, if a person needed the aid of mechanical ventilation, his life was certainly in danger. It is also likely that an elderly person, or one with preexisting conditions who develops pneumonia, would also be considered in danger. In those circumstances, Birchas haGomel should be recited even if he was only sick for a short time. (As mentioned, the Mishna Berura notes that the Acharonim do not rule like the Rema.)

Certainly, a Posek should be consulted about any doubts regarding Birchas haGomel, or for any other questions.

May we soon merit that Hashem will rid the world of this terrible plague so that we may join our voices in praise and gratitude to Hashem for His benevolent kindness and miraculous wonders.

[1] Rashi explains that those who have experienced Hashem’s salvation “need to offer thanks”. This expression is found in the Gemara and, as we shall see, connotes that they are obligated to do so. Rashi there explains that the expression “Need to offer thanks” (rather than the expected “Are obligated to offer thanks”) indicates that there is an optimal time period during which a person should offer thanks. It is not intended to imply that the Mitzva to bring a Korban Todah is not mandatory.

[2] R’ Shimon Sofer zt”l (Michtav Sofer 2:1) explains that Birchas haGomel is recited during Krias haTorah since the Bimah represents the Mizbeach. See Minchas Asher, Bamidbar 54.

[3] We should add that the Taz’s approach seems to create consensus between these opinions: If a person’s life was in danger, he should recite Birchas haGomel even if he was only sick for one day, but if not, he should only do so if he was bedridden for three days.


Rabbi Yossi Sprung

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