Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Four [classes of people] give thanks: seafarers, those who traverse the wilderness, one who was ill and recovered, and one who was imprisoned and set free… What blessing does he say? Rav Yehudah said, “Blessed [are You] who bestows loving kindness.” Abaye said, “One expresses thanksgiving in the presence of ten, as it is written, Let them exalt [God] in the congregation of the people (Psalm 107:32).” Mar Zutra said, “Two of them must be rabbis, as it says, Praise [God] in the assembly of the elders (Psalm 107:32).” R. Ashi challenged this, “You might as well say that all must be rabbis!” Is it written (in Psalm 107:32), “in the assembly of elders?” [No!] It is written, In the congregation of the people. Say, then, in the presence of ten plus two rabbis? This is a difficulty. Rav Yehudah was ill and recovered. R. Chana of Bagdad and other rabbis went to visit him. They said to him, “Blessed is the All Merciful who gave you back to us and did not give you to the dust.” He said to them, “You have released me from the obligation of giving thanks.” But did not Abaye say that one must express thanksgiving in the presence of ten? There were ten present. But [Rav Yehudah, himself] did not express thanks! There was no need, since he answered them, “Amen.”
The Gemara prior to our passage has been discussing blessings said in places where a miracle occurred, or where idolatry was uprooted. The Gemara includes a famous list of blessings: for thunder and lightning, for seeing the ocean, for receiving good news and even bad news, upon entering a large city, for visiting the site of the Temple, for surviving a lion or camel attack, and for visiting the place where the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea.
This passage is the source for reciting Birkat ha-Gomel, the blessing of thanksgiving that is said in synagogue after one has survived a dangerous situation or an ordeal, such as surgery or crossing an ocean. Customarily, the one who recites birkat ha-gomel is honored with an aliyah to the Torah and, following the second blessing, says, “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who bestows goodness beyond our merit, for bestowing favor upon me.” The congregation responds, “May God who has been gracious to you continue to favor you with all that is good.”
Rav Yehudah, whose very name is derived from hoda’ah (“thanks”) when Leah names her son Yehudah (Genesis 29:35), says that there are inherently dangerous experiences in life that call for an expression of thanksgiving when one survives them: travel across the sea or desert, recovery from a dangerous illness, and release from incarceration. Each is tantamount to facing death; survival is a new lease on life. (The passage continues with a lengthy recitation of verses to establish each of the four categories that I have not included above.) Rav Yehudah provides the formulation that serves as the foundation for Birkat ha-Gomel.
Next is a discussion of the context for reciting the blessing of thanksgiving. Abaye says it should be recited in the presence of a minyan, based on the first half of Psalm 107:32: Let them exalt [God] in the congregation of the people, praise [God] in the assembly of the elders. Mar Zutra, focusing on the latter half of the same verse, concludes that two rabbis must be present because“elders” is plural and is taken to refer to rabbis based on BT Kiddushin 32b where zakein (“elder”) is understood to mean “rabbi” by interpreting it as a contraction of zeh kana chokhmah (“this one acquired wisdom”). Rav Ashi, in response to Mar Zutra, remarks that one might as well claim that all ten must be rabbis—a high standard for reciting a blessing of thanksgiving. Then Gemara points out that Psalm 107:32 says “congregation of the people,” not “congregation of elders,” and hence requiring ten rabbis is absurd. Yet the verse says both “congregation of the people” and “assembly of the elders,” prompting the Gemara to ask if perhaps both a minyan and an additional two rabbis need to be present to hear the blessing of thanksgiving. The Gemara concedes that while logical, this interpretation results in a problematic solution.
We then read a short story about Rav Yehudah who had occasion to recite Birkat ha-Gomel (or something similar) following an illness—but never did. A group of colleagues (later affirmed to be a minyan of rabbis, thereby fulfilling both Abaye’s and Mar Zutra’s opinions) visited him and recited their own blessing of thanksgiving . Rav Yehudah responded, “Amen,” understanding this as releasing him of the obligation to explicitly express thanks himself. This is a beautiful model of the reciprocal nurturing relationship of the individual and community through prayer.
A Thanksgiving Prayby Rabbi Naomi LevyFor the laughter of the children,For my own life breath,For the abundance of food on this tableFor the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,For the roof over our heads,The clothes on our backs,For our health,And our wealth of blessings,For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,For the freedom to pray these wordsWithout fear,In any language,In any faith,In this great country,Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Why might it matter if there are two, ten, or no rabbis present when a person recites Birkat ha-Gomel? Can you argue both for and against the need for rabbis to be present?
- Which is more powerful and meaningful for you: saying a blessing yourself, or having those around you spontaneously say a blessing on your behalf? Why?
- Birkat ha-Gomel credits God with having saved the individual reciting the blessing from danger or ordeal. If your understanding of the universe is that causality depends upon the laws of nature (including the inherent role of probability, which we might translate as luck), what meaning can you attach to Birkat ha-Gomel?