Women Bentching Gomel
Misconception: After childbirth, a woman’s husband should bentch Gomel on her behalf.
Fact: According to most authorities, a woman after childbirth should personally recite Birkat HaGomel.
Background: Birkat HaGomel is a blessing recited to thank God for His salvation after one safely emerges from a dangerous situation, of which one of the four prototypical examples is illness (Berachot 54b, as derived from Psalm 107). The text (SA, OC 219:2) of Birkat HaGomel is: “Baruch atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech Haolam hagomel 1 lechayavim tovot shegamalani kol tov, Blessed . . . Who bestows good things upon the undeserving (or guilty)2 and Who has rewarded me with all3 manner of good.” The congregation then responds 4 “Amen. May He Who bestowed goodness upon you continue to bestow every goodness upon you forever” (AH, OC 219:5). It is often viewed as a replacement for the korban todah (thanksgiving sacrifice), which at present cannot be offered. 5
After recovering from illness, one is obligated to recite the HaGomel blessing (SA, OC 219:8), and although childbirth is a natural phenomenon and nowadays usually occurs safely, it is nevertheless an inherently dangerous event. Halachically, a woman in labor and three days postpartum is treated as a person in danger (SA, OC 330:1, 4). It would thus seem that a postpartum woman should recite the HaGomel blessing, and indeed many authorities maintain that this is so.
Yet other halachic authorities debate whether a woman is obligated to recite the HaGomel blessing. The debate largely stems from the traditions regarding how, when and where this blessing is recited. The custom is that men recite HaGomel in shul after getting an aliyah or at some point during the Reading of the Torah, because some maintain it should be said in the presence of a minyan (SA, OC 219:3). The Moroccan-Italian seventeenth-century Rabbi Yaakov Chagiz, in Shu”t Halachot Ketanot (2:16), suggests that if the presence of a minyan is indeed essential, maybe women should be exempt because “kol kevudah bat melech penimah”(Tehillim 45:14) and possibly they should recite Shehechiyanu instead. The contemporaneous seventeenth-century Turkish Knesset Hagedolah (Hagahot Beit Yosef 219) reports that indeed some women do not recite HaGomel, but he opines that this is an erroneous practice. He says that women are obligated in Birkat HaGomel, and the claim that they are too modest to recite it in front of ten men does not absolve them of their obligation. He suggests that they recite it from the women’s section of the synagogue when a minyan is present, and this would not infringe upon their modesty. The seventeenth-century Polish Magen Avraham (OC 219: introduction) defends the custom of women not saying HaGomel by suggesting that the berachah is optional. The Peri Megadim (219:1) expresses surprise at that suggestion and insists that there is an obligation to acknowledge God’s benevolence.
This practice of women not reciting HaGomel is cited as “common” in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe by the Mishnah Berurah (219:3), although he, like others, was giving a descriptive rather than prescriptive statement. The Mishnah Berurah quotes other opinions that a woman should say it in front of ten people—nine women and one man.6 While the Mishnah Berurah did not explicitly offer his opinion,7 another nineteenth-century Eastern European giant did. The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 219:6) mentions that some have the custom of women not bentching Gomel and he insists that since there is no good reason for this, it is proper for women to recite it. The contemporaneous Lithuanian Chayei Adam (65:6) says that women should bentch Gomel in front of ten (presumably he means men, though he doesn’t state that).
Those authorities of the opinion that women should recite HaGomel were fully aware of the concerns about modesty and offered varied practical suggestions. The early twentieth-century Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer (Kaf HaChaim 219:3, 7, 27), Rabbi Hillel Poisic (twentieth century; Hillel Omer 136, p. 86), Rabbi Raphael Baruch Toledano (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Toledano 107:3, p. 255) and the late twentieth-century Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (She’eilat Shlomo 2:87) all ruled that women should recite HaGomel, but may do so in front of ten relatives or friends. The Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Seder Birkat Hanehenin 13:3) states, like the Knesset Hagedolah, that women are obligated to say HaGomel, and therefore when a woman recovers from childbirth, she should recite the berachah in the women’s section such that ten men hear it. The Ben Ish Chai (Shanah Rishonah, Eikev: 5) goes further and states that women are obligated in Birkat HaGomel and if a woman does not know the berachah, her husband or someone else should teach it to her (since she is obligated).
Some authorities were adamant about a woman being obligated to recite Birkat HaGomel. Rabbi Yaakov Emden writes (Siddur Beit Yaakov, 112; Dinei Birkat HaGomel: 2) that women should not belittle this berachah, but should recite it while in the women’s section. If this is not feasible, they should recite it at home. He concludes that postpartum women are obligated and adds: “I do not know why and on what basis they are lenient about it.” Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Da’at 4:14-15) rules like the Knesset Hagedolah and the Chida, that women are obligated and that the proper procedure is for them to recite the berachah from the ezrat nashim or at a home celebration for the newborn. He notes that nowadays, when women are accustomed to go out in the marketplace among men, there is less of a concern about tzeniut when a woman recites HaGomel in the presence of men.
On the other hand, some authorities exempted women for a variety of reasons. Rabbi Mordechai Tzvi Halevi Horowitz in early twentieth-century Frankfurt says that in his city they stick to their traditions which, as the elderly righteous women told him, includes women not bentching Gomel and their husbands not reciting it on their behalf. He suggests that for a woman who was performing the mitzvah of bringing forth life, the language of “chayavim,” (guilty) is inappropriate (Mateh Levi 2:8) and that this would be true of anyone doing a mitzvah that involves danger.8 Shu”t Siach Yitzchak (OC 101) quotes several sources who discourage women from reciting HaGomel due to postpartum bleeding which, according to some, restricts the recitation of berachot. Another potential explanation for an exemption is that since HaGomel is in lieu of the korban todah, it has to be recited in the daytime, transforming it into a time-bound mitzvah, from which women are generally exempt.9 In Aden (south Yemen) women did not bentch Gomel, and there was also no custom of the husband saying it on behalf of his wife (Otzar Minhagei Aden, 202).
In lieu of bentching Gomel, some suggest that a woman answer “Baruch Hashem haMevorach le’olam va’ed” and “Amen” to her husband’s aliyah to the Torah with the specific intent of fulfilling her obligation to thank Hashem (Minchat Yitzchak 4:11). This may be the source for the custom of a new mother coming to shul when she feels well enough, with her husband getting an aliyah (with regard to getting an aliyah, a new father is subordinate only to a chatan before his wedding and a bar mitzvah boy) (Biur Halachah 136:1, s.v. b’Shabbat).10
Because there were locales where the custom developed for women to not recite HaGomel, the question arose as to whether another person, such as a father (for an adult daughter) or a husband (for his wife) may recite this berachah.
There are actually two issues that need to be examined with regard to this question: 1. May another person, e.g. a student, recite HaGomel because he is joyous about his teacher’s salvation, even when not in the beneficiary’s presence? 2. Can the recitation of the blessing by another person, e.g. a husband, fulfill one’s obligation? The gemara relates (Berachot 54b) that Rav Yehudah’s students recited a berachah of gratitude upon his recovery from an illness, to which he responded “Amen.” He then declared that he was now exempt from saying HaGomel. The Rosh (cited in Tur, OC 219) seems to rule, based on the story, that an individual can indeed say the berachah on another’s behalf, and if the obligated person responds “Amen,” he has thereby discharged his duty.
Commenting on this, the Beit Yosef (OC 219) cites the Rashba that this only applies to a rebbe and his student. He notes that a small number of husbands recite HaGomel on behalf of their postpartum wives and he rules that they should not do so. He goes on to say that husbands who do so should be rebuked. In an apparent contradiction, in the Shulchan Aruch, he rules (OC 219:4) that if another person said the berachah and the obligated party responded “Amen,” he has indeed fulfilled his obligation. The Rema adds a note that it is not a blessing in vain.11 The Kaf HaChaim (219:33) insists (Biur Halachah disagrees) that the Mechaber did not change his mind. He felt, as he wrote in the Beit Yosef, that one should not recite Birkat HaGomel on behalf of someone else but nevertheless, if one does so, the obligation is fulfilled.
The Mishnah Berurah (219:17), based on the Magen Avraham (219:4), elaborates on the Rema, and says that a joyous friend may recite the berachah, even if the person who was saved is not present, and certainly a husband can do so for a wife because “ishto k’gufo,” “a man’s wife is like his body.” Obviously, this custom does not resolve the issue for unmarried women who may have an obligation to recite HaGomel. The Mishnah Berurah (in Biur Halachah 219, s.v. “v’ain” says that the majority opinion is that only a student can fulfill the obligation for a rebbe or a son for a father. He does not seem to accept a husband saying it on behalf of his wife, despite the principle of ishto k’gufo. The Aruch Hashulchan (219:9) accepts that a husband can recite the berachah for his postpartum wife because “there is no greater love than a husband for a wife”; nonetheless, he attests that it is not the accepted practice, and as noted above, he opines that a woman is obligated to recite HaGomel. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (Shoneh Halachot 219:1, 4) rules that a husband should not recite HaGomel for his wife, even though he observes that the custom today is for women not to say it. He does mention that there are those who recommend that a woman say it in front of ten people.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvot V’Hanhagot 1:195) relates that the Chazon Ish did not agree that women should bentch Gomel (see Orchot Rabbeinu 2:103, p. 91). However, Rav Sternbuch says that it is appropriate that women thank God for His mercies and the custom in Yerushalayim, including among the congregants in his shul (despite what the Chazon Ish said), is that they do say it, either in the ezrat nashim or at home. A hundred years earlier, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (Salmat Chaim 136 or Shu”t Salmat Chaim 198) discusses whether a postpartum woman should bentch Gomel after seven days or wait until after thirty, with no mention of the idea that a woman not bentch. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo 23:4 and note 10) states that the Jerusalem custom was for a postpartum woman to bentch Gomel; he also emphatically states that the husband should not recite it on her behalf. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 13:17) notes that in Jerusalem, a postpartum woman recites HaGomel when a minyan is assembled in her house for Maariv.
The author of Bishvilei Birkat Hagomel (Rabbi Simcha Bunim Lieberman, 5758), an entire book on Birkat HaGomel, summarizes this topic as follows: “I have examined the Acharonim and the overwhelming majority hold that a woman should bentch Gomel.”12
The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 219:2-4) explains that both individually and as a nation, our existence is dependent upon God’s miraculous sustenance of the world. These “miracles” are generally divided into two categories: those that openly defy nature, like the Exodus from Egypt and upon which the berachah “She’asah nissim” should be recited (see OC 218), and those that appear to be natural, like earning a livelihood, for which no special berachah is recited but thanks is given in the daily prayers. There is also a middle ground whereby an event appears to unfold naturally but includes a subtle miraculous element (for example, childbirth). A berachah over a miracle cannot be recited, but a special berachah, HaGomel, is warranted to thank God for His granting the undeserved salvation.
A basic principle of Judaism is hakarat hatov, recognizing the good that one receives. Thus, if a woman is the beneficiary of God’s goodness, most authorities rule that she should personally thank Him. Rav Moshe Feinstein, in the last response he wrote in his own handwriting (Iggerot Moshe, OC 5:14), states: “There is no place and no reason to distinguish between a man and a woman regarding the obligation of a berachah of thanksgiving.” This seems to be the most popular approach among the posekim, who suggest that women say it either in shul or at home. For the most part, those who disagree exempt women altogether. Many authorities view a husband’s recitation of HaGomel on behalf of his wife as problematic, although there is a minority opinion that does not object to it.
1. The Gra prefers the Rif’s text of “gomel,” rather than Rambam’s “haGomel.”
2. Although not found in the Talmudic text, the phrase “undeserving” is found in the main Rishonim. Its meaning is explained in the Beit Yosef (OC 219, s.v. “mai”), Shu”t Maharam Mintz 14 and Avnei Nezer, OC 39 and might have ramifications for this topic (see Har Tzvi, OC 1:113). On the text and other aspects of the berachah, see Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. 4, entry on Birkat HaGomel (pp. 316-321).
3. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach felt that the word “kol” should be removed from the berachah but not from the end of the response (Halichot Shlomo 23:7).
4. Even if they do not respond, one fulfills the mitzvah (MB 219:5).
5. Vayikra 7:12; Rosh, Berachot, chap. 9, sec. 3; Tur, OC 219. Based on this connection, Birkat HaGomel is preferably recited during the day (Kaf HaChaim, OC 219:14; Shu”t Chatam Sofer, OC 51; Tzitz Eliezer 13:17). For a discussion regarding why it can be recited on Shabbat while a voluntary tefillah may not, see Shu”t Maharam Schick, OC 88. See Chanoch Goldberg, “Chovat nashim l’vareich Birkat HaGomel,” Shana B’shana (5750), 231-239, for an elaboration on this topic.
6. The rationale for this position is that the purpose of the blessing, as a substitute for the korban todah, is to publicly thank God; thus there is no need for a technical minyan as needed for a davar sheb’kedushah, merely an assembly of people for which women count as well. The reason for the requirement of one man is not clear. See Rabbi Aryeh Frimer, “Women and Minyan,” Tradition 23:4 (Summer 1988): 54-77, especially 63-64. See Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Bnei Banim 5, on why others say that specifically a minyan is needed and why he thinks there may be a difference in the make-up of the quorum for a postpartum woman as opposed to individuals in other circumstances.
Not all posekim accept the Mishnah Berurah’s suggestion. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo 23:4, note gimmel) says that even though in Yerushalayim on Purim Meshulush the megillah is read for ten women with a berachah, for Birkat HaGomel that is not the practice. So too, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 5:14) says there is no point in reciting HaGomel in the presence of ten women and it is fine if said in front of even one individual, male or female; if the woman is married, it should be recited in front of her husband.
7. Some understand the Mishnah Berurah to prefer the position that a woman recite it in the presence of ten men (Torah Lodaas 15:25 [Tzav, 1991]).
8. This does not explain why women in other circumstances did not bentch Gomel. And it would mean that Israeli soldiers returning from miluim or the front would not bentch Gomel, which they indeed do (see Rav Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch, Shu”t Siach Nachum: 13).
9. This explanation is rejected by most authorities. See Chatam Sofer, OC 51; Shu”t Maharam Schick, OC 88.
10. Note this is distinct from the custom, not as widespread today as it once was, of a man receiving an aliyah on day forty or eighty following the birth of a son or daughter, respectively.
11. On the text to use when making the berachah for someone else, see Taz 219:3, MB 219:17 and Sha’ar Hatziyun 219:13.
12. In a bizarre twist, he then spends several pages trying to find a reason why women should not say it and concludes that while it is dependent on local custom, “our” people, i.e., Polish and Lithuanian Jews, do not have the custom of postpartum women bentching Gomel.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.