If you have ever had a life-endangering moment – a car accident, a severe illness, etc. – then you will remember the flood of emotions that come with the knowledge that you were saved from death or great harm. Chief among these emotions is gratitude, and the sages instituted a specific blessing, known as Birkat Hagomel (Bentching Gomel in Yiddish), to be recited after just such an event.

“Rav Judah said in the name of Rav, ‘There are four [types of] people who have to offer thanksgiving: those who crossed the sea, those who traversed the wilderness, one who has recovered from an illness, and a prisoner who has been set free’” (Talmud Brachot 54b) These four categories are each connected to a quote concluding with an instruction to give thanks to the Lord for His mercy (Psalms 107: 23-31, 4-8, 17-21 and 10-15). These four types of people are known in the Jewish literature by the acronym “Chay’yim” (which in Hebrew literally means life): Ch’avush – a former prisoner, Yam – one who crossed the sea, Y’isurim – one who suffered illness, M’idbar – one who crossed the desert.

The Talmud states that one should declare a brief blessing, “Blessed is He Who bestows loving kindness” (ibid.), but the actual blessing that is recited is, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who bestows good upon the guilty, even as He has bestowed to me every good.” This blessing is recited with a minyan (a prayer quorum), and it is best if that minyan includes two Torah scholars. The prayer itself is usually recited during the Torah reading service.

Defining Chay’yim (the four categories) in the modern age has a lot to do with the traditions of one’s community. In some communities, a single day in a sickbed is considered ill enough to recite Birkat Hagomel, in others it is three days. Some make the blessing after any travel, others have very specific specifications. If one thinks that they have a reason to recite Birkat Hagomel, they should consult their local rabbi.

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