Halacha for Wednesday 29 Av 5780 August 19 2020

Sailing Across a River and Swimming in the Sea

In the previous Halachot we have discussed the obligation for one who travels by ship in the heart of the sea to recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing upon reaching dry land.

Travelling Along Rivers that are Unsalted
The Poskim discuss the law regarding one who sails through sweet-water rivers, such as those who travel by boat along the rivers common in such European cities as London, Paris, and Venice. Must such an individual recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing or not? The root of the doubt regarding this law lies in the fact that the danger involved in setting sail through the sea is much greater than sailing through calm rivers and there is room to claim that our Sages only instituted the “Ha’Gomel” blessing for one who travels through the sea and not one who sails through a river.

Although we have quoted the words of Rabbeinu Avraham son of the Rambam who writes that even one who sails through a river must recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing, nevertheless, the Mishnah Berura (in his Be’ur Halacha, beginning of Chapter 219) writes that it would seem regarding our rivers which are not as dangerous as a saltwater sea that one should not recite the “Ha’Gomel” upon emerging from them. He concludes that according to the Sephardic custom which is to recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing upon travelling (by foot or by car) from city to city (as we shall explain) although there is not so much danger involved, similarly, they should recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing upon travelling by river as well. However, according to the Ashkenazi custom which is not to recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing unless one travels from one country to another, one should only recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing for travel through a saltwater sea which entails much greater danger. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l quotes this opinion (in his Chazon Ovadia-Berachot, page 360).

Swimming in the Sea Without a Boat
Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes: “One who swims in the sea, even in the Kinneret (Sea of the Galilee) which is near inhabited settlements and even if there are lifeguards there on a constant basis, nevertheless retains the same law as one traveling by sea since there have been tragic occurrences where people have drowned.” This means that even if one swims in the sea without actually travelling through the sea by boat or a ship retains the same law as one traveling through the sea and upon reaching dry land, one must recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing in the presence of ten men. This law is certainly applicable according to the Sephardic custom which is to recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing even when sailing through a sweet-water river since this is also considered traveling by sea.

Nevertheless, it is clear that even according to the Sephardic custom, one should only recite this blessing when swimming in a place where there is a possibility of drowning. However, if one swims in a spring or creek where there is no danger of drowning, our Sages never enacted that such a person should recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing as is stated explicitly by Rabbeinu Avraham son of the Rambam that our Sages only enacted this blessing to be recited after traveling through a place where there is a possibility of drowning. However, one who goes to swim or bathe in a spring, as was common in earlier generations, may certainly not recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing, for the danger involved in such an activity was extremely farfetched even in the times of the Sages who enacted this blessing. Thus, they did not institute reciting the “Ha’Gomel” blessing at all for such bathing or swimming.

Similarly, if one enters the sea or ocean but only does so a little bit such that the water only reaches one’s waist and the like, it seems that one should not recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing after doing so, for this cannot be considered “entering the sea”. Nevertheless, Hagaon Harav Meir Bransdorfer zt”l writes in his Responsa Kenei Bosem (Volume 1, Chapter 11) that it once happened that an individual went to swim at the beach and the water was somewhat stormy and suddenly, the sea turned very stormy and he was immediately pulled into the depths of the water and after a great struggle and with all his might, he finally managed to swim back ashore and then inquired if he should recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing. Harav Bransdorfer replied that he certainly should recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing, even according to the Ashkenazi custom.

Sea Men (A Ship’s Crew Members) and Soldiers Serving in the Navy
Members of a ship’s crew, including soldiers serving in the Navy, upon going on leave for even a few days must recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing when they return home even though they intend to set sail again into the sea as soon as their leave ends. Similarly, fishermen whose job takes them into the depths of the sea in order to catch fish must recite the “Ha’Gomel” blessing every Shabbat.

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