Behind the wheel, beyond the journey: Decoding halachic blessings for travelers

  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

The Torah passages and Israel's holidays are full of important messages that are relevant and empower our day-today lives. Rabbi Shai Tahan, head of the Sha'arei Ezra community and head of the Arzi HaLebanon teaching house, opens the gates for us to understand these messages, from their source, in a clear way. This week: Behind the Wheel, Beyond the Journey: Decoding Halachic Blessings for Travelers

Summer is the perfect time to hit the road and travel with the family. When journeying from one city to another, Chazal instituted a bracha called Tfilat Haderech- the traveler’s prayer.

The Gmara says (Brachot 29b): when you set out on a journey, consult with your Creator, and then leave. The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of: Consult with your Creator? And responds: That is the traveler’s prayer. The Gmara adds that this is not only good advice, but established halacha that anyone who sets out on a journey must recite the traveler’s prayer prior to embarking on his journey.

The text of the prayer.

The Gmara then teaches us the text for the traveler’s prayer: May it be Your will, Hashem, to lead me to peace, direct my steps to peace, and guide me to peace, and rescue me from the hands of any enemy or ambush along the way, and send blessing to the work of my hands, and let me find grace, kindness, and compassion in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see me. Baruch Ata Hashem, who hears prayer.

Another details is learned from the Amora- Abaye: At all times a person should include himself with the congregation and should not pray for himself alone. How should he say it? May it be your will, Hashem, that You lead us to peace, etc., in the plural. 

The correct way to pray.

The Gmara continues: How does he recite this prayer? While standing in one place. Rav Sheshet said: Even walking or sitting.

According to the Shulchan Aruch (סימן קי), it is advised that when a person is walking, they should stop and pray. However, if they are riding a donkey or traveling in a caravan, they are allowed to recite the prayer while on the move. From this, we can infer that if someone is driving and knows the prayer by heart, they may recite it while driving. However, if they don't know it by heart, it is recommended to find a suitable place to stop and recite the prayer from a written text. Safety and concentration while driving should always be a priority. According to Magen Avraham one should always make an effort to stop the car and recite the blessing. The Ohr Letsion says that this requirement is only for the driver but the passengers are able to recite it during the drive. If possible one should get out of the car and stand while saying it.

Brachot usually open with a bracha: “Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam” or are recited immediately after a bracha. The Rishonim asked why was Tfilat Haderech instituted without such opening. After much discussion the Shulchan Aruch wrote that If possible, one should try to say the traveler’s prayer after another Bracha.

The correct time to pray.

The Gmara continues: When does one pray? From when he sets out on his journey, and not before. How long must one’s planned journey be in order to require him to recite this prayer? At least a parsa (distance of 72 minute travel).

The Rishonim had differing opinions regarding the interpretation of the above Gemara requirement of 72 minutes. Rashi understood that one may say Tfilat Haderech only within the first parsa, which is approximately 72 minutes into the journey. The Meiri explained that since this prayer is a form of asking permission from Hashem to leave the city, therefore it must be done at the beginning of the journey. On the other hand, the Baag (Ba'al Halachot Gedolot) argued that the requirement to say this prayer applies only to a travel distance of 72 minutes. The distinction between their views becomes evident when one surpasses that travel distance from their starting point. According to the Baag, they would still recite the prayer because their travel exceeds 72 minutes. However, according to Rashi, if they missed saying the Tfilat Haderech within the initial 72 minutes, they would have missed the opportunity to recite it.

The Halacha, as ruled in the Shulchan Aruch (סימן קי), follows the opinion of the Baag, allowing one to say Tfilat Haderech even if they have been traveling for over 72 minutes. However, lechatchila (ideally), it is recommended to recite the prayer (following Rashi's opinion) as soon as the journey begins.

The Shulchan Aruch also specifies that as long as the traveler still has ahead of them a travel distance of 72 minutes, they can continue to say Tfilat Haderech throughout the journey, otherwise they should say it with Hashem’s name.

Poskim add few more requirements to be able to say the bracha.

The bracha of Tfilat Haderech is recited when the travel involves going from one city to another. However, if one stays within the same city, even if they travel all day, the bracha is not recited.In halachic terms, when referring to "one city to another," it signifies that there is a clear space of 115 feet (70 amot) without any houses between the two cities, otherwise even if cities have different names, since they are close by they are considered to be the same, thus no Bracha is recited.

It is recommended to recite the bracha immediately upon exiting the city, specifically when departing from the last house within the city limits. A convenient and suitable location to do so would be at a landmark such as a bridge, which serves as a clear demarcation point between the city and its outskirts. For instance, when leaving Brooklyn, the Verazzano Bridge could be an ideal place to recite the bracha, as it marks the boundary between the city and the open road. According to the ruling of Rabbi Israel Belsky, when taking a flight, the ideal time to recite the bracha would be while the airplane is taxiing on the runway, preparing for takeoff. As soon as the plane has left the airport premises and is on its way to the destination, it is considered to have officially left the city limits. 

Due to the requirement mentioned earlier, the Biur Halacha (סימן קי ד״ה ואין) raised a question about reciting the blessing when a traveler exceeds the 72-minute minimum travel time but passes through populated areas or cities. The dilemma revolves around whether the presence of populated places implies reduced danger, thereby exempting the traveler from saying the blessing. The Tehila Ledavid supported the opinion that in such a scenario, one does not recite the bracha, considering the lower risk due to the proximity of populated regions.On the other hand, some poskim, like the Shevet Halevi, take a different approach. They contend that driving, being associated with the inherent risk of accidents warrants the recitation of the bracha for any distance traveled, irrespective of passing through populated areas or cities. According to this viewpoint, the potential danger on the road justifies the continuous expression of gratitude and seeking divine protection throughout the entire journey. This difference in opinion highlights the diverse perspectives within halachic discourse regarding the appropriate circumstances for reciting the blessing while traveling by vehicle.

Reciting the Tfila in modern time.

In modern times, there is a difference of opinions among scholars regarding the recitation of Tfilat Haderech. This divergence arises from the fact that today's roads are generally considered safe, unlike the times of Chazal when traveling posed significant risks due to the presence of robbers and murderers, making it a genuine peril to journey.

As a result of the improved safety on roads, some argue (רש״ז אורבעך בהליכות שלמה תפלה פרק כא הערה 14, ובאור לציון ח״ב עמוד עג) that the original purpose of the prayer, seeking protection from dangerous journeys, may not be as applicable today. Therefore, they may view the recitation of Tfilat Haderech as unnecessary in our current context. According to those opinions the prayer should be recited while omitting Hashem’s name.

On the other hand, others maintain that the prayer still holds value since the roads poses a risk of accidents.

How often the prayer is recited?

The Shulchan Aruch rules as follows: "One should recite Tfilat Haderech only once a day, even if they rest in a city during the day. However, if one intends to stay in a city and later decides to travel outside of it or return home, they must recite the prayer again."

The Vilna Gaon explains that this ruling is similar to the blessing of the Torah, where the blessing remains effective until the next morning, thus one should recite the prayer if he sleeps at night and continues driving the next morning. The Pri Chadash, in contrast, holds that one should say the bracha only once upon leaving, and that will cover the entire trip, even if it spans several days.

This article was written in cooperation with Shuva Israel