The gemara in Berakhot (29b) discusses the prayer recited when beginning a journey - known as tefillat ha-derekh. The gemara states that when a person begins a journey he should seek the counsel of his "konkha" (literally your owner – God). Rav Ya'akov quotes Rav Chisdah who identifies this instruction with tefillat ha-derekh. The ensuing gemara provides the text for 'tefillat ha-derekh' which more or less resembles the text that we recite. This shiur will analyze the structure and nature of this halakha.
The most logical starting point in our analysis might be the dispute between Rashi and the Behag surrounding a very ambiguous statement of the gemara. The gemara asks "ad kama," literally, "until how much." To this the gemara replies, until a parsa (about 4 kilometers). The Behag understands the gemara's inquiry as pertaining to the minimum amount of distance necessary to obligate this tefilla. Not every short jaunt requires tefillat ha-derekh, and the gemara establishes a parsa as the minimum 'shiur' of travel which requires the recital of tefillat ha-derekh. The Behag's position seems quite logical and matches the literal meaning of the text. Rashi (30a) suggests that the gemara is in fact examining UNTIL WHICH STAGE IN THE JOURNEY this tefilla may be recited. Once a parsa has been traversed, the tefilla may no longer be recited. Though Rashi's position can be read into the text of the gemara, the logic seems untenable. Why must the tefilla be recited within a parsa of the inception of the journey? Assuming that a significant part of the journey still remains, shouldn't the berakha still be recited afterwards???
Rishonim adopt different approaches to Rashi's position. Rabbenu Yona, for example, cannot accept Rashi at face value, so he assumes that Rashi's limitation applies only as a lekhatchila. Ideally, the tefilla should be recited at the start of the trip. If one forgot or even delayed beyond this point, the tefilla may still be said at later stages of the trip. This reading, which is adopted by the Ritva as well, forms the basis of the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh (siman 108) that lekhatchila the tefilla should be recited within the first parsa; bedi'eved it can be recited afterwards as long as a significant part of the journey remains.
The Ra'ah though, adopts a purist reading of Rashi: if the tefilla wasn't recited within the first parsa, it may not be recited afterwards. He doesn't explain why this is true but we might get a better understanding by reading the Me'iri's explanation. He claims that if the tefilla is said too late into the trip it can no longer be considered consulting with God ("himaleikh be-konkha"). The Me'iri takes this initial terminology suggested by the gemara very seriously and sees it as the source of Rashi's position. What are we to make of this phrase and how does it warrant Rashi's position?
The use of this term by the gemara might suggest an interesting view of tefillat ha-derekh. The intuitive understanding would claim that tefillat ha-derekh is a special tefilla recited under the dangerous conditions that travel presents: We ask God to protect us from the unique perils of the road. The gemara never mentions the danger factor, but given the text of the berakha as well as the very existence of a special berakha we might impute this function to tefillat ha-derekh.
The statement "himaleikh be-konkha" however, suggests that this tefilla is an attempt to ask permission from God or consult with Him prior to beginning a journey. The word "himaleikh" means ask or consult. The gemara does not supply the reason for consulting with God before beginning a journey. One might claim, however, that this tefilla is a form of asking permission to travel or relocate in God's world, just as we ask permission to eat from His food or to study His Torah by reciting a prior berakha. Though the actual content of this request is our asking Him to protect us, the function of the tefilla is to symbolically receive permission to make the trip. By asking God for protection, we effectively consult with Him prior to the trip. Interestingly enough, the latter part of the berakha (Hashem should send us blessing to our varied enterprises, allow us to elicit other peoples eyes) has little to do with the specific elements of perils of a journey. The inclusion of more general items might further corroborate the nature of this tefilla as a form of consultation.
As this is not functionally a prayer for God to protect us but a 'consultation,' we now better understand Rashi's limiting the tefilla to the early stages of the trip. As the Me'iri comments, if the tefilla is not recited early enough, it can no longer be considered consulting with God prior to making the journey. The tefilla can no longer be recited even bedi'eved, since the element of asking permission is one which must naturally occur at the start of the trip.
A second manifestation of this issue might be the length of distance necessary to travel as a minimum according to Rashi. We stated earlier that according to the Behag's reading, at least a parsa must be traveled to obligate the tefilla. Rashi reinterprets the gemara's question to refer to the point in the journey before which the tefilla must be recited. Logically then, according to Rashi the gemara never sets a minimum limit or shiur for the distance that must be traversed. Quite possibly any time a trip is made – even less than a parsa - the berakha should be recited. Several Rishonim argue that even Rashi would accept the minimum shiur, since it would be difficult to conceive a person reciting this berakha every time he leaves his house. The Ra'ah however, claims that according to Rashi, there exists no minimum shiur for the recitation of the berakha, and the gemara was only considering the latest stage in the trip to recite the berakha. Conceivably, if Rashi views tefillat ha-derekh as asking permission, the prayer might be obligated even if smaller trips were undertaken. (The Ra'ah does not solve a technical problem - at what point does the trip become so insignificant that even Rashi would not obligate a berakha?)
A fascinating question emerges from the discussion of the Orchot Chayim. He mentions the minhag of his Rebbe to recite tefillat ha-derekh without beginning with the word 'barukh.' He justifies this practice with the fact that tefillat ha-derekh is normally recited IMMEDIATELY AFTER reciting another berakha. This situation, known as 'berakha ha-semukha le-chaverta,' is well-documented and is sufficient basis to begin a berakha without the word 'barukh.' The exact stage at which the Orchot Chayim's Rebbe recited tefillat ha-derekh however, is fascinating. We typically envision the berakha being recited at the beginning of a journey. The Rebbe of the Orchot Chayim would recite the berakha during birkot ha-shachar on the morning of the day he planned to travel. Clearly, relocating the tefilla from its natural setting - the beginning of the trip - to the birkhot ha-shachar would reflect Rashi's view of the tefilla. According to the standard view, this special prayer for protection against the dangers of travel should be recited proximate to the actual travel. If we view the tefilla as a general 'consultation' with God which authorizes the trip, we might be more likely to recite the berakha in the morning along with other general berakhot which address our relationship with God and His hashgacha of our world.
A related question raised by the Orchot Chayim tilts in a similar direction to Rashi's position. If a person travels several times in one day, how many times should the tefilla be recited? If the smaller jaunts are all part of one long journey (with small rest stops in between), no more than one tefilla should be recited. After all, even though several excursions are made they are all integrated into one trip. What if, however, someone travels in the morning, remains in his destination the entire day (even sleeping in between), and then begins a different journey later that evening? The Orchot Chayim claims that only one tefilla should be recited. According to the classic view of tefillat ha-derekh, this ruling might be challenged. Each trip provides fresh dangers and should warrant a distinct tefilla. According to Rashi though, we might require this 'consultation' once a day regardless of how many trips are taken. Just as we thank God once a day 'shelo asani goy,' similarly we might recognize, once a day, His dominion over the world in which we are traveling, regardless of how many trips we take that day.
The gemara provides another interesting question that might be influenced by the nature of tefillat ha-derekh. Initially the gemara provides the syntax of the tefilla - one that generally mirrors the tefilla as we know it. However, the initial language that was presented was articulated in the singular tense. A person prays that HE should be saved. Subsequently Abayei comments that the tefilla should be formulated in the plural tense - that God should take US safely. Clearly Abayei's comments associate tefillat ha-derekh with the world of tefilla in general. In fact, the formulation of tefilla in general in the plural tense is derived from Abayei's comments. Would this better reflect the Behag's position that tefillat ha-derekh is a prayer that requests that the traveler be spared from the dangers of the road? According to Rashi, would tefillat ha-derekh be considered part of tefilla? Might the gemara's original position - accepting tefillat ha-derekh couched in the singular - have held that this tefilla has little to do with the world of prayer in general and therefore does not have to be formulated in the communal tense?
Many Poskim raise an intriguing question about tefillat ha-derekh that might potentially be affected by the differing views of this prayer. Though the gemara spoke of a minimal distance that must be covered in order to recite tefillat ha-derekh, we might inquire whether DISTANCE or TIME generates the obligation. Assuming one travels by vehicle, a parsa can be covered in far less time than if he traveled by foot. Should the shiur for tefillat ha-derekh be measured in pure distance or by the TIME it might take to cover a parsa by foot? This question has obvious application to our means of travel. If a person were to cover 4 km in a few minutes would he be obligated to recite this tefilla or would the obligation only come about once a trip approaching an hour were conducted? By establishing a parsa as the minimum shiur are we meant to measure DISTANCE traveled or are we more concerned with the TIME in which a parsa is traversed by foot? This issue is discussed in several analogous situations by the gemara itself. See especially the gemara in Pesachim (96a) relating to someone who was 'DISTANT' from the Mikdash on erev Pesach and was therefore unable to offer the korban Pesach (see Bamidbar 9:10). If he had horses available to cover the distance in a shorter time than walking, is he considered distant (and thereby excused from offering the korban and invited to offer one on Pesach Sheni) or he is considered 'CLOSE' and thereby delinquent in not making efforts to bring the korban pesach?
Assuming that some minimum shiur for tefillat ha-derekh exists, would we base it upon distance or time? The Rishonim do not directly address the question, although from the statements of the Ra'avya it would appear that we consider distance alone. How would this question be impacted by the differing views of tefillat ha-derekh stated earlier?