After the Tefillin Terror Scare

One morning last week, a young man was flying with his sister from New York’s La Guardia Airport to Kentucky. The young man, being an observant Jew, wanted to recite the morning prayers on the plane, as he had not had the opportunity to do so before going to the airport. This, he did just like in the synagogue, and as countless flying Dutchmen Jews before him, by praying while wearing tefillin. Unfortunately, that particular crew did not know what tefillin are, and in this post-shoe bomber, post-underwear bomber era, the crew grew suspicious, and after conferring with the pilot, they maImage juxtaposing tefillin clad boy with Islamic terroristde an emergency stopover in Philadelphia, where a SWAT team “welcomed” the brother and sister team, arrested them, escorted them out of the plane, and treated them like wanna-be leather-straps-on-arm-and-forehead-bombers.  Of course, it didn’t take too long to figure out that this was an innocent pair, though for the convenience of flight crew training, I am including a graphic (hat tip: R’JF) that should hammer this point home rather clearly. A video news report is included at the end of this post.

Anyway, ever since this incident, the blogosphere and mailing list are alight, discussing whether or not one must pray with tefillin even when flying, what the alternatives are, if any, whether we should expect such reactions in the future and hence should as much as possible abstain from praying with tefillin while flying, in this post-shoe bomber, post-underwear bomber era, and whether the crew was properly trained. These issues have already been discussed extensively elsewhere.

While the security issues are new, Jews have faced the issues with praying while travelling since time immemorial. Over a hundred years ago, a similar discussion was aired in the German Jewish press. A certain Chief Rabbi J. Kahn of Treves / Trier wrote an article attacking the practice, and suggested that travellers put their tefillin on before leaving home, even if that was before day break, when the tefillin should ordinarily not be worn. R’ Esriel Hildesheimer responded in his usual learned, witty, slightly acerbic manner. Below, I am excerpting some relevant passages.

For the benefit of the practically minded, I shall give some practical tips at the end of the post.

First, let us turn to the interchange between Oberrabiner J. Kahn (a Reform rabbi, as is evident from this German article) and R’ Hildesheimer.

In 1861, Joseph Kahn wrote in the periodical „Ben Chananja,“ Nr. 23 [online facsimile here] that:

I have repeatedly been made aware by conservative Israelites of their embarrassment, which they feel forced to face, when they must travel before daybreak, and still find themselves, at the appointed time for [morning] prayers, in the horse-drawn coach, the steamship, etc. To don tefillin in such public places contradicts their feelings of decency and even their religious feelings, for through that act our entire religion is made into a laughingstock, something they have repeatedly observed. It would also be impossible for them to collect themselves and pay the required reverence. Therefore it is urgently needed that the rabbis provide an alternative means, so that those who still want to observe this, will be able to do so with reverence and dignity and without violating their religious feeling and decency. I consider it all the more my duty to respond to the contemporary need, since I have seen with my own eyes, as has also been reported to me, what great mischief and desecration of religion particularly the Israelites of the countryside commit and cause with this [practice]. They don the tefillin in the simplest taverns, in presence of the rudest and most ignorant people, often even on the public highway, while they drive their cattle before them or even lead such by hand. They do so in the most incomprehensible and irreverent manner, and remain with uncovered arm until they have mumbled the customary prayer in haste and without devotion, and then remove the Tefilin.

To the above tirade against the traditional practices of the rural Jews, R’ Hildesheimer replied, in Der Israelit 1862 #18, #19 & #20 [pgs. 139-, 147– and 156-, reprinted in his collected writings]:

It is certainly that “educated, conservative Israelites must face great embarrassment” when they perform their prayers as prescribed, in the company of non Jews. They neither feel nor get embarrassed. In my own experience, I have often found myself at prayer times in the company of non-Jews of the most varied classes, in coaches, on steam boats or in trains, and I not only donned the tefillin, but even used a tallis. Yet, not only has this observance not caused me any embarrassment, it has also afforded me, as it surely did others, desirable opportunities to enlighten [others] about the commandments of tallis and tefillin, and thus to contribute to an increase in high regard the Jewish religion. Only the Jewish priests who advise anyone who gave the יצר הרע a finger, to stretch out the others, too, could desire to ruin with such absurdities this and other of the faithful Jew’s delights.

It is also untrue to claim that through donning the Tefillin, public decency is breached and not only this mitzvah, but the religion as a whole is [then] made into a laughingstock. The views on decency are notoriously variable.

Nowadays, it is considered improper for girls to go out on the street with uncombed hair. Let us now ask the same fault-finders, whether they believe that a Catholic girl would feel embarrassed, during processions, to proceed into church with her disheveled hair. No! Through devout performance of the prayers, the most stringent demands of propriety are met, as long as the violation thereof is not brought about through undignified hand-signals [during the recitation of the prayers]. Should we hide with our tefillin? Especially considering that to which a famous teacher, Rabbi Eliezer hagodaul, applied, around the year 100 (Menachot 35b) the Scriptural word (Deuteronomy 28:10): “Then all peoples on earth will see that the name of the LORD is called upon you and will be afraid of you “? [well, afraid the crew surely was. I am not sure that is the emotion we want to evoke in a plane. But יראה does not only connote fear, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in this context, respect. –AF]

It is barely worth losing a word over such petty sentiments. Do you want to know, you mercenaries of the evil inclination, what arouses ridicule and contempt of Torah and her commandments? That is far, far more aroused when one cannot imagine any more spirited conversations with one’s fellow traveller of different faith, than to ask with great interest which inn has the better kitchen and whether a better wine can be found in here or there.

R’ Hildesheimer also took up the defence of the Jewish cattle dealers’ honor:

Let us finally turn to the “cattle dealers, who pray with uncovered arm in the simplest taverns and on public highways,” and thereby supposedly cause “great mischief” and “unforgivable desecration of religion.” Those not intimidated by such pretentious, blustering talk know nothing of this. Of course, since these modern priests have tried to force the great, wide Judaism into the straitjacket of the synagogue, since it is zealously committed to keeping everything, up to and including the theatrical coup of organ and choral music, song and preaching, away from Judaism, since then it must have become a “mischievous and unforgivable desecration of religion” when a layman, and a cattle trader to boot, presumes to recite his prayers in the open air, where the great powerful nature intones a very different song, than all choir boys and girls together, say his prayers; presumes, in a simple tavern, amid rude, uneducated people, to give practical expression to the beautiful contrast captured by the phrase אני עמל והם עמלים – I engage in my occupation, and they engage in their occupation (T.B. Berakhot 28b). Like this, entirely without priests, without arias and duets, just by and for themselves, to worship all on their own, is the an enormous impudence! However, the spirit of the Schul’han ‘Arukh says: practice the commandment of praying with tefillin whenever possible, lest one otherwise fail to, when, for example, the last moments of the time prescribed therefore come near and a better place is not available; he may fulfil them calmly in those places the Lord Chief Rabbi so abhors.

R’ Hildesheimer then turns his attention to the halakhic arguments of Joseph Kahn:

The Chief Rabbi did not first engage in research, in order to then draw the necessary conclusions from them. He had rather first established his results, to then rework the sources until they would say what he wanted to allow them to say. The opinion he in this fashion supported, consists of two, actually three parts: The donning of tefillin at night, the reading of the Shema’ and recitation of the [morning] prayers before daybreak. At the opening of the first part, he makes two claims: 1) that tefillin may be donned in the dead of the night and the accompanying blessings recited, and 2) that the recitation of the Shema’ and the prayers is independent of [having donned the tefillin].

In conclusion, we conclude from our researches:

  1. Not only are travellers not required to don tefillin before day break, but doing so and reciting the accompanying blessings results in two blessings spoken in vain, and they have not absolved themselves of donning the tefillin.
  2. The recitation of the Shema’ and the [morning] prayers before day break is not only not recommended, but actually prohibited.

That said, it should be pointed out that (a) if one leaves home long enough after day break, so that one could pray, with tefillin, before leaving home, that is far preferable to praying on a plane, and (b) when one anticipates having exceptionally great difficulty donning the tefillin during the day, it may exceptionally be justified to put them on before day break, but without reciting the accompanying blessings, as per a ruling by R’ Moshe Feinstein during the oil crisis of 1973, when daylight savings time was operative during the winter, too, for people who couldn’t put them on at work. Note that even then, the morning prayers may only be recited at their appropriate time, i.e. after daybreak.

[References: שו”ת אגרות משה אורח חיים חלק ד סימן ו and אורח חיים חלק א סימן י.]

As always, do not consider the internet a source of halakhic rulings, but SYLOR (see your local Orthodox rabbi).

Some Practical Reflections

I have flown countless times across the Atlantic, between Israel, Europe and the United States, prayed in planes, in airports, on a bus (after being stuck for several hours in an airport, because of heavy fog), on trains, and like R’ Hildesheimer above, can report that I was never harassed, nor did anyone report any discomfort or fear. I have even organized some minyanim on planes, space permitting and of course with the permission of the crew. I did once attract attention of half the staff of Zaventem Airport, near Brussels, when I organized a minyan in the terminal right after landing, but otherwise never encountered any fearful crew. Oh, on one trip, I had a neighbor who wouldn’t stop calling me “reverend.”

[UPDATE 20100130.22:22] Opposition to praying with tefillin while travelling has generally come from those circles that believe we should never do anything conspicuously Jewish while among non-Jews. However, you never know where the next inspiration for Jewish spiritual boldness comes from, as my friend R’ CB reports:

We once had an XYZ  trip to Washington D.C. to speak with senators and congressman.  There were 25 of us on the plane including many of us who were frum.  It was a 7:00 flight, tallis and tefillin time then here was not until very late, 7:00 (we have that problem here), and there was no choice but to daven on the plane, because the minute the flight landed we were going to be taken to meetings, non-stop, until dark.

And so it was–with an unforgettable twist.

As we got up to daven after the plane was in the air–our Federation colleagues surely not feeling great about this–the most, shall we say ultra-reform member of the group, who was also the president of our Jewish Community Relations Council at the time, i.e. a person very concerned about how we appear and work with non-Jews, stood up and said that he had yartzeit for one of his parents that day, and he wanted to know if he could say kaddish!  While there were ten of us davening, we were obviously doing so individually, but now he would need to lead the kaddish, and at least at that one junction, make this into a service.  He then took a napkin and put in on his head in front of a full planeload of passengers and said kaddish, with all of us responding. Thereafter, he thanked us for having a minyan on the plane so he could say kaddish.

Just want to make the point that sometimes good things happen when you stand up and put your tallis and tefillin on when on a plane.

[/UPDATE 20100130.22:22]

Generally, I have found crews to be well informed about the kinds of Jewish practices they may encounter during a flight. This, however, may be a feature of international flights, and a regional flight crew may very well be significantly less well informed, though I admit surprise at a crew that operates a New York route would not be well informed in this regard. (Well, now, they are well informed, as you can see ;-))

However, we do live in this crazy post-shoe bomber, post-underwear bomber era, so it is proper etiquette, and quite advisable, to let the crew know what you are going to do, before beginning your prayer. Let them know you will don tallis and tefillin.

By the way, let me also state that because of changing security regulations of recent years and because of the changing plane designs, one is not very likely to get permission to organize a minyan on a plane, unless it happens to have a very large number of Jewish travellers. Just about the only place where one could congregate, in the newer planes (747s have some larger kitchens and service points, where it used to be possible to organize a minyan), is in front of the toilets, not exactly the right place to pray. So it is preferable to pray while seated in one’s seat.

[UPDATE 20100130.22:22] The following ad is floating around the internet, though Arutz Sheva reports doubts as to whether the advert is genuine or a spoof. [Hat tip: R’DF]

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2 Responses to After the Tefillin Terror Scare

  1. Tom Sotil says:

    “Oh, on one trip, I had a neighbor who wouldn’t stop calling me “reverend.””
    – funny 🙂
    But my wife, being Australian, knows a “Rabbi” at a shule which completed something like, but not really, a Smicha and he IS called “reverend”. Was very weird for me at first….(and no, he’s not reform, fully orthodox)

  2. Milhouse says:

    Yes, the United Synagogue (of the Commonwealth) used to give out a “semicha” to people who knew Orach Chaim but not Yoreh Deah, and the title for such people was “reverend”. I believe this stopped in the ’70s or ’80s, when there were enough rabbis that there was no more need for reverends.

    Also, “reverend” is (or was, since I haven’t heard it lately) a term used in Commonwealth countries for a shochet or chazan who does not have semicha.

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