Tired of Tiffs Over Tefillin…

Tired of Tiffs Over Tefillin...

What can I say, I can’t avoid the alliteration.

I am sick and tired of the craziness over tefillin on airplanes. It seems like more and more planes are being brought down or moved to high alert if a Jewish man breaks out his tefillin on-board. But what is equally, if not more so, disturbing is the comments you find on these articles.

An airplane is not a synagogue, mosque, church, temple, or cathedral. Pray discreetly and silently or perform your public display of piety for when you get on the ground. I’m sure everyone but God will be impressed.

As a non practicing member of the Jewish faith, I ask you to please not draw any conclusions from these idiots. I suspect that less than .01% of Jews fall into the category of people who would act so stupidly. It strikes me that they were doing this for attention because there is absolutely no reason to do this on an airplane.

Do these people live under a rock? To do anything like that on an airplane is ridiculous…it can wait until you get home. These people are either very dumb or playing dumb…it’s not a case of a smart person just not getting it.

To see the article and comments, click here.

To see Alaska Airlines response, click here.

What this does show is intolerance and ignorance of the American people in relation to other faiths or religious practices sometimes. I understand that we live in trying times and everyone is suspicious of everyone (though I am inclined to believe that if it were a Christian many of these commentors would have a harder time condemning it and the flight crew would have recognized it immediately) but that does not absolve us from the requirement to understand and be respectful. I will say one thing, we, as Jews, should take it on ourselves to be conscious of this uninformed nature and be respectful of other’s fears. A simple conversation with the flight attendants to inform them of the need to stand and pray and wear ritual garments would not go amiss and certainly ease tensions.

So, I am going to use my blog as a platform to explain some of these traditions. I know that my blog doesn’t have that much circulation and this won’t reach many of these people but I implore you to share this post far and wide.

Tefillin: Otherwise known as phylacteries. Neither name makes much sense to non-Hebrew/Greek speakers. They are SMALL leather boxes with straps which are put on the head and non-dominant arm during prayer. Inside the boxes are slips of parchment with verses from the Torah. The commandment to wear them during prayer in rabbinic in nature (meaning the rabbis/sages decided on it) and comes from the verse “And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as reminder between your eyes,” in the Shema (one of our holiest blessings). Colloquially, in Judaism, we say you are going to “lay tefillin” meaning you will put them on.  This comes from Yiddish. Tefillin is regularly worn by Orthodox Jews who believe that the written and oral Torah is divine (came directly from G-d) but also worn occasionally by other male Jews and more rarely by some females in the more Conservative and Reform circles. Today, tefillin are generally only worn during the weekday morning service called Shachrit but previously were worn all day. If you want to read more about the ritual around tefillin, here are some links – Wikipedia, My Jewish Learning.

Images of men wearing tefillin:

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Arnhel de Serra

Praying at shabboshouse.com

The Chabad Rebbe wearing tefillin

So, we straight on tefillin? Let’s move on to praying. One thing that comes up in the comments seems to be the inability to understand why Jews have to pray on a plane or at a certain time of day and why it must be out loud and not silent.

Prayer: Davening (in Yiddish) or prayer is a biblical commandment, one that cannot be put off or ignored if one believes in the Torah and Talmud as divine. The timing is just as important however, I will not bore you with the intricate details of legal hours and all that (you can read about it here if you feel so inclined and which, by the way, is similar to the Catholic’s canonical hours). Suffice to say, we have to complete certain prayers by certain times of day. This can be a factor when you are planning a trip. In reference to the most recent incident, these guys were leaving Mexico with a layover in the USA and then headed to Europe… my guess is no matter when they scheduled, they would have to daven (pray) at some point on a plane.

We are required to say 100 prayers a day… 70 of those you hit if you daven three times a day like you are supposed to (you can complete the rest with the blessings before and after food as well as the blessings for such things as after going to the bathroom). Look, basically, there are a lot of rules around how we pray and that is very unfamiliar to people who don’t pray or even people of other faiths where prayer is not as proscribed. But for us it is important… like speaking the words out loud and praying in Hebrew… those may be odd to you (Catholics, I know you don’t pray in Latin but your priests do so you should have some concept about it) but that is how we do. To follow the rules, if you follow those rules, you pray out loud, you do it in Hebrew and there are some parts of the service where you must be standing. It says it in the prayer books, which part to stand and which to sit. When in doubt (or on an airplane) just stand for the whole service… that’s what I do. There is one outwardly odd practice though, that is not rule based. That is the rocking (or ‘lurching’ as I saw it referred to) back and forth. Why do Jews rock back and forth in prayer? Well, the rocking has become a minhag, a tradition and thus just as important as the other halacha (laws) mentioned here. Ask Moses has a good, albeit short, answer here but I have always found it to be a concentration helper. It helps you focus on the words. It is about the kavanah, the intention, behind it. Here is one view on Jewish prayer from Chabad.

So we pray differently than you. We pray at different times, in a different way, with different props. It doesn’t make us good and you bad, it doesn’t make you good and us bad. How you connect to G-d or if you are an atheist or agnostic, how you connect to what you need to connect to is your own personal mission. You have the right to ask questions about others but we cannot judge their prayer by our yardstick. I can understand the safety concerns… the fear that many people have nowadays because of the horrific attack 10 years ago. But I don’t feel that fear personally. Why, you ask? Because I trust. I trust that I am supposed to land on the ground safely and if I am not there is nothing I can do about it. This doesn’t lessen the tragedy that we all felt on 9/11 but it is how we move on. I trust El Al and the Israeli security at the airports to protect us from a hijacking or bombing. With less surety, I trust the American security system to protect American flights from a hijacking or bombing. (Why you ask? Because I trust well trained security personnel over an over-dependence on machines and minimum wage workers. And because Israel has kept any attack from happening since Entebbe.) But most of all, I trust that where I am going, I am supposed to be.

I really hope this post has been helpful in understanding our traditions and perhaps can prevent some of these situations from happening on airplanes again.


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  2. Good work, Talia. I fully agree we need to be respectful of others’ fears and defuse the situation through more than a mere “very little explanation.” As someone who has cherished performing this mitzvah some 300 days a year for the last nearly 13 years, I admit it could look very strange on an airplane to a non-Jew who’s never seen it before, or downright alarming!

    I appreciated your link to the Alaskan Airlines’ response, which actually adjusted my take on what happened. If it’s true the passengers actively disregarded requests to stay seated, and provided “very little explanation” of what they were doing, my sympathies for them diminish and I smell something smacking of a chillul-Hashem.

    Even a flight of mostly Jews must be conscious of their fellow (presumably Jewish) passengers, which is why several poskim have ruled that upon flying to or from Israel it is better to daven privately at one’s seat, sitting (!), than to congregate with a minyan at a part of the plane if doing so will disturb others and interfere with the crew’s work and safely regulations, resulting in chillul-Hashem. They emphasize one is to sit even during shemone-esrei . Their psak reflects that a mitzvah (in this case, davening with a minyan) isn’t to come from an aveira (in this case, insensitivity to others and chillul-Hashem).

    When I flew to Israel half a year ago, this is exactly the ruling my own rabbi gave me. Admittedly it felt strange davening shemonei-esrei, otherwise known as the “Amida- standing (!)” while in a sitting position, but it also felt good to know a mitzvah isn’t to come at someone else’s distress.

    The best thing is to avoid davening on the plane altogether, but like you said, sometimes it’s unavoidable if it’s a long flight and the zman for davening would otherwise be missed.

    Thankfully our DIA airport has a serene mosque to daven in, if one has time to daven at the airport.

    • Thanks for the comment, Yiddy! 🙂 I appreciate the information about the poskim (in Hebrew it means decider, it is a rabbi who you ask questions to if something about the law is unclear or perhaps needs to be amended per the circumstance). I hadn’t heard the heter (permission) for sitting during Shmonei Esrei before. That is really good to know and should be taken into account.

      I agree that Alaska Airlines response helped color my opinion of the situation. I am sure the actual situation is somewhere in the middle but it is disappointing that these Hassids didn’t take the opportunity to perform a Kiddush HaShem (lit. sanctifying G-d’s name… an action by a Jew that brings honor and respect) and explain the practice to the crew and/or concerned passengers.

      And thanks for reading! I hope this blog is a Kiddush Hashem and helps promote more understanding!

  3. I wanted to comment on this but A Yid has said more or less what I was planning to say… I have all respect in the world for traditions and religion (or I try to have), but I still feel these men made the wrong decision by praying by the rules at that particular time point. True, the situation was mis-interpreted due to lack of knowledge about Jewish traditions, but frankly I do not think it makes a difference whether these man were praying or singing the latest RnB hit (no disrespect intended) – everybody wants to enjoy a calm, nice flight, and thus you should just sit on your chair an be quiet. And by all means listen to the flight attendant when you are given instructions. I’d almost dare say – I think G-d will understand.

    (I come from a catholic background, btw, although I consider myself an atheist at this point. Which is exactly why I follow your blog, because it helps me learn more about judaism – though I never remember the Hebrew names ;). So you’ve enlightened at least one reader today :).)

    • Thanks Lies!! You made my day. That is what i was hoping for. Just a bit more understanding in the world!

  4. Yes, I read it all, and i believe that they had every right to pray on the plane. Just show the Tefillin to the flight attendants, let them handle it (gently!) and let them get a good gander.

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