On Sunday, March 13, an Alaska Airlines flight from Mexico was met at the Los Angeles airport by fire crews, foam trucks, FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration personnel and police because three Orthodox men were praying on board with tefillin -- black leather boxes containing parchments with verses from the bible. Fourteen months ago, in January of 2010, a U.S. Airways flight from New York to Louisville was diverted to Philadelphia after a 17-year-old passenger's tefillin were mistaken for a bomb. Both incidents make clear that praying while wearing tefillin on a plane risks misunderstanding.
Observant Jews -- along with their Christian, Muslim and other co-religionists -- face an inherent tension. On the one hand, 21st century America affords unparalleled freedom of religious expression, a blessing to be treasured. On the other hand, rights come with responsibilities. American political philosopher Michael Walzer once wrote, "[E]ven the freest of men and women still experiment and innovate under moral constraints, which derive from the social and political world that is their inheritance as well as, sometimes, their burden." Our freedom to pray in the public square (with all the bells and whistles) comes with parallel obligations: We must communicate with others so that, as best possible, they can understand what we are doing and, when necessary, we must understand how our obligations should change so we can co-exist with others. Can this tension be successfully navigated? For Jews, we believe it can.
First, a few important points of Jewish Law:
Must observant Jewish travelers pray with tefillin on board? No. Traditional Jewish sources such as the codes of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1270 - 1343) and Rabbi Josef Caro (1488 - 1575) rule that Jews can fulfill the obligation to wear tefillin at any point during daylight hours (Tur/Shulhan Arukh, Orach Hayyim, Ch. 30). Typically, tefillin are worn when reciting the morning shema -- the Jewish credo to be recited morning and evening (see Deuteronomy 6:7) -- because the paragraphs of the shema which include the mitzvah to put on tefillin (Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) are contained inside the tefillin boxes. Tefillin are one of the most tangible ways Jews are given to connect (physically) to the word of God, a powerful religious experience filled with beauty and mystery. Saying the shema without tefillin is compared by the Talmud to bearing false witness (B. Bavli Berakhot 14b-15a). Saying the shema while wearing tefillin is ideal, but it is not required. If one is on a plane and the time for saying the shema arrives, one can say the shema without wearing tefillin and then put on tefillin later in the day, sometime before sunset.
A separate, but related, issue faced by observant Jewish travelers is the shacharit prayer, the first of Judaism's thrice daily prayers. Must we stand up and pray at 30,000 feet? Again, no. The rabbis taught that the ideal way to achieve kavanah -- focus -- in prayer is to first say the shema and its blessings and then, immediately afterwards, to say the Amidah -- literally the "standing prayer." But again, that is only an ideal. Rabbi Caro rules that even if it means decoupling the shema and the morning prayer, "it is greatly preferred that one should pray at home, rather than recite the shacharit prayer in its time while traveling" if one can focus better at home (Shulhan Arukh, Orach Hayyim, 89:8). If one cannot avoid praying on a plane -- as is the case on most trans-Atlantic flights -- many rabbinic authorities rule that while it is ideal to pray while standing, one may pray while seated if it helps one's ability to concentrate. In his code of law, Maimonides wrote, "a person sitting in a boat or in a carriage, if able to stand, should do so; if not, he may sit in his place and pray" (Mishneh Torahs, Laws of Prayer, 5:2). Given the cramped, overcrowded spaces at 30,000 feet, not only might it be disrespectful to flight attendants and inconsiderate of fellow passengers, praying in precious aisle space could be counterproductive if one cannot concentrate.
Urging greater piety, traditional Jewish sources will often claim "the more stringent, the better." Other Jewish sources speak of "the pious fool." We suggest a middle-ground, a holy common-sense, if you will.
Balancing obligations to God and fellow travelers is achieved by paying closer attention to, rather than ignoring, surrounding circumstances, especially when they are outside one's immediate control. Jewish law calls such circumstances ones, or sha'at hadachak. In a world far less insular than the one for which much of Jewish law was written, Jewish law itself requires one be sensitive, not callous; flexible, not rigid. Rabbi Shimon taught, "A person should always be gentle as a reed, not inflexible as cedar." This is why only a reed may be used for writing -- you guessed it -- tefillin (B. Bavli Berakhot, Taanit 20a-b). One serves God by being in the world, not transcending it.
We believe it is best to pray quietly before the flight or, if necessary, seated, where one can focus and not disturb others. If one can humbly engage airline staff and fellow travelers so one can pray undisturbed -- and without disturbing others -- great. Until then, best to put on tefillin later, not in flight.
Rabbi Aaron Alexander is Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles where he teaches rabbinic literature and Jewish law. Rabbi Daniel Greyber is a fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem and the incoming rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina.