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Tefillin on a Plane

By Rabbi Aaron Alexander and Rabbi Daniel Greyber

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 onboard with tefillin. In January 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. Clearly, praying on a plane while wearing tefillin risks misunderstanding.

Observant Jews – along with religiously observant Christians, Muslims, and others – 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: “Even 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 – or plane aisle – comes with parallel obligations: We must communicate with others so they can understand what we are doing. When it is necessary, we must understand how our obligations should change so we can coexist with others. Can Jews navigate this tension successfully? We believe we can.

First, a few important points of Jewish law.

Must observant Jewish travelers pray onboard wearing tefillin? No. Traditional 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 because the paragraphs of the Shema that 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 connect physically to the word of God, a powerful religious experience filled with beauty and mystery. While saying the Shema without tefillin is compared by the Talmud to bearing false witness (B. Bavli Berakhot 14b- 15a), wearing them is not required. If you are on a plane and the time for saying the Shema arrives, you can say it without tefillin and then put on tefillin later in the day, as long as it’s before sunset.

A separate, but related, issue is reciting Shacharit, the first of three 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 first to say the Shema and its blessings and then immediately 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 you should pray at home, rather than recite the shacharit prayer in its time while traveling” if you can focus better at home (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Hayyim, 89:8).

If you cannot avoid praying on a plane, many rabbinic authorities rule that you may pray while seated if it helps your concentration. 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 space in a plane’s cabin, not only might it be disrespectful to and inconsiderate of others to pray in the limited aisle space, it could be counterproductive if you are not able to concentrate.

Urging greater piety, traditional sources often will claim the more stringent, the better, but other sources speak of the “pious fool.” We suggest a middle ground, a holy common sense.

You can achieve a balance between your obligations to God and to your fellow travelers by paying closer attention to your surroundings instead of ignoring them. In a world far less insular than the one for which much of it was written, Jewish law requires us to 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). We serve God by being in the world, not by transcending it.

We believe it is best to pray quietly before the flight or, if necessary, when you are seated, where you can focus and not disturb others. If you can arrange with airline staff and fellow travelers to pray undisturbed – and without disturbing others – great. Until then, best to put on tefillin later, not in flight.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.