For the week ending 5 March 2011 / 28 Adar I 5771

Elevated Prayer

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Sean

Dear Rabbi,

I will be making an international flight where I expect to be praying on the plane. While I’ve never actually done it, I’ve seen others doing it and I’m kind of intrigued by the idea of praying so high in the sky. However, I seem to remember wondering as I watched whether it bothered anybody on the flight. Would you recommend that I pray in a minyan on the plane?

Dear Sean,

First of all, from your question, I understand that you cannot avoid being in flight during prayer time. However, in general, one should schedule travel so as not to coincide with prayer times if possible in order to pray with a minyan in a synagogue.

Second, while I understand your excitement about praying in such “elevating” surroundings, please remember that G-d is equally everywhere, and the main component of prayer is not the physical elevation but the spiritual elevation, which is a function of kavanah — intention and focus during prayer. In any case, the thrill of praying in the sky applies to praying in your seat as well.

If you do want to pray out of your seat, for example with a minyan that is being organized by the passengers – or even alone – you must ask permission from the flight crew and pray only at times and in places that they allow. If after receiving permission you are asked by the airline at any point in the prayers to return to your seat, you must sit down immediately, even in the middle of the amida. This is an issue of law that must be respected, and may also involve personal and public safety which must be taken seriously.

Even if the cabin attendants permit prayer, they may be doing so only begrudgingly. In addition, it may, and often does, bother other passengers. Blocking free movement in the aisle, obstructing passage to bathrooms, crowding near those sitting, eating or sleeping, and similar such obtrusions are unacceptable. One’s “right” to pray in public does not precede others’ comfort, and praying in this way will not increase the public’s respect for Judaism, only cause animosity.

In any case, praying near bathrooms, which is usually the only open space on the plane for a minyan, is hardly appropriate. First, it is improper to pray in front of a toilet even when the door is closed. Second, a minyan where people are pushing through to get to the bathrooms is hardly respectful to the prayers. And often, the bathroom doors are opened during the prayers, revealing sights and odors which are certainly not acceptable during prayer.

Even if one prays (with permission), not near the bathrooms but rather in the aisle or galley, there is still a problem of being interrupted by passerby-passengers. In addition, it is forbidden to pray in view of someone who is not dressed according to the modesty laws of Judaism. Much of common dress nowadays is considered “bare” for this purpose, revealing parts of the body that may not be seen while reciting the prayers.

So, considering all the possible drawbacks and pitfalls involved in praying with a minyan on a plane, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have kavanah in the first place. And, in truth, one who knows a priori that he will not have proper intention during prayer is technically exempt from praying anyway. I would even go so far as to say that you don’t have to/shouldn’t participate in a minyan being organized under such conditions. G-d does not want you to be an accomplice to prayer that justifiably disturbs others and, for the reasons I’ve outlined, likely doesn’t qualify as prayer anyway.

I think the best thing is to just pray in your seat by yourself. This way you’re not getting in anybody’s way, or on anybody’s nerves. You can pray at your own pace with concentration, and you’re not being interrupted, bumped into, asked to move or confronted with inappropriate sights or smells. Of course, this assumes that you won’t have similar problems while in your seat. If you do, you’ll have to try to manage the situation accordingly.

In any case, tell the person next to you what you plan to do, how long it will take, offer to temporarily change seats if needed, explain to him (or her) and the flight attendant for your section that for some parts of the prayer you won’t be able to speak or respond, and ask if there’s anything that needs to be communicated before you start. Be sensitive to time your prayers in a way that will least disturb your neighbors.

In such circumstances, the entire prayers may be said sitting, even the amida. In fact, sitting has an advantage in that the seat intercedes between you and inappropriate sights in flight. In addition, not only may the amida be recited while sitting, you also don’t have to be facing Jerusalem if you can’t or don’t know the direction. It is in this situation that one is truly encouraged to direct his prayers upward to G-d in Heaven.

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