Should Jews Stand While Praying On Airplanes?
Dear Jew in the City,
On a recent flight after dealing with hours of a cancelation, a reschedule and then a delay, I finally boarded the plane with numerous other exhausted passengers. I noticed quite a few fellow Orthodox Jews on this flight, the one closest to me was a twenty-something guy with a short beard and hat. As we awaited our much anticipated departure, this young Jewish guy stood up and began to daven mincha (pray the afternoon prayers). Of course almost as soon as he stood the captain announced that the flight attendants should do their final checks and prepare for take-off. After all that waiting, the plane let out a collaborative sigh of relief…but my davening friend did not sit down.
Even after the flight attendant asked him twice, and subsequently went up front to tell the captain. I noticed the other passengers eyeing him suspiciously and some even letting out audible sounds of disapproval. The thing is I disapproved too. I know, out of all the people on the plane, I should have understood, but I couldn’t help thinking there had to be a better way. Is it worth making such a chillul Hashem (desecrating G-d’s name) and keeping an entire plane of strangers (who have already been delayed) waiting, just so you can stand for the last 3 paragraphs of your mincha prayers?
It wasn’t just that I disapproved – I wished I could explain to him the laws of davening on airplanes so that he could have weighed his options. Could he have waited until the plane took off? Would it be appropriate in this case to daven while seated? What are the Jewish laws of davening on an airplane – both in regards to the halachos of praying properly and making a kiddush Hashem?
Dear Out-of -Towner,
Talking about halacha is tricky because virtually any halachic statement one could make has a dissenting viewpoint. For example, the common practice is to recite the bracha of shehakol on Pringles®, which are made from reconstituted potatoes. I happen to say the bracha of ho’adoma on Pringles®. What’s important (and germane for our discussion) is (a) I know that I’m following a minority opinion and (b) my acting counter to the majority doesn’t inconvenience anyone else. That having been said, most authorities – perhaps surprisingly – rule against behaving as your fellow passenger did.
Relevant halachos go back all the way to the Mishna, long before airplanes. Brachos 4:5 tells us that one who is riding on a donkey must dismount to daven. If he is unable to do so, he should turn his face towards Jerusalem. If he cannot do that, he should direct his intentions towards the site of the Temple. Mishna 4:6 continues that one who is riding on a boat, in a wagon, or on a raft – all of whom would be unable to stand – should daven seated, directing their intentions towards the Temple. The same would apply in modern times to cars, buses, trains and planes. So, right off the bat, one should daven seated on a plane just out of safety concerns. We haven’t yet discussed the inconvenience to others.
Davening on a plane can inconvenience others in a number of ways. In your case, it delayed take-off. Sometimes it blocks the aisles, keeping others from reaching the lavatories or preventing flight attendants from getting through with the food-service carts. When there’s a minyan (a quorum of 10 men davening), it’s even worse. Aside from the physical obstacle posed by a minyan, the noise made by a minyan bothers other passengers, who may be trying to read, sleep, talk, or watch the movie. This can be exacerbated when the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) needs to raise his voice so that the rest of the minyan can hear him over the sound of jet engines.
You rightly posit that standing to daven and forming a minyan on a plane run the risk of creating a chillul Hashem. In such a case, it would be preferable to daven individually in one’s seat. Talking strict halacha, Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that it is permitted to daven seated on a plane if standing presents difficulty. (It is actually preferable if standing inconveniences others.) One should rise just before the parts in shemoneh esrei where one would normally bow. (Iggros Moshe OC 4:20)
Rav Shmuel Wosner says to be sure to sit when the fasten seatbelt sign is lit, and to avoid davening in large groups. If it is not possible to say shemoneh esrei standing near one’s seat, it should be recited sitting. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach said to daven seated, not in the aisles where it will inconvenience others. He was also against minyanim on airplanes because they bother others. (Halichos Shlomo) Rav Ovadiah Yosef davened by himself on airplanes out of consideration for other passengers.
To my knowledge, Rav Pinchas Scheinberg was the only authority of standing who advocated davening with a minyan on an airplane as opposed to individually in one’s seat. However, even Rav Scheinberg indicated that this must be done in a way that doesn’t disturb other passengers. That’s not to say that there aren’t positions that say otherwise. Those who form minyanim on planes may well have authorities whose opinions they are following. I suspect, however, that most people who do so are acting out of ignorance, from an assumption that one is “supposed to” form a minyan in the air just as we do on the ground. For many, being informed of the rulings of Rav Moshe Feinstein and the other Torah giants will be sufficient. Many others, for right or wrong, are just going to be stuck in their ways.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC educational correspondent