Prayers at 30,000 ft.

Prayers in the Sky

I’ve always wondered about prayer services on a plane. It’s more common on EL AL flights and occasionally on other airlines too, on flights to and from Israel, when there are a lot of religious Jews on board.

mile high prayers. Praying in the airport. Before boarding their flight to New York for the annual CTeen Shabbaton, a group of teens accompanied by Rabbi Moshe Cohen put on Tefillin in Manchester airport.
Jewish Pride at Manchester Airport

Sometime after dawn, one or two guys with initiative will go from seat to seat to collect a Minyan (a quorum of ten men) for morning prayers. They’ll all gather near the back of the plane, often next to the bathroom, and over the noise of the engines do a “turbo-version” of morning prayers. Most wear a Kipa, black, white and anything in between and there will always be a few non-Kipa wearing traditional Jews, who join in for the experience. Usually someone who needs to say Kaddish will lead the services.

Uplifting Prayers

On one hand, it’s an uplifting experience. Sort of a like a spiritual mile-high-club. It’s uncomfortable and noisy, but they feel closer to God, literally and spiritually. They’re up there in the heavens with Talis & Tefillin, struggling to keep balance in a very narrow space with occasional air-pocket jumps in the clouds. It’s a shared experience with Jews from the four corners of the Earth. Right after prayers are completed, you can see the smile on their faces. They’ve done their duty and obligation to the Almighty. Now they are allowed to eat breakfast without qualms and without worrying they might forget to put on Tefillin that day.

Safety and Security Concerns

On the other hand, there’s a down-side too. The stewardesses, who at best are non¬observant Jews, have to struggle to get through the crowd of praying men, to give out the meals and snacks. Anyone including pregnant women and mothers with little kids has difficulty getting to the bathroom at the back. When the prayers reach the Shmoneh Esrei (the standing and silent main section), and one needs to stand still without moving their feet till the end of that section (around 5 minutes long), it’s nearly impossible to get through.

Some stewardesses and passengers take it in good spirits. It part of being a Jew or maybe an expression of the First Amendment allowing free expression of religion. But you often see a flash of irritation on their faces. Free expression of religion should be in your own space on your own time and not at the expense of the freedom of movement of somebody else.

On rare occasions the passengers don’t see it as an irritation but as a threat to public security. Check out the story about the Flying Imams Incident for an extreme example. It can happen to a Jew just as well. See the story in the Daily Mail about an Orthodox Jew – Passengers’ terror as United Airlines flight makes emergency landing after passenger ‘starts PRAYING in the aisle’.

So I wonder. Is it worth while disturbing other people’s peace of mind just so I can connect with God? Does He want me to talk to Him while disturbing others? Maybe God will be just as happy if I pray at my seat without a Minyan and not bother people?

In fact many very senior Rabbi’s support saying one’s prayers in their seat on the plane in order not to disturb the other passengers. Among the Sages supporting this position are the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Ohrbach O.B.M.

In summary:

  • If humanly possible find a quiet spot in the airport far from the crowds to pray before or after the flight. In some airports like Frankfurt there are even special prayer rooms.

    mile high prayers. Frankfurt Airport Prayer Rooms
    Frankfurt Airport Prayer Rooms
  • If there is no time to pray at the airport or you will miss the Halachic Time for prayer, then it is best to pray at your seat on the flight.
  • If you do decide to join the public prayer on board, then be exceptionally careful not to disturb others, even at the expense of stopping in the middle. In any case if the flight attendants tell the passengers to return to their seats, do so immediately.

May your “heavenly” prayers be answered !!


Halacha Sources: (Hebrew)

תפילה בגובהי מרומים | אליהו בירנבוים

בתגובה ל”תפילה בגובהי מרומים”

Halacha Sources: (English)

Davening on Airplanes