Stuck in the Terminal on Shabbat

Mehran Karimi Nasseri arrived in Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle

Steven Spielberg's The Terminal (2004) starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The Terminal (2004)

Airport in Paris on 26 August 1988 and remained there at the terminal until July 2006. Nasseri had come from Iran and had lost all his documents in transit, so he could neither go back home nor enter France. He was stuck in the airport, for 17 years. During his long stay at Terminal One, Nasseri had his luggage at his side and spent his time reading, writing in his diary, or studying economics. He received food and newspapers from employees of the airport.the-terminal-poster-1

Nasseri’s story was later the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 2004 comedy-drama film, “The Terminal“.

It occurred to me that what makes an airport terminal unique is that it is neither “here” nor “there” (or as they say in Yiddish “Nisht ahin, nisht aher”). You have already detached from your point of departure, but until you exit the terminal at your destination, you haven’t really arrived either. One can call it a state of limbo.

In my humble opinion, every normal weekly Shabbat is a similar state of limbo too. One has detached from the previous week and cannot do any productive work, and at the same time one cannot do any preparation for the following week. On Shabbat you unwind from last week and can only anticipate the next work-week without getting involved in it.

So with a bit of literary license, Shabbat, is like …”The Terminal”.

All this is fine and dandy on a normal Shabbat, after we spend most of Friday (and some of Thursday), shopping, cooking, cleaning, showering, dressing up and whatever else needed to be ready for the Spiritual Terminal. Everything is finished, the candles are lit and whoever wants to go to the Synagogue has gone. Ahhh….now I can relax.

But what do you do when you see the sun setting on Friday eve from the window of the plane, and the sun seems to be descending much faster than you are…? There’s no way you’ll get to your destination on time. What now???

Here are a few tips:

Avoid flying on Friday

I know this sounds like an “I told you so” statement, but the best way to avoid getting stuck in the terminal on Shabbat is to avoid flying on Friday, like the plague. Seasoned travelers know that even the most efficient airlines will sometimes mess up. Call it Force majeure aka Act of God.

Be Prepared

Follow the Scout Motto and “Be Prepared” for emergencies when you absolutely have to fly on Friday. Take in your carry on luggage the minimum needs for Shabbat if you get stuck. The following items are recommended:

  • A pair of tea-lights for lighting candles (in case you make it to the terminal with a few minutes to spare and can light them in a “smoking permitted” area.
  • 4 rolls (1 roll for each of the 3 Shabbat meals, using a double roll for the blessing) or a box of Matzo.
  • A plastic bottle of grape juice or wine with a minimum size of 270 cc (a little over 9 oz) for twice Kiddush and Havdalah after Shabbat. If you don’t have grape juice or wine you can use any Kosher liqueur or beer.
  • A cup with a minimum size of 86 cc (3 oz).
  • Matches (for lighting the Shabbat candles and as a Havdalah candle.
  • A small amount of cloves (for Havdalah).
  • A Siddur for Shabbat.
  • A Talit (for men)
  • Some prepackaged food which be eaten cold

Disembarking from the plane on Shabbat

If your plane lands after nightfall, then you are permitted to disembark from the plane and enter the terminal. Assuming the shuttle which takes the passengers from the plane, has a not-Jewish driver, you can get on the vehicle with everyone else.

Leaving the airport

If the airport is located within the city, you may leave the airport on foot and walk anywhere in the city, (or until the nearest Jewish area where you can stay for Shabbat). If you have valuable items with you which are not permitted to be handled on Shabbat (Muktzah), you cannot take them with you when you exit the airport.

Remaining in the terminal

If the airport is located outside the city, one must stay in the airport till Shabbat ends. If one has valuable items which are not permitted to be handled on Shabbat (muktzah), but which cannot be left in safekeeping, one is permitted to keep them and walk around with them in the airport.

Electronic doors

If the doors between halls at the terminal are activated by electronic sensors, then one should wait until a non-Jew passes through and activates them for his own use, and then follow in their footsteps.

The Terminal Shabbat – in conclusion

As much as you try to prepare for any eventuality in life, sometimes you might find yourself in uncomfortable and very challenging situations, like being stuck at the airport. Not for 17 years like Nasseri and not even 9 months like in the movie. Just for one Shabbat.

If it happens, it can still be an inspiring spiritual experience. An opportunity to test one’s resolve in keeping the Shabbat a Holy  Day even without all the resources one is used to. No Shabbat table and no synagogue, yet it can be  a Shabbat when one is aware of their Jewish Identity every waking moment of the 24-hour day in the terminal.

We prefer that it doesn’t happen. But if it does…make the most of it. You’ll never forget the experience !!