Two days ago I posted this picture of an Orthodox Jew in an airplane, wrapped up in a plastic bag. The picture came from The Gothamist, which explained that the man was a “kohen,” or a member of the priestly tribe of Jews, and kohens are forbidden from flying over cemeteries. The bag was apparently meant to protect this man from religious pollution as his plane passed over the graveyard.
I must say that this picture got a lot more attention than I expected, with a lot of humor of the “get-in-the-fooking-sack” variety, but it wasn’t explained to my satisfaction. Now, in a comment on the original post, which I’ve put above the fold here, alert reader Michael proffers an explanation. Being only a secular Jew, I can’t vouch 100% for its accuracy, but it sounds plausible, so here you go:
As a Kohen and also an orthodox Jew who lives in Israel and occasionally flies to the states I can clearly state that this is not normative behavior. The explanation is correct. However, we Jews do have some practices which can appear odd, it’s not exactly legitimate to take such a rare case of over-zealousness to make that case.
Here it is in more detail as posted on a friend’s Facebook, if anyone is interested:
A huge area of Jewish law involved ritual impurity. It’s complex, and to the modern mind a little weird. Almost all of it was made irrelevant with the destruction of the 2nd temple 2000 years ago. Only one aspect of ritual impurity persisted, that which relates to Kohanim (“priests”, ie those descended patrilineally from Moses’ brother Aaron. They’ve actually identified a Kohen gene!) Basically a Kohen cannot come in contact with a dead body. With the exception of his close relatives or a body that has no one else to bury it. “Contact” includes direct contact and also being in proximity of the impurity. Proximity includes being under the same roof as a corpse or being over the corpse, like walking over a grave. The “roof” does act to stop the impurity.
So how do we get to airplanes? Basically you have the ingredients of the problem. A Kohen can’t be “over” a dead body. The Rabbis of the Talmud determined that the impurity emanating upwards from a corpse has no end. Except, of course if a structure interferes. So if you build a tree house over a grave the Kohen would be safe inside it. But isn’t an airplane such a structure that would impede the impurity? Well, the rabbis of the Talmud raised such a issue. They brought up the case of a Kohen being transported over a cemetery in an enclosed coach, say by being carried. Since the impurity goes all the way up it becomes irrelevant whether the “coach” is 5 feet off the ground or 35,000 ft (and is first class ). So, Joan, they didn’t need to know about airplanes to create a law that is applicable to them.
Now to our friend in the bag. As with many, most, issues discussed in the Talmud there are differing opinions. (I mean really, what do you expect with a book of Rabbis’ opinions?) One Rabbi held that the travelling coach does block the impurity just as if it was stationary and another held that because it’s in motion the blocking effect is not there. A thousand years later Maimonides (a doctor by the way) compiled the first organized codification of Jewish law which remains largely authoritative today. He decided this law in favor of the Rabbi in the Talmud who said that the moving coach does not block the impurity.
Since, for a time, all planes departing Israel’s only international airport flew over a huge cemetery directly West of the airport it was a certainty that Kohanim on the plane would be “exposed” to this impurity. (There is a lot of room for leniency in Jewish law if something is not “certain”.) Without getting into a whole other discussion, accept for now that a way to block the impurity, even while in motion is to have a material in very close proximity to the object you want to block. Thus the plastic bag.
All that said, as a Kohen myself, I certainly do not do this when I fly from Israel as it true with most Kohanim. There are two reasons, first the government ceded to requests to change the flight path, so that most of the time flights do not go over the cemetery. Second, and more import to me, there’s a general concept that, when possible, Jews shouldn’t do things that make Judaism look foolish. So since in the case there was a Talmudic opinion that the moving coach does block the impurity that can and should be relied on here.
Well, I guess there won’t be any orthodox Jewish astronauts in the ISS. They’d have to be constantly covered!
As for “Jews not doing things that make Judaism look foolish,” I could give a whole list of Orthodox practices, including shabbos goys, the 18-minute, rabbinically-ordained time limit for making Passover matzos, the eruv, and so on.