The Jew in the plastic bag revisited

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.


  1. gbjames
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink


    • Gordon Munro
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      Beyond earthly Oy there’s gotta be the extraterristral Weh of Unreinheit (Impurity) extending vertically all the way out to 13.81 billion light years above our dear endangered Orthodox personage. Note: some say with accelerated space-time expansion the upper bound is closer to 46 billion light years. Talmudic Ur-question: How often can this volumne of Unreinheit be distorted by gravitional lensing before losing its umphy Un and become undespoiled Reinheit??

      • jwthomas
        Posted April 14, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

        Which is why truly compassionate Kohens should make every effort to fly over graveyards in order to absorb impurities that might defile inhabitants of other solar systems.

  2. GM
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I saw that the other too. What I can’t understand is the purpose of this with respect to humanity as a whole – isn’t the goal of religions to save everyone, and if that’s the case, then wouldn’t EVERYONE be expected not to be near a dead body? Then who is supposed to take care of dead bodies??? I can’t make any sense of this

    • Tulse
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      isn’t the goal of religions to save everyone

      Tell that to the Canaanites…

      More seriously, there’s that whole “Chosen People” thing. Judaism is not as big on universal salvation (or heck, the notion of “salvation” in general).

      • sailor1031
        Posted April 16, 2013 at 4:12 am | Permalink

        The goal of any religion is to offer salvation ONLY to its own members. And to hell with anybody else.

        As for not making judaism look foolish – it ain’t the plastic it’s the belief about ritual impurity that does that.

  3. Bonzodog
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Sideways thought …. I assume that few of them become undertakers then. So who do they use?

  4. Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    The thing is that people have been buried pretty much everywhere over the ages, not just in cemeteries. So, if I was a Kohen I wouldn’t be happy unless I knew the exact circumstances when a corpse becomes sufficiently decayed so that it doesn’t omit impurities. Without such information I can’t imagine a circumstance where dressing in a plastic bag wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe even in my house someone was once buried beneath it?

    There’s the further problem of establishing at exactly what stage of evolution a corpse qualifies as being sufficiently human to omit impurities. But, I don’t suppose the Talmud has a lot to say about that!

  5. George Wilson
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    So Judaism has its very own accomodationism. Beware the impurity! The impurity has to be blocked! Unless you’d feel a bit embarrassed! In which case don’t bother and don’t worry! Have a nice day!

  6. brujofeo
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    When I read the first post on this, my first thought was “…define ‘over’!”

    They seem to be using the gravitational center of the earth to define it, but why is that more sensible than the center of the Sun, or the galaxy? (No doubt astrophysicists will have other suggestions.)

    But I’m rather sure that if you’re flying in a plane in New Jersey airspace, you’re still “over” a cemetery in Buenos Aires or Prague. Where there’s a rather amazing Jewish one.

    • peter
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Well, you must take only rays (half-lines) emanating into the universe, from the center of the earth and passing through any dead body. And you must never allow such a ray to pass through your body, unless that ray has been blocked by suitable material, or unless you are not a very special person.

      This was clearly true until 1905 (how could it not be?), but unfortunately then a Jewish scientist called Einstein, I believe, made it such that there is no such objective thing called space, only space-time. I expect certain august religious bodies have been struggling mightily since then to figure out which of two possibilities Yahweh must have meant: either (1) if there ain’t no space, then there ain’t no rays as above; or (2) for every choice of frame of reference, the ray in the corresponding spacelike 3-space must be respected. In the latter case, many, who shouldn’t, have absorbed those impurities by only considering one space.

      Since 1915 and General Relativity, the situation has only got worse, both with respect to where those damn rays are, and with respect to the great intellectual efforts needed from major rabbis to learn how to calculate in GR. It is still up in the air whether the Higgs field causes complications.

      • Posted April 15, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Why am I reminded of the Muslim astronaut who had to figure out how to find Mecca from Earth orbit? (I understand the usual rules presuppose a flat earth.)

      • Gordon Munro
        Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        Could an Orthodox Rabbinate limited to ray projection calculated via Newtonian absolute space ever acquire the necessary subtle Einsteinian ray-dar to protect its people from all corpse projected defilement?

  7. Tulse
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Jews shouldn’t do things that make Judaism look foolish.

    That would rule out almost all of Orthodox Judaism.

    I know that Mormonism tends to be the poster child for religious ridiculousness (at least if one isn’t including Scientology), but I think Orthodox Judaism is much more absurd.

    • Christian
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Judaism is certainly more focused on orthopraxy. This makes the rituals of its more extreme forms look so ridiculous (Calvin Ball + OCD??).

      Christianity and its offshoots like Mormonism on the other hand put more stress on belief. So it isn’t so much their rituals that look cookoo but the beliefs the faithful have to swallow (Mormonism being a prime example).

      • Marella
        Posted April 14, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        I wonder if the incidence of OCD is higher among Jews than the rest of the population. thousands of years of following all those rules might well have this effect if the ability to do this were seen as valuable.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          Or, if it is higher, could the causation be the other way round? People with OCD tended to be perceived as devout, perhaps therefore given higher status, and over generations preferential selection results in an abnormally high incidence of OCD among the Jewish religious hierarchy?

          Err . . . probably not.

  8. David Appell
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Why not just sit on a plastic mat?

    • neil
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Apparently, the material must cover the kohen completely to stop the impurity from reaching him. But since he can breathe, he must not be hermetically sealed, and if air molecules can get in, so can the impurity. Gotcha!

      • darrelle
        Posted April 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        Depends on the permeability of the material. Kosher filter manufacturers most likely have a product that would work fine for this application.

      • sailor1031
        Posted April 16, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

        He’s not allowed airholes because the impurity ca get it. But if the plastic accidentally tears then apparently it’s sort of permitted…….

        I still don’t get how you know you’re flying over a cemetery. They’re eerywhere (on land) and are not marked on aviation charts – not even low-level charts, let alone IFR enroute and approach plates. So just because elAl stopped flying over one large cemetery in Israel doesn’t mean the kohens are avoiding contamination……

  9. Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Ok, so an airplane does not protect from impurity because it’s moving, but a plastic bag provides protection, because it’s stationary. Too bad this explanation still doesn’t make sense, because the plastic bag is moving with the airplane.

    • Posted April 14, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      And, in a modern cemetery, wouldn’t the bodies be enclosed in a stationary container?

      • Posted April 14, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        Apparently the coffin doesn’t work, because it is not stationary relative to the Earth axis, or the sun.

        • neil
          Posted April 14, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

          Ah, I see. The container has to be stationary always in the kohen’s reference frame. A Kosher aether.

  10. SMC
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    One has to assume there are holes in the plastic for the devout to breathe through. This is clearly a risk because the micro-impurities can seep through.

    The only option I see for the kohen is to find a spot of ground where it is confirmed that there are no bodies buried, and just stand there.

    • palefury
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

      Well, one hopes there are holes to breathe through, or else he is likely to become one of those dead bodies he is trying to avoid.

      But I guess in that event, he is already prepackaged, so no ‘impurities’ can get out.

      Seriously, if you are going to do this, surely you can use some sort of breathable material.

  11. abandonwoo
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    The gravitational center of Earth is also the de facto anchor point for the direction toward heaven, which is out there yonder, on a line bearing up through the soles of one’s feet and exiting through the top of the head.

    If souls depart Melbourne and NYC simultaneously, which of the two will the True Believers claim is sure to reach heaven first? Actually, unless heaven surrounds the entire universe, or at minimum surrounds the Milky Way galaxy, only one of the two departed souls (barring either an in-flight course correction or a detour through the bowels of inner-earth hades) has even a slight chance of ever arriving at its intended destination.

    For that matter, which of the two souls will even depart the Milky Way galaxy first? The answer to the latter depends on the orientation of Earth’s rotation at time of death, I would think. And isn’t the same true (unless there indeed exists a surround-heaven) for the chance of hitting/missing that ol’ heavenly destination sweet spot?

    Carl Sagan stated that if Jesus does not exceed the speed of light, he remains a long, long way from the edge of our galaxy. Now I’m no mathematician, but maybe somebody who is has already calculated whether any liberated earthly saved OT soul(s) who preceded Jesus has had time — traveling at light speed — to find out where heaven actually is, process through the arrival routine with st. pete, and then experience the joyful reunion with its maker; or whether the big g still patiently awaits the first returnee from his penultimate creation.

    • peter
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      If exiting the galaxy was towards the edge, no chance. But maybe he zipped straight up or down in the usual picture, and it’s only about 1,000 light-years thick, so as long as he got up near light-speed really quickly, he’s okay.

  12. Posted April 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I hope orthodox Jewish surgeons wash their hands to remove impurities, rather than just cover them in a plastic glove to prevent the impurities passing to the patient.

    Could it be possible that 1000 year old religious decrees be looked at again when people make scientific discoveries , such as that corpses in a ground do not give off impurities that carry up to 33,000 feet in the air?

    Well, no, obviously not.

    Who needs their religion contaminated by scientific facts?

  13. Dave
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Clearly there’s only one way out of this impasse. We need a multi-million dollar research programme using the Large Hadron Collider to determine the exact properties of the Impurity Particles (“Impuritons” for short) emanating from corpses, and find out once and for all whether they can be deflected by an aircraft fuselage, a polythene bag, or neither. From what our friend above says, it sounds as though these mysterious entities have some interesting properties. Unlike Gravity, the influence of corpse impurity doesn’t decrease according to the square of the distance travelled. Lord above, if there are Kohanim on the moons of Jupiter, we could be infecting them with our impurity as we speak!

    I’m going to get on the phone to CERN right away. The Higgs Boson can wait. This is serious stuff!

    • Bonzodog
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

      Think Terry Pratchett described something like that ….

  14. Posted April 14, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Well. That clears that up. It all makes perfect sense now.

  15. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I think the more ridiculous thing here that makes Judaism look foolish is the claim of the historical existence of a “2nd temple” (as well as Moses and Aaron of course).

    How convenient that when there is no archaeological evidence, the Romans were claimed to be “going so far as to replace the foundation stones and to smooth off the surface of the Temple Mount”!

    And of course, when Santa Claus turns out to be dear Papa, it is just because “Santa was too busy this year”.

    I actually don’t mind the odd behavior as much as the straight up easily seen lies – and it is so foolish behavior. :-/

  16. Cliff Melick
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    So the plastic bag is the equivalent of the tin foil hat?

    • Posted April 14, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink


    • Posted April 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      Nature’s way of warning you to “stay away”, like the bright colours on the arrow poison frog (all credit to Gary Larson).

  17. Posted April 14, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    What religious delusions do to people

  18. Gordon
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Not being a scientist I will just pose this as a hypothesis. Lots of bodies are of course cremated and the ashes scattered. I would have thought given the time this has been going on molecules of the various deceased will be floating around in the air in a fairly dispersed sort of way so that you need to walk through them and breathe them. How do the Rabbis cope with this one?

    • lkr
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      So: ridiculous, primitive, compulsive, self-indulgent, self-contradictory, useless, but mostly harmless.

      Still better than most religiously-informed behavior

    • peter
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure, but I’d guess it is likely that the body of some such special priestly person contains at least one particle which had also been part of the body of a cadaver. So there’s no escape for him, at least till that particle gets replaced.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget all those alien POWs nuked by Xenu. I’ve heard they can cause real trouble.

  19. Posted April 14, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    This is just an example of iron-age superstition surfacing in the 21st century.

    One practical point- if the plastic bag really was a perfect barrier to the impurity of dead bodies, the poor, misguided fellow inside would have suffocated during the flight. I guess it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  20. Posted April 14, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I find it extraordinary that they didn’t notice what they were doing when they first pointed the flight paths over the cemetery. Or wasn’t Orthodoxy, or Kohenim, so common in Israel back then?

    Horror of corpses and death is well-established in NZ Maori (as in most Polynesians I guess) and the Bolton St cemetery in the heart of Wellington is a popular lunch spot – except for Maori.

    This is well-founded for such causes of death as typhoid.

  21. Les Faby
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Airplanes can carry corpses. There is a Kohen on the ground while the plane flies overhead. Isn’t he exposed to cooties he would have from corpses on the ground and him in the air?

  22. Posted April 14, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Reading the comments, it seems that a lot of the posters mistakenly thought that this restriction applies to all orthodox Jews. It does not, it only applies to the Kohanim who make up a small percentage of Jews.

    As to your comment about looking foolish and mentioning the sabbos goy, 18 minute cooking limit and the eruv, I am not orthodox but I always found the first and the last to be rather clever. Of course, the 18 minute limit is arbitrary, but all practical restrictions must be somewhat arbitrary.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      it seems that a lot of the posters mistakenly thought that this restriction applies to all orthodox Jews. It does not, it only applies to the Kohanim who make up a small percentage of Jews.

      It is an Orthodox practice, and thus is part of Orthodox Judaism, no matter to how few people it gets applied. It is not made more rational because it only falls to a small subset of adherents.

    • pulseteresa
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      To me the Sabbos goy and the eruv seem like cheating. If Jewish Law is to be followed then it seems it should be followed, without trying to get around silly laws with equally silly contrivances. As I state below, do they think Yahweh an imbecile?

      In this respect it reminds the Pascal’s Wager argument. It relies on the assumption that their god is an easily fooled dimwit. A god that is usually described as omnipresent and omniscient is somehow also going to be a gullible sucker? Maybe the apparent contradiction is one of god’s great mysteries, like the Trinity, theodicy, Jesus being both fully god and fully human, and the question of whether the son of god, the only perfect man, was a flatulent man. Which inevitably leads (slightly off topic) to this:

      -The state of being flatulent is less perfect than the state of being non-flatulent.

      -Jesus, being both fully god and fully human, would have had a normally functioning digestive system and thus would have been flatulent.

      -Jesus’ flatulence renders him imperfect.

      -The son of god cannot be imperfect.

      -Therefore Jesus was/is not the son of god.

      I submit that the above proof is as relevant and reflective of reality as any and all logical arguments for the existence of a god.
      While I humbly request that I be given credit for the original idea in a footnote, anyone may use and refine the Argumentum ad Fartum.

    • Posted April 15, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      “Of course, the 18 minute limit is arbitrary, but all practical restrictions must be somewhat arbitrary.”

      only if one assumes that there is no magical perfect god whispering in the ears of religious leaders saying that 18 minutes is just fine. And then all religion becomes pretty damn arbitrary and utterly hilarious.

  23. moarscienceplz
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    “Impuritons” LOL! I love it.

    Hmmm, since impuritons rise up away from Earth’s center, maybe they could be captured and used as a substitute for Hydrogen or Helium in a dirigible? Or, since the dirigible was intended to move, does that mean that the gas envelope ipso facto would be permeable to the impuritons?

    • Posted April 15, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      But are they inert like helium, and hence safe to use for boyancy, or are they flammable, like hydrogen? Wouldn’t want to have a hindenburg going here …

      • gbjames
        Posted April 15, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        A hindenbag?

  24. Posted April 14, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    All religions do things that make them look foolish to all except those who do those foolish things.

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted April 14, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      Like a Jewish friend told me: “Mormons need to work on their theology.”

  25. pulseteresa
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    If there are certain laws that Orthodox Jews are to follow then isn’t finding ways around them – such as the plastic bag, Shabbos goys, the eruv, and the “general concept that, when possible, Jews shouldn’t do things that make Judaism look foolish” – basically cheating?

    I’m guessing there are many Orthodox Jews who do their best to follow Jewish Law without the cheating, but the others who do everything possible to find loopholes (in admittedly ridiculous laws) while believing that they’re still following the law and thus being good Orthodox Jews? Do they think Yahweh an imbecile? Why not become reform Jews and avoid all pretense? Or better yet, secular Jews? I’m guessing this would be due to familial and community pressure, but wouldn’t the same community see them as cheaters as well?

    This kind of extreme religious behavior I cannot understand. I get the believers in belief to some degree (though I wish they’d stop that) and on an intellectual level, keeping in mind the various hypotheses of religious belief, I can sort of understand religiosity in general, but those who follow the most absurd laws and silly-to-simply-stupid rituals, I’ll never get. I even kind of get trying to circumvent these rules and rituals, but the methods for doing so are often even more ridiculous and insane that the rules and rituals themselves.

    Could it be that all religious belief is irrational? (I mean this as a jokey question. I know the answer). 🙂

  26. Venise Alstergren
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    This passenger makes me wish I was a believer just so I could turn atheist on principle.

  27. Me
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    You think someone just sat around and makes up these kinds of silly ridiculous rules in order to ‘create’ an us against them mentality. The crazier the rules the more cult like they become. I mean. SHHEEESH!

  28. prochoice
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    I do not have any problem with people behaving odd (this one may even help me, because the day began as one of “those” days, where there is one incident of Murphy´s law after the other, and now I can relax and smile), and I am absolutely fine with materials that help a brain in puberty turmoil to create an identity;
    the problem begins with any try to force others to behave in a ritualistic way (and, pulseteresa, many of those “cheating” behaviours were necessary in times you could not simply say that religion is bunk and get away with it!)
    The fun stops at the question where the changed flight path lies now, is it as safe as the original one, or did the faithheads create problems like those in overpopulated Netherlands, where NO airport has enough space and each time a plane crashed it crashes into densely populated areas, noise problems like Frankfurt and Berlin, both Germany, and the like?
    @ 7, Tulse and replies: to research OCD and Judaism might be interesting, but to admit the connection between varieties of Xtianity, Mormonism and Scientology and sadism/justifications for torture is much more important – even if it would only stop the Muslim varieties from copying the power techniques of the Vatican in the last 500 years!

  29. Ludo
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    Is it not so that passenger planes sometimes carry dead people (for burial at home, for example)? So that might be a reason to fear being under the same roof as a deceased person in a plane?

  30. Posted April 15, 2013 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Rattlers Pit and commented:
    Kinda Interesting.. 😛

  31. ethologist
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    Beliefs rooted in archaic religious traditions can lead to behavior that is amusing to the rest of us, but doesn’t ultimately hurt us, as in this story. Or they can lead to behavior that does not hurt us physically, but robs us of a connection to the human history, as in the destruction of the Buddha sculptures of Bamiyan by the Taligan ( Or they can harm us physically, as on 9/11 and too many other occasions.

    But it is worth pointing out the harm caused by archaic traditions that may not be strictly religious, but that do hurt us in many ways. The most salient examples are seen in the traffic in endangered species that are reputed to cure various ailments. Here is the latest example in this category: Please rant about this!

    • ethologist
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:09 am | Permalink


  32. Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    OMG! My father once told me (with nutty pride, since we have always been resolute non-believers) that WE were kohens, but he never told me about this stuff. Can I resign from the kohen shtick? Please?

  33. NoAstronomer
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Still doesn’t explain why the bag protects when the airplane skin doesn’t.

    And don’t get me started on the “we don’t touch dead people” elitism.


  34. Posted April 15, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    my, my, so we have a Jew “Kohen” who is just like the Christians when he wants to make fun of “those Jews”, claim that “those Jews” are wrong, and wants “those Jews” not to make the rest of “us” look silly.

    sorry, look silly is part of being a believer. Worshipping an imaginary being that you all make in your image does that to you.

  35. Posted April 15, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “Poke it with a stick, put it in a bag, boom boom.”

  36. Rob
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Quick, someone tell him plastic is made of dead things and watch his head explode.

  37. Natalie Angier
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, that guy is going to have a helluva time getting to his oxygen mask in time.

    • Posted April 15, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, he won’t need an oxygen mask. The bag will just swell up very tight and he can keep on breathing the air in it. (Not such fun for the people next to him.)

  38. Posted April 15, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    “Second, and more import to me, there’s a general concept that, when possible, Jews shouldn’t do things that make Judaism look foolish.”

    You mean like demanding that the government change flight paths to avoid ghostly emanations from dead bodies buried underground???

  39. Michael
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Well Dr. Coyne, I must say that I’m honored to have had my comment mined by you! Even if it is to act as a foil to so many “fun loving” comments.

    Believe me, there are many more “foolish” looking things we do than the examples you gave. (And don’t think I’m going to give examples here!) Actually, when you learn through the sources, things like Shabbat “Goyim”, Eruv and 18 minutes for Matzah can make sense… there is a method to the madness.

    You asked a very Talmudic question with regard to Kohanim in space. I don’t know the answer off-hand, but I’ll bet it’s been discussed. I’ll look into it. My guess is that it would be OK because it’s not an absolute certainty and/or when the rabbis of the Talmud said it goes all the way, “all the way” might be limited to what they understood at the time. Just a guess.

    I skimmed the comments. Here’s a few thoughts:

    – Only a fraction of Jews are “Kohanim” probably less than 10%.

    – There is an issue of corpses on planes. It’s actually very common for flights going to Israel as many Jews, though they don’t want to live here, are happy to be buried here.

    – Yes, I do think orthodox Judaism attracts people with OCD (or creates them!). It certainly allows them to “hide” more easily. 🙂

    – Someone made a good point about Judaism being a religion of deed vs. creed. And there’s no question we’ve gotten carried away with the minutiae of “deed”.

    Clearly this is not a cup of tea for most people reading this blog. I will say that, in moderation, our observance can be the basis of a very rich and fulfilling life. It is neither a prerequisite or guarantee of such, but for some of us it works really well.

  40. Posted April 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    The thought that occurred to me as I was reading about how the rules for these people staying uncontaminated were decided, was that they were just making stuff up and then pretending that it was true. There was no actual methodology applied when deciding that bricks and polythene were effective barriers while sheet metal was not. Since the problem itself is entirely imaginary, there is no way to assess whether the imaginary solutions are effective or not.

    Childish and infantile are the words that come to mind when contemplating this kind of thing. It really is the kind of reasoning that six year olds would use to resolve their differences.

    • brujofeo
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      I dunno. Maybe. But on first blush, it sounds to me like an unwarranted slur on six-year-olds everywhere.

      “Men rarely (if ever) dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.” Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

  41. Michael
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why I’m letting myself in for this but a lot of you seem to have a little knowledge about some of the “foolish” things we do. So I’ll explain one item to give you a glimpse of how the system works. I know it will be more fuel for ridicule, but I figure some of you are open minded enough to at least listen.

    Let’s talk about the Eruv. So your basic perception is that the Eruv is a loophole that let’s us get around the law which prevents us from carrying items in public places on the Sabbath. To make it worse. The Eruv itself is often just a flimsy string.

    Here’s the background information. The rabbis of the Talmud derived from passages in the Torah that one can’t carry in a “public domain” on the Sabbath. They further derived that a “public domain” is defined as area that has at least 600,000 people traversing and/or living in it. Conversely, it is permitted to carry in a “private domain” on the Sabbath. A private domain, as you’d expect is a bounded area like a house or fenced in yard.

    Problem is, that leaves an enormous undefined area – between a house and a large city. So that left these rabbis to define it themselves. So they basically said that by default this in between area, which they called a “Karmelis”, will be considered like a public domain unless it is identified in some way to give it the status of a private domain. That demarcation was set as the bare minimum of what could be considered a wall or a fence. If you reduce a wall to it’s minimum components, in their thinking, you get two side posts and a “crossbeam”. So you could create this demarcation with a series of vertical posts with a line running across the top.

    Thus, you could effectively turn a suburban town, which is a “Karmelis”, into the equivalent of a private domain by stringing some fishing line across existing utility poles.

    You may not like it, you make think that it’s all a big game, but it IS internally consistent. And it’s not, as some here claim, a case of the rabbis trying to fool God.

    OK, let ‘er rip…

    • nerdypants
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      It is internally consistent, but the end effect is completely absurd (and that reminds me a bit of Iain Gilchrist’s ‘Master and His Emissary’ book). Though I guess the most that their God could ask for is that they try their best, and they seem to have done that.

    • nerdypants
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      Michael, I have a question for you if you’d indulge my curiosity.

      I can see how each logical step that you’ve written makes a kind of sense, but the end effect appears to me (as an outsider obviously) kind of absurd. I’ve heard elsewhere about this concept of ‘the spirit of the law’, the idea that the intent of a law and the purpose it was made is what matters in following it. Does the rabbinical tradition have a similar concept for interpretation? Because Eruv doesn’t seem to serve a purpose, though I guess it depends upon why a distinction was made between private and public places. Perhaps it was about allowing people to do other things in privacy? But it doesn’t fulfil that purpose as far as I can tell. Does that mean that the letter of the law is more important than its intent in their traditions, or have I missed the connection between the purpose of that law and how eruv implements it?


      • Michael
        Posted April 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

        The “spirit of the law” is very important. Yet there is always a tension between the “details” and the “big picture”. So here the rabbis were, in effect, dealing with both. While on the law side they felt a need to default this middle area as public, they also understood that part of the beauty of Sabbath observance is the social aspect and thus gave people a way to set it up so they could more freely interact, e.g. push baby strollers, bring food to each other, etc.

        • nerdypants
          Posted April 16, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          Are you saying that the rabbis would have considered part of the purpose or spirit of the Sabbath law was their God providing people with an opportunity for social bonding?

          Also, is there a word or stock phrase that is used by rabbis for ‘spirit of the law’ that I can Google for? I’ve found “naval birshut hatorah” (someone who does degenerate things that are technically permitted), and “lifnim mishurat hadin” (someone who follows all the letters of the law and then does good things beyond what is explicitly required), but not the case where one actually violates the letter of the law to preserve its intent.

          • nerdypants
            Posted April 16, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

            (If there is a stock phrase then it will also show that the concept was well-established).

          • Michael
            Posted April 16, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

            Yes, that’s what I’m saying. But this is not what you’re looking for, ie it’s not a case of violating the letter of the law in favor of the spirit of the law. It’s simply using a convention the rabbis established.

            You did a good job Googling and that may lead to the phrase you’re looking for. “Naval birshut Hatorah” is Nachmonedis’ understanding of the biblical command of “Kedoshim Tiheyu” (You shall be holy), which happens to be my favorite “Mitzvah”. 🙂 Basically what he’s saying that the command to be “holy” acts a governor over all the other Mitzvot. So for example, without the concept, one could keep Kosher but eat like a pig, hence the term he uses “Navel Birhust Hatorah”.

            Very often though what we’re dealing with is a tension between two or more Mitzvot. For example you have a concept of not embarrassing people and a rule that unmarried men and women should touch each other. So what does a man do when he meets a woman and she extends her hand? Most people I know wouldn’t hesitate to shake her hand so as not to embarrass her vs. following the “letter of the law”.

            The other thing you mentioned “Lifnei Meshurat Hadin” can work either way, depending on who’s applying it. It means going beyond the letter of the law, there’s no real value judgement there, ie “good”. So in the hands a person who’s fanatic about the minutae of the law and who doesn’t head “Kedoshim Tehiyu” it could make for a real “navel”. But in the hands of someone who’s focusing on laws that make the world a better place and on his interactions with other people it could be a real “Kedusha”.

            • nerdypants
              Posted April 17, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

              Is it philosophically troubling to the rabbis that there exists Mitzvot in tension with one another, that laws can’t be followed without making compromises (e.g. the hand-shaking issue)? Do they believe that there is a perfect solution out there in those cases, that maybe they just haven’t found yet?

              • Michael
                Posted April 18, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

                Not at all! The talmud is filled with such debates. Normative law has generally been codified based on the majority. That however, leaves much leeway for varying circumstances. Contrary to what one might believe, Jewish law, even in orthodoxy, is far from black and white. There is much flexibility that takes into account many factors.

                The “perfect solution” is that there is none. There is a general concept “Eilu V’Eilu D’vrei Elohim Chaim”, literally, “these and these are the words of the living God”. It means that if an answer is arrived at with the proper methodology and sincere intent that it is valid.

              • nerdypants
                Posted April 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

                I guess I was thinking that a perfect God should make perfect laws.

  42. Venise Alstergren
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Obviously the plastic shroud had air holes in it or he would have smothered himself. What was to stop imaginary spirits to winkle their way into the shroud?

    If someone wants to make bovine clods of themselves there’s no better way of doing it than by using a fundamentalist religion as your wheelbarrow.

  43. Posted April 17, 2013 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    I can’t believe the guy who wrote the comment actually still believes the nonsense that there is a special “Kohen Gene.” While there was a gene found in Kohanim, it turned out not to be specific to only Kohanim and was really quite common. Jews (I am one) are not a special breed of human despite what we were told in yeshiva.

  44. Michael
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    First off, it was just a parenthetical aside, so breathe. Secondly, I’m in good company as Dr. Coyne mentioned it first in his previous post:

    “Many Jews named “Cohen,” “Cohan,” and, perhaps, “Coyne” (possibly a change intended to disguise Jewish origins) are indeed of the kohanim lineage, and, curiously, kohanim do have a unique Y-chromosome DNA signature, veryifying the patrilineal passing on of the duties and the name (this does not, of course, prove anything about the truth of the Bible—merely that a single lineage was given special duties and a special monicker).”

  45. Michael
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    @nerdypants: Maybe the “perfect” law is not “one size fits all”.

    • nerdypants
      Posted April 23, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      It sounds like the perfect law is not possible, there are too many competing objectives.

      Thanks for the discussion, it was interesting 🙂

      • Michael
        Posted April 23, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        Thank you too!

  46. Paticake35
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I recall going to the water treatment plant as a field trip chaperone. We were shown a film with a delightfully catchy tune about drinking water, and how basically everything ends up in the water supply: George Washington drank it, Abraham Lincoln drank it, now you drink it too!
    My guess is we’re drinking a whole lotta decomposing bodies along the way.
    The big plastic Glad Bag isn’t gonna keep those pesky, albeit filtered, molecules out.

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