I just learned that a flight out of New York was diverted because a flight attendant saw a passenger putting on tefilin and freaked out, thinking that he was strapping on bombs.

So, do you have any best practices to share for dealing with this sort of situation? Let's assume that for whatever reason, you can't avoid the issue entirely by praying before or after the flight, as some suggested in the comments on the news story. How do you put on talit and tefilin in public (especially in confined travel situations) and minimize the potential for freakouts by the people around you?

  • Isaac, it's not just a question of tefilin. Also yesterday a friend of mine was traveling back fom China and was questioned about the little white strings hanging out of his pants waist. After he explained all was good and he was allowed to board the plane. In this day and age these things should not arise. A little education by the TSA to all flight attendants about all religious practises will go a long way to avoid these situations (not just for jews) in the future. – Ken Jan 22 '10 at 21:14
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    R David Yosef in Halacha Berura has a great suggestion for not freaking out non-Jews with your tefillin: cover them with your talit! (He really lives in E Israel!) – Baal Shemot Tovot Jun 19 '12 at 0:00
  • Hm...should we drop gentiles for how-to? – MTL Feb 9 '15 at 0:23
  • @Shokhet maybe dropping tefila would be better; tefila is the proximate cause, but tefilin and talit seem to cover that adequately. OTOH, the fact that it involves gentiles is pretty important to the question; this isn't just about logistics of donning these items in tight quarters. – Monica Cellio Feb 9 '15 at 1:09
  • @MonicaCellio I think tefillin is more central than talit, because it seems more likely to cause trouble than the shawl. My grandfather once put on tefillin on a plane, and someone thought he was trying to commit suicide... – Scimonster Feb 9 '15 at 5:35
  1. Don't pray audibly. Do as Chana did: Lips moving, no one hearing.

  2. Alert an authority: "Hi, flight attendant. I'm Jewish. Our men (and perhaps some of our women?) pray with little black boxes on our heads, straps on our arms, and a big striped shawl. I'm going to pray now. We try our best not to interrupt our prayers for talking or anything in the middle. I know it might look a little crazy, and just wanted to let you know."

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    Yes on (1), no on (2). I find that explanations almost always seem to cause more confusion than not. – Jeremy Mar 16 '10 at 15:07
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    Were I in that situation I think I'd tell the person sitting next to me, not the flight attendants. That person is the one most likely to react, and if others do, he could relay the explanation. – Monica Cellio Feb 9 '15 at 15:12

My father always says -- don't go there. If the only time for praying is on the plane, do that without talit and tefilin (I don't think anyone will really mind if you're whispering out of a book), then put on talit/tefilin at home/synagogue/hotel room later on (assuming you'll have time for that).

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    Does the potential for misconception really outweigh the obligation to be wearing them at the time of "davening"? – WAF Jan 22 '10 at 17:15
  • Rabbi Breitowitz made a point of mentioning in last week's sermon that tefilin can be worn separately from "davening." It's a preference to combine the two, not a requirement. (End quote.) So it's a question of balancing Halachic preference against other considerations, in this case, the danger of confusion (and how well can you concentrate if you're always scared of getting detained onboard?) The next-best thing to wearing tefilin during shachrit is to wear them for mincha that afternoon (if you're sure you'll be able to do so), and repeat Shema in them as well. – Shalom Jan 25 '10 at 16:29
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    After hearing about the NY flight, I did exactly this on a recent trip overseas. I davened shacharit w/o tallis/tefillin on the plane, then mincha with both at the hotel. My kavana was vastly improved, without worring about disturbing neighbors or scaring flight attendants. In fact, I find I can do some of my best davening on a plane, since I typically have tons of time, nobody is bothering me, and there is a very real (even if remote) possibility of imminent death. – Jeremy Mar 16 '10 at 15:09
  • @Shalom - It's only a preference? Doesn't the gemara say that someone who prays shacharit w/o tefillin is like offering a sacrifice w/o libations? It's a to'eivah to Hashem. Would you like to be fed food and then not be able to drink something afterwards to wash it down (so to speak)? – Adam Mosheh Mar 29 '12 at 21:56
  • This doesn't quite answer the question, does it? ...."Let's assume that for whatever reason, you can't avoid the issue entirely by praying before or after the flight" – MTL Feb 9 '15 at 1:16

I have dovened in airports and airplanes numerous times. Most flight attendents are familiar but little education won't hurt. Also, keep saying Tehilim instead of other activities on the airplane.

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  • Yehuda, welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for adding your perspective! Please consider registering your account so that you can take full credit for your contributions and use all of mi.yodeya's features. – Isaac Moses Jan 22 '10 at 17:55

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