Finding a ‘makom’ to pray - 20,000 feet in the air
Where do I pray while in transit? Does G-d really want me to gather a ‘minyan’ by the airplane toilet or galley?
I travel on a regular basis for my work and am writing this from the relative comfort of my airplane seat. One of the biggest challenges of travel for many people, especially on airplanes, revolves around praying. When gaining and losing hours, and sometimes crossing the International Date Line, one deals with the question of when to pray. Between eating, sleeping, time of travel, and arrival time, one may have anywhere from zero to all three prayer services on board. But the most complex question is not only when to pray, but where.
The Talmud, trachtate Brachot, inquires about establishing a makom (place) for prayer and quotes the verse, “Avraham arose early in the morning, to the place where he had stood.” Standing (Amidah) is understood to be prayer.
Of further interest is the context. This is right after the Torah’s description of G-d destroying Sodom and Gemorah. Avraham had tried to persuade G-d to save these cities, despite their sinfulness. Nobody before had argued with G-d – perhaps that is one of the reasons Avraham is considered the first Jew. Also, being after the destruction, Avraham’s return to the place teaches us that the relationship is not based on granting requests. As one of my Rebbes, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, phrases it, “G-d is not a caspomat (ATM machine).” Prayer is rather about the relationship, unconditional, requiring a settled mind and focus.
So, back to the airplane. The question of when to pray can become fairly straightforward. One calculates, based on the current time zone, where the plane is flying. The question of where to pray is more problematic.
Anyone who travels long haul flights has seen groups of men gather together as a minyan (10, being the quorum) to pray. Generally, it is good to pray as a group. Our tradition ascribes a special quality to group prayer, not available to the individual. However, planes don’t have many areas where minyans can congregate and the default is usually around the galley and bathrooms. Besides blocking other passengers from using these highly trafficked areas, more often than not, those trying to pray and those inconvenienced are not on best behavior. Words are uttered that should never be said and instead of a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) which we should always strive for, there is a Chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name). And then there’s the practical question, does G-d really want us praying to him facing a toilet?
My makom on a plane is my seat (as the Chief Rabbinate of Israel rules). I try to always have an aisle and to be courteous to the passengers around me as I put on my talit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). I have had some interesting conversations with people who had never seen these before. I then buckle my seat belt before beginning to pray. My concentration is not the best, but it’s certainly better than if I was standing as the plane started to vibrate, and the fasten seat belt sign went on overhead.
Makom, when identified as HaMakom (The Place), is also one of the names for G-d. May we remember this whenever, and wherever, we settle ourselves for prayer.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship.