Sunday, April 21, 2013

What's Wrong With This Picture? The Kohen in the Bag

This picture has gathered a lot of press - mostly highly negative and critical. It apparently depicts a Kohen en-route from Cyprus to Israel Motzo'ei Shabbos March 23rd. See, for example:,7340,L-4368141,00.html

Man in bag: I was following rabbi's orders

Haredi passenger photographed wrapped in large plastic bag during flight tells Ynet about his long Air Force service before becoming religious. His rabbi criticizes public reaction to photo, says people should 'treat Judaism with a minimum of respect'

Itzchak Tessler

The ultra-Orthodox man who was photographed wrapped in a large plastic bag during a flight told Ynet on Sunday that he was "simply following my rabbi's orders."

The picture caught the attention of international media, as initially it was thought that he was distancing himself from women in accordance with strict rules of gender segregation in public.

The New York Daily News later explained that the man was a Kohen, a descendant of the Jewish priests who presided over the Temple, and as the aircraft flew over a cemetery he covered himself in a plastic bag so he could remain pure. Under Jewish law, Kohanim are banned from going near cemeteries.

The Kohen, formerly a secular Jew who embraced Orthodox Judaism and asked to remain anonymous, told Ynet of his long service in the Israel Defense Forces, where he held sensitive posts. In 1983, as a show of appreciation, the Air Force commander gave him the "opportunity to study in a yeshiva at the expense of the Air Force, which paid my salary for the two and a half years I studied in the yeshiva."

After his studies, he returned to the army for 10 more years – "an unprecedented move in the Air Force," he says.

Rabbi Yosef Brook, head of the Netivot Olam Yeshiva and the passenger's rabbi, criticized the media coverage of the photo and the public reaction to it, saying: "I am convinced that none of those who reacted is at (the Kohen's) personal or intellectual level."

Rabbi: Critics are primitives

Rabbi Brook, who heads a haredi yeshiva which is home to newly religious Jews, says that the passenger is a unique personality he has known for more than two decades, and that the halachic move was misunderstood by the critics, who he refers to as "primitives".

"I have known him for 25 years now. He is a retired lieutenant colonel who served in senior and classified positions in the Israel Air Force," the rabbi told Ynet.

"Before Passover he flew to Israel, and because of a change in the flight he found out that he would be flying over a cemetery. He consulted a rabbi, who ruled that although the plane was a closed place, there was impurity over the cemetery and in order to deal with it – he must reach a situation of a 'container with a lid fastened on it.'"

According to Rabbi Brook, what the public may have seen as an attempt to "bypass" Halacha using tricks – is Halacha itself, and so he "advises people to consider how they would feel if their values made others give them degrading and puzzling looks.

"Once again, the familiar scenario repeats itself: Any issue related to Jewish Halacha turns into a festival of defamation. Anything related to cultural heritage, which is not understood, leads to a mocking and slandering attitude. The rule says that the more you know less, the more you shout, and this is what happened in this case too.

"If a person from the Zulu tribe would see me talking into a telephone, he would think I had gone mad, because he can't understand how sound waves can travel hundreds and thousands of kilometers. He has no understanding of electromagnetic radiation either, because he can't see it with his eyes.

"The same way, there is also a spiritual system of impurity and purity, and we don’t have the ability or tools to identify its activity. So I say to the the critics, if you have no knowledge about the issue, do us a favor – leave us alone and treat us kindly and politely.

"Just like people understand Muslims who take their shoes off before entering a mosque and don't ridicule them, just like they understand that Christians remove their head cover while entering church – treat Judaism with a minimum of respect."

The Kohen who "starred" in the picture told Ynet that he had studied with the Belz Hasidic movement, "considered a human and moderate Hasidic dynasty, where I studied Torah and faith and was close to the rabbi.

"I also studied at the Netivot Olam Yeshiva, which is an organized institution where respectable people study. Four other combat pilots studied with me there. At the time, as a newly religious person, I even had the honor of being an associate of Rabbi Shach (a leading Lithuanian rabbi and the founder of the Degel Hatorah political party)." 

First, I do not believe the photo is real. Only Cyprus Air flies Motzo'ei Shabbos from Lanarca to Tel Aviv, and the interior of its A320 that flies that route looks different - see:

Moreover, the necessity for the bag would only be upon landing - and the passenger is not wearing a seatbelt.

In addition, the source of the photo is never given.

Not to mention the danger of asphyxiation.

Finally, no airline in its right mind would allow this to happen!

What about the story? Perhaps it is true, perhaps not, but I do not believe Rabbi Zilberstein or any other reputable rabbi would have mandated this phenomenon. If something seems that off, it probably is off.

Without getting into excruciating detail, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yalkut Yosef, Hil. Aveilus 57 (370):4 takes care of all the issues with great acumen and finesse.


רכבת נוסעים הנוסעת מעיר לעיר, ובדרך נסיעתה עוברת על בית קברות, יש להקל לכהן לנסוע ברכבת לצורך פרנסתו. [ילקו"י אבלות מהדורת תשס"ד סימן נז סעיף ד, עמוד תשפא. יביע אומר חלק י' חלק יורה דעה סימן נב עמוד דש. ושם בא בארוכה בדין "אהל זרוק אי שמיה אהל"] .

The note to that halacha explains the psak. Besides the extensive reasoning, he cites several mattirim, among them:

Yerushas HaPleitah


Tzitz Eliezer

The first two teshuvos deal with airplanes, the last with a bus - but the principles are similar.

In short, even if the story is true, it did not and does not have to happen. 

Toras Hashem Temimah. Eidus Hashem Ne'emanah.


  1. > I am convinced that none of those who reacted is at (the Kohen's) personal or intellectual level

    And I, for one, am glad to be on a "lower" level.

  2. I don't know why you are convinced of any such thing. You couldn't possibly have a clue about this.

    but this kohen was acting withing legitimate halakha, if not according to rav ovadiah. see dayan ehrentrau who did this. conceptually this should be no stranger than putting on tfillin on a plane.

  3. The cohen's flight was delayed because of the visit of the great president of the USA visiting Israel. He was forced to spend Shabbos Hagadol in Cyprus and eat nothing but fresh fruit. He then faced a choice of flying over the cemetery in Holon or spending the entire Pesach in Cyprus. Rav Zilberstein shlita told him to fly home and rely on the plastic bag for the few seconds the plane flew over the cemetery.

  4. 1. Why would he have to spend the entire Pesach in Cyprus? He belongs to a sect of Judaism that does not believe in Chol HaMoed?

    2. You cannot have it both ways. Either the Kohen engaged in egregious behavior on his own volition or Rabbi Zilberstein advised him to engage in egregious behavior.

    3. Again, I am skeptical about the whole story.

  5. and again, why do you consider it egregious? he was following an acceptable halakhic position, albeit not r ovadiahs. this seems to be what dayan ehrentrau did; r Schechter has mentioned this on more than 1 occasion.
    in principle why is this different from putting on tfillin? because it looks weird to you?

  6. It does not pass the test of
    ושמרתם ועשיתם כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים אשר ישמעון את כל החקים האלה ואמרו רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה .

    Concerning Tefillin, Chazal have guaranteed us
    וראו כי שם ה' נקרא עליך.

    Plastic body-bags aren't included.

  7. > but this kohen was acting withing legitimate halakha,

    Isn't there a halacha that you're not supposed to do something that makes you look like an idiot in public?

  8. fine, if you don't like the simple example of tfillin, there is shaking a lulav. or wearing a yarmulke [in certain environments]. or not shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. the point is that not always does being a good jew fit with what others would deem normal or wise.
    it is the mitzvos [which in this case is arguably the body bag] which demonstrate wisdom, not jewish wisdom which shows that our mitzvos are wise.

  9. 1. A lulav us a cheftza shel mitzva; a yarmulke is a sociological identifier that originates in enhancing yiras shomayim; not shaking hands is a harchaka from arayos - these are understandable, logical concepts. They demonstrate wisdom and understanding, and can easily be seen as connected to divinity. Body bags are something else altogether. My head cannot wrap itself around such behavior as Ratzon Hashem.

  10. 2. We have three primary values: Asos Mishpat, Ahavas Chesed, Hatznei'a Leches. This behavior does not reflect either of the first two values and flies in the face of the third value.

  11. It very much boils down to the idea which unfortunately some people are taught, that G-d gave us the unique privilege to worship him, and all the other people are stupid. That is Islamic. In fact, G-d's greatest wish is that we respect other people. That includes not making them uncomfortable and being meurav im habriyos. When somebody does something this noticeable and weird on a plane full of sincere, well-meaning people, what on earth do you expect them to think? Furthermore, they are rightfully scared that this person is unbalanced, and may do something unpredictable or dangerous at any moment. I agree with R. Bechhofer that it miserably fails the test of ki hi chochmasachem uvinaschem lenei haamim.

    I am totally unlearned, especially in halacha. But I have found a magical thing, if you use your seichel and have proper hashkafos, you will be mechavein to the halacha about 99.9999% of the time. The remainder of the time, you will get to make up new and interesting halachos.

  12. I'm sorry, Rav Bekhofer, are you truly arguing that the entire frum world, especially in Israel, agrees with your choice of poskim and agrees with your sense of halachically caring about the impressions that one's actions makes? If that were the case, there would be no need for all the groups and forums that you've created.

  13. agree with bdk.
    because you can rationalize the haphazard examples of handshaking, lulav, tfillin, yarmulke, etc. [there are many more] does not mean that this is in any way absolute. why would you see tumah/tahara so different from other aspects of halakha?
    there is a halakhic process here, and not always does it comport with logic or modern understanding, and that is fine. apologetics do not help.
    if you want to say that what this guy [allegedly] did is not absolutely required by halakha, fine. but he seems to be operating within legitimate halakha, which should be defended.

  14. Anonymous,

    I do not think you understand R' BDK's point. His point, as I understand it, is that, while he agrees with my position, I am being naive to assume that there cannot be any reputable poskim who would - unfortunately! - take a very different position, one we both find disturbing.

  15. The meta-value of כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים cannot be divorced from Halacha. It is a logical fallacy to say that "legitimate" Halacha is distinct from the values that the Torah tells us underlie it. This is no different than saying that when Hillel said all of Torah is ואהבת לרעך כמוך he really didn't mean it, since the "legitimate" Halachic system is independent of values.

  16. Rav Bechhofer you clarified my opinion well, except that I would never call you naive :-)

  17. I am sure that the rabbis who disagree with you are aware of the passuk. and they are reputable poskim who say that the body bag is the way to go. just as any number of mitzvos or rabbinic ideas would not appear to fit the passuk.
    in fact your defense of the various practices I raised were more of a defense for those who buy into the frum system, not to those outside it, ie the goyim of the passuk...
    so you can say you would pasken differently, perhaps because you assign a different weight to the passuk, or because you follow r ovadiah, or some other reason. but you cannot discount the legitimate halakhic view, or the person's [apparent] courage in following his rabbi's position.

  18. 1. I am not sure the "rabbis who disagree" took the pasuk into account (if such rabbis exist). In fact, I doubt it.

    2. See BK 38a. Every Mitzvah and rabbinic idea in the entire Torah was rational and logical to the Roman emissaries except Shor shel Yisroel she'nagach Shor shel Akum. Evidently there is only one exception to the rule of the pasuk.

    3. I am not sure what you mean by "discount." If you mean that I believe that:

    a) No such psak was ever issued Halacha l'Ma'aseh.


    b) If issued, the psak was given without sufficient research.


    c) If researched, the psak is wrong.

    Then you are correct that I "discount" it.

    I haven't even yet brought up the common sense litmus test, but once you call this behavior courage, I need to note that it takes courage to buck common sense (for example, it would takes courage to do public jumping jacks in the middle of Rosh HaShanah Mussaf Chazoras HaShatz), but such courage is not laudable!

  19. Just a few points that are basic but relevant.
    1. Even if there is a halachic psak that claims that a wearing a plastic bag prevents tumah, the practical chillul Hashem that this will cause (has caused!)clearly outweighs any gain found in the original psak.
    2. It’s tricky claiming that a halachic psak from a Rabbi (even a "respected" Rabbi)is sufficient excuse to accept an act that is obviously illogical to the Jewish and non-Jewish world. We all know of Rabbis (to the left and the right) who come up with a psak halacha that mortify many Jewish and seem beautiful to others. As thinking Jews we must use our logic and daat to choose our path, knowing that our choice is real and carries significant consequences either for good or bad. When we see dangerous application of a psak that casts a long shadow over the Jewish people then we must clearly state our view. I believe that this is exactly what Rabbi Bechhofer is doing here (and doing it very well).
    3. The examples of mitzvot that were listed above (tfilin, lulav, kippa) even when rationalized are sometimes required to be protected and done with tzniut (i.e. not to be cheapened or ridiculed by others). There are occasions where tfilin, lulav, and kippa in public are not proper for kavod shamaim and become destructive rather than constructive in their action(not even considering the safety issues).

  20. Wait. The guy is a BT, who spent years in the IDF. You mean to say he doesn't already have a chazakah of having contracted tumat meit, such that he should wrap himself in a plastic bag to avoid contracting it? Where's the positive value in avoiding tumah when you already have it?

  21. thanbo, your question applies to all kohanim, since they all inevitably encountered tumas meis. but there is an issur for a kohen to come into contact with a meis.

    I wish rygb would recognize that his defenses to my position only work if one buys into his system. his defense of tfillin is a passuk, but in point of fact we have the example of an airline taking emergency measures when someone put on tfillin on a plane. that a lulav is a cheftzah shel mitzvah does not change the reality that shaking it is weird. etc. and we have not even begun with hilchos niddah.
    dismissing a psak of a responsible rav I find problematic. you can disagree, but the psak was [supposedly] issued by a bona fide rabbi, and has foundation in halakha. and because this guy followed the counsel of his reliable rabbi in an awkward situation he should be commended.

  22. Please see the update at

    I wish rygb would recognize that his defenses to my position only work if one buys into his system. his defense of tfillin is a passuk, but in point of fact we have the example of an airline taking emergency measures when someone put on tfillin on a plane. that a lulav is a cheftzah shel mitzvah does not change the reality that shaking it is weird. etc. and we have not even begun with hilchos niddah.

    All of the above meet the "One Minute or Less" rule of thumb - viz., they can be explained to a non-Orthodox or non-Jewish person in a rational manner in less than a minute. The Bagged Kohen remains an absurdity even after long explanations!

    You can imagine a potential Ba'al Teshuva buying into any and all of the above. You cannot imagine a Kohen becoming a Ba'al Teshuva confronting this!

    dismissing a psak of a responsible rav I find problematic. you can disagree, but the psak was [supposedly] issued by a bona fide rabbi, and has foundation in halakha. and because this guy followed the counsel of his reliable rabbi in an awkward situation he should be commended.

    Flying in the face of common sense is never to be commended.

  23. L'Kavod Rabbi Bechofer and others Shlit"a,
    I would like to point out a discussion on this issue written by Rabbi JD Bleich in his Contemporary Halachic Problems Vol 5 pg 310-356. The issue at hand is Kohanin and flights leaving Israel. The survey of literature deals primarily with the question and various opinions regarding Kohanim flying over graves.
    Any halachik discussion regarding plastic bags should seemingly only be centered around the classification of such bags as a tzamid pasil. As such, there should be no problem of openings (other than at the top) in the bag. While such a classification may be debatable, I find it hard to understand why people can deride a psak without addressing any of the underlying halachik issues. (Of course the resulting halacha is strange in our eyes. But is it any different that those people who based on their psak choose to: Shave their heads, not get needed dental work, place 2 mezuzahs in one doorway, wear multiple pairs of tzizis, not make kiddush between the hours of 6-7, etc!)
    This individual (if there ever was such a person) (and noting the possibility that Rabbi Chanoch Ehernetreu is reported to have done the same) felt that their were no other viable options with regards to arriving back to Eretz Yisroel, as such he chose a option that while is strange and may have caused a disruption or commotion, is (theoretically) valid. Ein Eitza V'ain Tevuna.....


  24. ספורנו עה"ת ספר דברים פרק ד פסוק ז
    (ז) כי מי גוי גדול אשר לו אלהים קרובים אליו. והטעם שראוי להקפיד שתהיו נחשבים חכמים ונבונים לעיני העמים הוא שהאל יתברך קרוב אלינו בכל קראנו אליו. וזה יורה שבחר בנו מכל העמים. ואם יחשבו אתכם העמים לסכלים יהיה חלול ה' באמור לכל עם ה' אלה:

  25. I addressed the Halachic questions. This is, at best, a "chumra." The other chumras you cite are private. This is a public chumra. Public chumras require very special reasons. Otherwise they should not be instituted. This behavior is counter-indicated.