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Apr 13 2013

Great moments in religion

I came across this photograph from the Gothamist of a man flying on a plane while completely wrapped in thick plastic.

41112plane1

Is he some kind of extreme germaphobe, worried about catching an infection in the cramped confines of a plane? Or was he giving himself as a present to someone special and had himself gift-wrapped as part of the surprise? No, it turns out that he is an Orthodox Jew belonging to a special kind of hereditary priesthood known as the ‘kohens’ and he was taking precautions. According to the article:

Kohens are prohibited from flying over cemeteries (“A kohen initially was not supposed to approach any dead body, and if he did so he became ritually impure”), which as you can imagine, could be a major problem for travel. According to Haaretz, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community in Israel, “found a solution to this issue, ruling that wrapping oneself in thick plastic bags while the plane crossed over the cemetery is permissible.”

You’ve got to love the Orthodox Jews. First they tie themselves into knots with absurdly complicated rules based on an ancient book of myths and then, when those rules become a little too inconvenient, they invent even crazier loopholes to circumvent them. In this case, the kohen clearly could not be bothered to preserve his purity if it involved spending days traveling by land or sea, so he found a way to fly over cemeteries.

But what I want to know is how he breathes inside the plastic. Does he take his own air with him? If he has air holes, then wouldn’t the cemetery impurities sneak in through them? What if he has to use the bathroom while in flight?

No doubt the extremely learned and ingenious Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv has figured out answers to all these by careful reading of the Talmudic texts, but inquiring minds want to know.

When my children were little they would yell out and lift their feet off the floor whenever we drove past a cemetery. I assumed they were playing a game but maybe they had become rabbinical scholars while my back was turned and had figured out a way to preserve their own bodily purity. I pass this knowledge on gratis to the kohen community as a safer option than risking asphyxiation.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Kimbeaux

    Plastic was mentioned in the OT or the Talmud? Hunh. Whodda thunk it?

  2. 2
    garnetstar

    This has now taken first place in the crazy-loopholes-circumventing-crazy-religious-laws category.

    My previous favorite was one forbidding growing certain crops in the holy lands in Israel. Or perhaps it was tending or watering them on the sabbath. Or consuming crops that had been so grown or tended.

    So the growers use beds that are suspended a few inches over the actual ground. That took care of it.

  3. 3
    brucegee1962

    Is this the same sect that isn’t allowed to carry things on the Sabbath unless there is a string tied around the area — so they string off entire districts?

    http://westhampton-hamptonbays.patch.com/articles/quogue-community-divided-over-eruv-proposal

  4. 4
    curcuminoid

    He likely just tied it up for a few minutes as they were approaching the cemetery. Its only Jewish bodies that project the impurity upwards (“to the sky”). By putting himself in the bag he makes a separate domain that prevents the coodies impurity from getting at him. Nevermind that the plane is hermetically sealed and should more than do that for him already.

    Remember, if it isn’t getting you attention, it ain’t religion.

    Garnestar, you’re probably thinking about the Sabbatical Year, when you can’t plant things in Israel.

  5. 5
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Mano, you’ve got me chuckling out loud here – not just at the absurdity of the story but:

    No doubt the extremely learned and ingenious Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv has figured out answers to all these by careful reading of the Talmudic texts, but inquiring minds want to know.

    and

    When my children were little they would yell out and lift their feet off the floor whenever we drove past a cemetery. I assumed they were playing a game but maybe they had become rabbinical scholars while my back was turned and had figured out a way to preserve their own bodily purity. I pass this knowledge on gratis to the kohen community as a safer option than risking asphyxiation.

    Mow that’s lol funny! :D

  6. 6
    Hamilton Jacobi

    Mano, this is a good opportunity for a physicist to step in and resolve some fundamental questions. What is the angular distribution of the ritual impurities given off by a corpse? How does the intensity vary with distance? Are ritual impurities absorbed by things other than plastic bags, or do they just pass through most non-rabbinical objects as a neutrino would? These questions can all be answered experimentally.

  7. 7
    Donovan

    @Kimbeaux (#1) Yes, it does, actually:

    Numbers 26:65 “For the Lord had said of them, ‘They shall die in the wilderness.’ Not one of them was left, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.”

    I’d say that’s pretty frakin’ blunt. What gets me is why this passage, by saying “of them was left” that only 7.3742 mil can be used. How can someone even find that?

  8. 8
    Gregory in Seattle

    Wait a moment. He can come within… what, 300 feet? of a cemetary while on the ground, and retain his alleged “ritual purity”, but flying a mile above one makes him unclean?

    He DOES know, of course, that if there are any air holes in his baggie, the impurity will seep in anyway.

  9. 9
    Aliasalpha

    So he’s a priest that can’t go near dead bodies? Does he not do funerals or does he have to do them over Skype or something?

  10. 10
    sailor1031

    Cemeteries aren’t marked on aviation charts nor on IFR en route and approach plates so how can anyone possibly know if they are flying over a graveyard or not? To be sure of remaining ritually pure these idiots would have to wear plastic (without contaminating airholes) for the duration of the flight. More than 3 minutes would be highly problematical don’t you think? But anyway, how many of these kohens can really prove their descent back to any priest of israel actually known to have existed? Weren’t all the records destroyed somewhere around 70CE? My take is that are faking it because they get preferential treatment in their communities.

  11. 11
    sailor1031

    Is the impurity a wave or a particle? and how does it get its mass or is it like a neutrino? Is it an impurity beam lie a vertical laser or is it an omnidirectional field obeying an inverse square law? so many questions…..

  12. 12
    Marcus Ranum

    All that learning and still a dumbass. Maybe he should have studied math or physics instead of the torah.

  13. 13
    Marcus Ranum

    Apparently “impurity” is carried in air. So wouldn’t it make more sense to be concerned about being downwind of a cemetary?

  14. 14
    Lofty

    Butbutbut, you don’t unnerstand, the plastic bag has been specially reinforced by mythic incantations and rare and expensive holy potions. If they had blessed the entire plane, it would have protected a whole lot of unbelievers too, which would have weakened the protective spell something awful.
    This plastic bag is now no ordinary bag, and its safe post flight handling will be done with due reverence. A bit like the shroud of Turin.

  15. 15
    Uncle Glenny

    Plastic bags really are versatile and protective.

    When I travelled to Italy as a teen in 1971 the travel advisor told us to keep our film in plastic bags to protect it from the x-ray machine, so this makes perfect sense.

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