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