General Topics

Dangerous Tefilin


So here is this innocent youngster on a flight in the USA trying to put on his tefilin, modestly and as inconspicuously as possible, in his seat. The air hostess has never seen these funny black boxes and straps before. They look like a device. Could be he is a suicide bomber strapping himself into a bomb. Panic. The kid is restrained. His tefilin are impounded. The plane is diverted and then isolated. Passengers are delayed and inconvenienced; appointments and celebrations are missed. It’s a massive scare. The press is alerted. The FBI moves in. The young man is cooperating with the authorities. And it is not a joke. It happened here in the USA.

Is this just another example of the madness gripping us as Islamic-inspired terrorism spreads? Yes and no. We Jews are a very, very small minority and Orthodox Jews are a small minority within a minority. So in one way it is not at all surprising that most people on earth have absolutely no idea what tefilin are. Besides tefilin themselves are so difficult to explain. Aids to prayer? Surely one does not need leather straps and boxes to pray? And the very English term “phylacteries” sounds a bit like “prophylactic”. Are they supposed to prevent some plague or something? Perhaps they are like the Scientologists’ “magic boxes”. A kind of brain monitor? And why only for men? Are they some sort of male enhancers? I recall plenty of jokes about Jews putting on tefilin in hospital and people thinking they were for taking their blood pressure. The fact is that it is very, very hard to sound logical or sane when describing tefilin to a non-Jew who has no idea and no background.

On the other hand, you see so many Orthodox Jews on flights nowadays, and they are often carrying their talis and tefilin bags or praying at airport terminals. I cannot recall a flight anywhere in the world I have taken without a black hat and beard for company. My tefilin have been checked so often at security that by now, surely, word must have got round. In the past tefilin were used so frequently to smuggle diamonds in and out of Antwerp that I’d have thought there must be diagrams posted in every customs house.

And in most schools nowadays comparative religion is taught, if only to make Westerners more sympathetic to the spread of strange Middle and Eastern religions, that the very basic features and customs of alien religions are now more widely known than ever before. Yet clearly most human beings still seem unable to tell the difference between a suicide bomber’s belt and tefilin.

The security situation is getting worse and worse all the time. I have had eau de toilette, shampoo, deodorant, and even hair gel confiscated (not to mention a half a bottle of Drambuie). But it’s the lunacy of political correctness and the civil liberties fanatics that are the real problem. It is utterly ridiculous that the anti-profiling lobby has been allowed to create a situation in which an eighty-year-old lady in a wheelchair is as likely to be searched as dishdash-wearing, heavily bearded, agitated twenty-year-old.

My old schoolmate, Professor Edward Luttwak, had an article in the January 18th Wall Street Journal in which he argued that ever increasing body searches and restrictions will not eradicate the problem nearly as effectively as clever profiling and personal interaction:

Given the power of widely available explosives, the amount that can be carried inside a body cavity—let alone two—is sufficient to destroy ordinary pressurized airliners at normal flight altitudes. That makes “pat downs”, or indeed any form of physical inspection that is remotely feasible in any airport … entirely futile. That alone rules out scanners … To screen passengers as persons would reduce costs and inconvenience … because entire categories of passengers could be waived through with a rapid examination of travel documents … [and history].

This is precisely the sort of checking that we have all experienced on flights to and from Israel. Certainly it is more manpower-intensive than machines, but it clearly works. It is true that the number of employees required to monitor the flights in and out of one small Middle Eastern state would be dwarfed by the needs of massive worldwide air passenger traffic. But considering the billions wasted in the US alone on totally ineffective bureaucratic security agencies, it would make more sense to have well trained, well educated men and women on duty than the poorly paid, low rung employees most of us have encountered.

We may agree that security demands we veer on the side of strictness, but sensible and careful profiling will surely eliminate any suspicion that a teenager putting on tefilin is likely to blow a plane up! On the other hand, someone ought to tell him that although there’s a fixed time to say your morning prayers, you can put tefilin on at any time during the day and fulfill your duty. Or, of course, you can fly El Al.

17 thoughts on “Dangerous Tefilin

  1. I well remember that, at the height of the Irish bombings in the UK, a patient of my husband, in hospital awaiting a heart operation, put his tefilin on while speaking to Rebbe Schneerson in the USA, who was praying for him. A nurse walked into his room, screamed, "Bomb!" and ran out again. Terrorism, wherever it occurs, makes people very tense.

    You're right, of course: prior checking of those who have bought plane tickets is essential. A bit of a frisk does no-one any harm but one wonders what good. Perhaps they could invent a machine which has the same effect as the highly polished steel had on the Black Watch but with X-ray facilities which could internalise the view!

    And, Jeremy, I do fly El Al. Have a good Shabbos.

  2. There are 2 points that need to be made which I fear this misses.

    The first is a simple requirement for a bit of better traiing, because cabin crew generally do, but this one person seems not to have been told to, recognise this as a harmless matter that needed no extreme intervention.

    The second point is a little home truth to Orthodox Jewish travellers. When you travel courtesy of somebody else's service, and even if you are paying for it, you are a guest and there will be rules and procedures to abide by. What you can do at home or in other locations over which you have control, you can't do at 38,000 feet at will, because the system which you have chosen to use to get you from A to B says so.

    Generally, a lot can be achieved in cases of doubt by actually speaking to one of the cabin crew, explaining the position and gaining their understanding and respect. Cabin crew are, by definition, more widely travelled than most of us. They have been to some pretty remote places, mixed with folk from distant lands, and pretty much seen it all (I think this case is highly exceptional so far as that goes). They get trained to assist with all sorts of pressing situations including medical emergencies and, God forbid, crash-landing routines. They will have the patience in the course of a routine flight to converse with the passengers and have small matters of personal conduct explained to them.

    Most Orthodox Jewish passengers flying through the USA speak English. But a good many choose to be as uncommunicative to the Gentiles as they possibly can be. All too often – anyone reading this post will have seen examples of this for themselves – you will see one of "us" carrying on in a manner which is oblivious of the interests of other people on board. I am not suggesting there is malevolence or latently dangerous conduct involved, but just want of a little sensitivity to others and of the application of genuine out-facing communication skill with the rest of the world.

    I don't in terms know what happened in the case of the kid with the tfillin. Maybe he was being reasonable and he was stopped in his tracks before he could explain himself. Maybe the cabin steward had personal issues that interfered with his or her judgment. A lot of things are possible, and it is not easy to generalise from this one extreme case.

    But what this conceptually calls to attention is the need for Jews to operate in a seemly manner when in public and in the company of others. We should not assume that the entire world is inately aware of our characteristics. Perhaps above all, we should recognise that in confined spaces in complex circumstances (such as the inside of an aircraft cabin) it might just not be the most practical thing to get up when you feel like it, without a bit of warning to others around you, and start behaving in a manner which the huge majority of humanity will find eccentric.

    The image which we maintain in public is very important. Again, I cannot use this case as specific proof of anything, since the whole thing is a combination of excessive reaction and over-reaction. But sufficient of what passes for routine conduct by ostensibly well-meainng Orthodox Jews in flight is not acceptable in polite society, that there are times when the words chillul hashem sadly spring too readily to mind.

  3. Leila:
    Thank you for your reminiscence, lovely. As for EL AL the only problem of course is that I am not sure they have a flight from Kentucky to Lousiana!!

  4. Daniel:

    You are absolutely right about the way Orthodox travellers often behave, and in fact I wrote a blog on this very topic in the article linked from the third paragraph of this blog post.

    There is another aspect to this point of Jewish Pride, all the more so as it is commoner now than in the past for Muslims to pray in public wherever they are and that's five times a day (though they have mats not tefilin of course).
    Nevertheless, I did hint at it in my comment at the end that halachically one does not have to put one's tefilin on on a plane and one can pray discretely, etc., but thank you for raising the issue.


  5. Jeremy the last line was what I thought when I heard about it. But really where is the kids brain? Daven at home, the terminal, after you land, but on a plane that is not to/from Israel (where it is normal if not akward)..for what purpose?

    Better judgment could have helped. I don't blame the airline at all, I blame his schooling.

  6. ss:

    Yes, indeed, I'd expect a 17 year old to have common sense even if he was badly educated!!! After all in a few moths he could be fighting in Afghanistan (and vote)!

  7. Although I like to imagine a world where 17-year-old boys had common sense, there would be the drawback of their not being so ready to, as you mention, go off to war.

    Cheery Shabbos!

  8. Hi J.

    I must say I find Eddie Luttwak's reasoning seriously flawed in that he ignores the "game theory" of suicide bombers / terrorists reasoning. Really it is like bullets vs. armour – each side tries to find a new and better way of technically outsmarting the other. So when a terrorist honeytrap agent secretes explosives in his pregnant girlfriend's luggage, that she was genuinely unaware of, bang (literally) goes Eddie's reasoning – because she would never be profiled as a risk! Ditto when a small device is slipped into the luggage of a senior citizen travelling in a group.

    Sorry to hear about your half bottle of Drambuie though…..

    Shabbat Shalom

    Geoffrey Paradise

  9. The Japanese Red Army attack in Lod in the early 70s meant that any non Occidental was still having their luggage turned inside out a decade later. That's the problem with profiling, it's not possible to distinguish between the most likely suspect (some bearded bloke carrying a half bottle of whiskey!) and the least likely, a nice Chinese family with a lot of neatly packed luggage, and pick which to investigate.

  10. Anonymous:
    Yes, I accept your point. That's why Israel tends towards intensive screening of traveller details in advance and personal interview at security.

  11. ss
    these are truly terrible examples. well what do you expect? since 9/11 the USA has employed village idiots as airport security.. I have no experience of US flights since then but colleagues tell me enough.. here in Europe where I have flown a several times since 2001 it is a similar story – you take simpletons – give them a basic training and a strange uniform – and away you go!

    that is it!!! it took your reference to a splendid Paris Pansy to get me going —- BLACK BOXES, 3 to 4 thousand years before Wilbur & Orville got bored with bicycles, Jews invented the BLACK BOX!!!!!

    let's do it – before Chabad claim it as their own!!!


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