Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Davening with a minyan on a plane

Often we find ourselves torn between choosing a mitzvah bein adam lamakom and a mitzvah bein adam la’chavero.  Are we sometimes stringent to observe a mitzvah between man and God while neglecting an interpersonal mitzvah?  As an example, I remember that many years ago, it was common for men to congregate at the back of a plane on an international flight to Israel so that they could daven with a minyan.  The Shulchan Aruch writes that “yishtadel,” or a person should strive to pray with a minyan and certainly when there is a minyan of Jews on a plane, it stands to reason that they should gather to pray.  However, in recent years, Rabbanim have come out and said that we should daven privately on a plane even if there is a minyan of Jews on the plane.  Why?  Because davening with a minyan often causes a Chillul Hashem.  Very often when a group of men assemble in a cramped area on the plane, passengers and flight attendants get annoyed and visibly upset because they can’t walk through the area on the plane where the minyan is taking place.  This is an instance when many Rabbanim have ruled that we should forgo a stringency in a mitzvah ben adam lamakom so that we don’t violate a mitzvah bein adam la’chavero and cause a chillul Hashem.  For example, Rav Hershel Schachter has written:  “[I]t is still not proper to gather a minyan together near the washrooms, disturbing all the other passengers and the stewardesses. As much as various Torah giants of our generation have expressed their opposition to such minyanim on airplanes, their message has not yet been accepted.”

As such, in the past number of years, I have generally davened privately on a plane without a minyan, with one notable exception.  I flew to Israel on the day that I rose from shiva after my mother died to visit my daughter in seminary.  I very much would have liked to recite Kaddish and daven with a minyan on the plane but I didn’t want to cause a potential Chillul Hashem.  It happened to be that on my flight to Israel, eight 12th graders from JEC and their Rebbe were sitting in the back three rows in the right section of the plane.  The eight boys were traveling with their Rebbe to Israel for Yeshiva break to visit different Yeshivot.  There was a small space behind the back row where I was able to stand which did not interfere with anyone and we were able to daven with everyone sitting in their seats (except for me) so that I could recite Kaddish without, hopefully, causing a Chillul Hashem.

That happened more than eight years ago and I don’t think that I’ve davened with a minyan on a plane since then, until this past week, when I davened maariv on a flight to Israel.  When I was standing on line to use the bathroom, someone asked me if I would join him for a minyan.  I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I don’t think that it’s appropriate to cause a Chillul Hashem in order to daven with a minyan and in my mind I was critical of this person for suggesting that we should ignore this potential Chillul Hashem.  So I asked him if he got permission.  He told me that he asked a flight attendant and she was very accommodating and replied that we could definitely make a minyan in an area on the plane.  In fact, the flight attendant even turned the lights on in that section so that we could daven there.

I learned two things from that experience.  First, I made an improper assumption about the individual who asked me to join the minyan.  I assumed that because of some awful stories that I have heard about the Chillul Hashem caused when groups of Jews davened with a minyan and blocked sections of the plane that this individual presumably did not care about other people and he only cared about his own personal obligation of tefillah b’tzibbur.  In reality, that was not the case.  Secondly, I learned that sometimes we can have it all.  Sometimes, we can accommodate both bein adam lamakom and bein adam la’chavero mitzvot.  Sometimes, we don’t have to assume that the flight attendants will necessarily not allow a minyan to take place on a plane.  If they refuse to allow it, then we should daven privately.  But maybe sometimes we shouldn’t rush to give up a mitzvah bein adam lamakom opportunity for fear of upsetting someone without inquiring whether indeed it will insult someone.  Maybe sometimes we can truly have it all.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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