Shabbes for Some; Lo bashamayim Hi.

I wasn’t there, but I was disturbed by some of the reports on the disastrous El Al flight from New York. Am I alone in detecting a tone of self-righteous smugness at the ability to ”observe Shobbes” at the expense of so many others? That the world is centred only upon oneself and one’s own piety. Is this the only moral message to be learned? What about consideration for others, including employees?

The classic joke has an El Al pilot in similar circumstances informing his passengers: ”Due to headwinds and our delay we will not be able to land before Shabbes; Accordingly I shall have to turn off all the engines and we will stay up here until Shabbes is over.”

We do not know why the El Al crew bus took so long to get to the airport but if there was snow then surely the local authorities had a duty to keep the road clear. Maybe the crew could not leave earlier as they were still on their statutory rest time. Maybe the captain, stressed by the delay, reckoned that to get a cup of coffee after several hours on a bus would make little difference by now? What was the state of the airport, how many other flights were being delayed, why does the control tower keep a delayed scheduled international flight for an hour on the tarmac rather than send it on its way? The cabin crew were also under great stress – this does not mean they should not act profesionally but what does this mean? To do their best to ensure the flight lands at its destination with as little delay as still possible? Can a passenger really demand to leave a plane due to a delay (and also have his luggage found and removed) and have his ticket accepted on a following flight – which might also be fully booked? There are various rules for refunds and rebookings under various circumstances but is the risk of missing Shabbes one of them? Does the airport have a pier free for the plane to come to and how can one bring a couple of hundred passengers from airside to landside again without going through those ghastly queues at JFK at Immigration/Homeland Security? Might the crew also have preferred to get back to their home base by Shabbat rather than be compelled to stay in Athens? What would have happened if Athens airport had been closed by bad weather, or if the plane was flying from a different direction and only airports in Arab countries were available?

From the airline’s point of view, not only was there additional expense for hotels and airport fees but a machine and a crew were not in the right place by Saturday night or Sunday morning, the crew not rested, the machine not cleaned, maintained and refuelled. Other passengers were therefore also inconvenienced.

Nobody was demanding that the passengers do any more than just sit there and let someone else do the flying for them, so in this respect they would not be voluntarily breaking Shabbat but submitting to Force Majeure (also called ‘Act of God’ in insurance circles!) Life was not at stake. What do pietists on a ship do, when the ship keeps moving on Shabbat? Although there are many rules about fire and heating on Shabbat I have yet to meet someone who does not use the lavatory on Shabbat because flushing would cause water pumps to spring into action….

Out of a no-win situation, delays caused by an accumulation of factors, a partial win was achieved; Nobody died, the plane is intact, the passengers were found accomodation and provided with a Shabbat atmosphere and could sing their zemirot and get home a day later. Mazal Tov. But to class this as a major spiritual victory – even so close before Chanukah – makes me cringe.

Rabbi Walter Rothschild. Berlin, Germany.

About the Author
Walter Rothschild a British-born Rabbi and historian working in Germany and Poland.
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