In Parashas Chukas we learn about the spiritual defilement of a corpse, tumas mes: “This is the Torah: If a person dies in a tent, everything that enters the tent, and all that there is in the tent, shall be defiled for seven days” (Bamidbar 19:14).

One of the principle special halachos relevant for Kohanim today is the law of tumas mes. As recorded in Vayikra 21:1-4, other than for the burial of a close relative, Kohanim are forbidden to defile themselves through contact with a corpse.

For this reason, Kohanim must be wary of entering hospitals in which a corpse is present, of visiting cemeteries, and even of walking in streets where overhanging trees might pass tumas mes from an adjacent cemetery to those who walk beneath them.

Late in the Summer of 2001, a newly-observant Israeli pilot relayed a question raised by a colleague to a number of halachic authorities: How is it that Kohanim are permitted to embark on flights leaving Ben Gurion airport that pass over the cemetery in Holon? Upon investigation it was discovered that there had been a problem since 1984, when flight patterns were altered to minimize flying over densely populated areas north of Ben Gurion airport and to avoid overflying a military area south of the airport.

As we will mention in the conclusion, many flights departing from Israel use an alternate route, but there are many flights that fly over the cemetery in Holon. As we will see it is necessary for kohanim to avoid flights which fly over the Holon cemetery. A recently published (online) picture of a Kohen who, in order to avoid the issue, wrapped himself in plastic, brought the matter to the public eye, and we dedicate the current article to a brief summary of the issues involved.

A Tent that Forms a Partition

The Mishnah (Ohalos 8:1) teaches that there are items that form a partition in the face of tumah, preventing the tumah from passing to those on the other side of that partition. The list of items noted in the Mishnah includes a number of utensils, such as large boxes or crates, as well as sheets or mats when they are made in the form of a tent.

The Mishnah thus informs us that even a utensil is able to function as a partition, if it is in the form of a tent. According to a number of authorities, this ruling applies even to a utensil that in principle can become tamei (it is made of material that receives tumah), as the Ra’av writes: “Even though… these are utensils and they receive tumah, they nonetheless form a partition in the face of tumah if they are formed as a tent. For a tent, even if it receives tumah, forms a partition in the face of tumah.”

An airplane is on the one hand a (large) utensil, and it is possible that it receives tumah (see below). On the other hand it is clearly formed as a tent, possessing walls and a roof, and therefore it would seem that, according to some authorities, the airplane will form a partition in the face of tumah, and those inside it will not be exposed to tumas mes from the graves below. The same suggestion can be made concerning trains, cars, and the like. This reasoning is noted by the Tzitz Eliezer (Vol. 12, no. 62). However, this approach is quite difficult since even according to the lenient opinions, the Mishnah is not referring to any utensil that receives tumah, but only to wooden utensils whose general ability to receive tumah is limited. In addition, it appears from the rulings of the Rambam (Keilim Chap. 3) that any utensil that is made to be moveable cannot act as a partition in the face of tumah – and it is surprising that a number of Poskim do not address this point.

Instead, many Poskim analyze the case of an airplane (or a train) based on the concept of a “thrown tent” (ohel zaruk), as we discuss below.This will be relevant if airplanes are completely made from materials that are not subject to tumah.

A “Thrown Tent”

In connection to the rabbinic defilement of “the lands of the nations” – a special tumah that the Sages enacted for being outside the Land of Israel – we find a dispute among Tana’im (Gittin 8b) concerning whether somebody who leaves Israel in a box (or other contraption) becomes defiled. The concept of a moving tent is known as ohel zaruk, a “thrown tent,” and its halachic status is disputed among authorities.

The Rashba rules (Avodas Ha-Kodesh 5:15) that a thrown tent is considered a full halachic tent. Based on this ruling, it can be argued that an airplane, which certainly looks like a “thrown tent” is considered a full halachic tent and can thus serve as a partition in the face of tumah.

The Rambam, however, rules that a “thrown tent” is not considered a halachic tent, and therefore somebody who leaves the Land of Israel in a box is defiled with the tumah of Chutz La-Aretz (Tumas Mes 11:5). Yet, the Rambam elsewhere writes that a “thrown tent” is considered a halachic tent (Aveil 3:6), leaving later authorities to suggest possible resolutions to the contradiction.

The Chelkas Yaakov (1:85; 2:98) suggests that the Rambam distinguishes between the status of a “thrown tent” on a Torah level, and its rabbinic status. On a Torah level, it is clear that a “thrown tent” is considered a full halachic tent, and therefore for Torah law (to which the latter ruling of the Rambam pertains) it forms a partition in the face of tumah. In rabbinic law a “thrown tent” is not a halachic tent, and therefore one inside in a tumah environment becomes defiled on a rabbinic level.

Although this idea is a novelty that many authorities do not mention, the Shevus Yaakov (1,85) applies the chiddush in a practical sense, and a number of authorities concur with him (Pnei Yehoshua; Merkeves Ha-Mishnah). If one could apply this on a practical level, in an airplane that is made from materials that can’t contact tumah, it would serve to save a kohain from defilement on the Torah level.

Skipping Over Graves

Even if we assume that an airplane is not considered an ohel (tent) to form a partition in the face of tumah, it remains possible that a person traveling in it will not become tamei.

The reason for this is the teaching of a Mishnah (Ohalos 8:5), which states, according to the interpretation of a number of rishonim (see Rash and Rosh, Taharos 4:3), that somebody who “skips and jumps from place to place” does not become defiled.

The Chazon Ish (Yoreh De’ah 211:9), who leans towards stringency concerning the question of a “thrown tent,” concedes that according to these opinions a person traveling in a “thrown tent” will not become defiled because he is considered as moving from place to place, and is not vulnerable to the tumah of a mes beneath him.

However, the Chazon Ish (also in Taharos 4:13) presents a number of objections to this opinion, and other authorities also dispute it. Moreover, it seems that according to all opinions it will not save one completely from tumah.

An Airplane as a Partition

The discussion thus far assumes that an airplane is made of material that receives tumah, and therefore there is concern that the airplane, and those inside it, become tamei. Yet, the basic skeleton of many airplanes is made of specially treated plastic (a material immune to tumah) coated in plates of aluminum, and there is therefore room to ponder its status vis-à-vis receiving tumah.

Indeed, the opinion of Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:164) is that even aluminum does not receive tumah – yet Rav Moshe is not prepared to rely on this ruling in practice (see also Yoreh De’ah 3:25, concerning immersion of aluminum vessels). Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky (in a letter printed at the end of Sefer Tevilas Keilim) distinguishes between the halachah of immersing vessels and the issue of receiving tumah and, based on this approach, an airplane will apparently be immune from tumas mes.

However, this approach can not yield a leniency since the engine of the airplane, which is certainly made of tumah-receiving metal, will cause the entire airplane to be susceptible to tumah. The reason for this is that the engine is a central and crucial part of the airplane, so that the rest of the airplane will receive the engine’s stringent status as a material that receives tumah.

Kohanim Today

Another point worthy of note is the status of Kohanim today vis-à-vis tumah.

According to the Raavad, there is no prohibition today for a Kohen to defile himself with tumas mes, the reason being that once a Kohen is already tamei, the Raavad maintains that there is no longer a prohibition against contact with a mes. Since we assume today that everybody has come into some contact with tumas mes and is already tamei, it follows that the prohibition against defiling themselves does not apply to today’s Kohanim.

We do not rule according to this opinion (the Raavad), and it is therefore forbidden for Kohanim, even today and even if they know that they have already become tamei, to come into contact with tumas mes again. However, the Poskim do mention the opinion of the Raavad as a senif (an additional point in a broader argument; see Chasam Sofer  no. 338).

Another possible argument is that we cannot know for certain that the airplane will pass over graves, because the flight course might change so that no graves are encountered. However, although this might have been true some years ago, today the chances of a pilot veering from the set course are extremely slight, so that this will not amount to a halachic doubt.

Another possible cause for doubt is the state of the graves themselves. According to a number of opinions, if a tefach of space is left between the corpse and the top of the grave, the tumah will not rise beyond the grave itself, and there will not be any concern about flying over it (see Aruch Ha-Shulchan, Yoreh De’ah 372:3). Yet, in general such a space is not left, and even where there is an initial gap, rains generally cause mud to fill up the space.

Another possible doubt is that the corpses have entirely decomposed, after which it is possible that they no longer impart tumah (see the above Chasam Sofer). However, it does not appear that this is the situation concerning the cemetery close to Ben Gurion airport (or any other cemetery).

If we are able to ascertain a true doubt over whether the airplane crosses over graves, or a doubt as to the matter of its receiving tumah along its path, this will be sufficient to permit a Kohen to fly: The general rule is that for doubts in matters of tumah (in the public domain) we are lenient. However, even this approach is problematic, since there isn’t really a doubt, as the information is readily available.

Conclusion

The foremost halachic authority to discuss the question of Kohanim flying over graves is the Chazon Ish, who was stringent (Yoreh De’ah 211:9). Thus, although some halachic authorities have written that one can be lenient under extenuating circumstances (see Shut Melamed Le-Ho’il 2:133; Tzitz Eliezer 12:62), these are quite difficult to rely upon.

One should certainly make every effort to avoid the issue (where this is impossible, a knowledgeable halachic authority-in issues of taharos should be contacted). The following instructions, that were given to the author by Rabbi Y. Lombard (and are accurate as of June 2013), should prove useful. (Note that this is subject to change, and before flying a kohein should obtain up-to-date information.):

Flights coming in and out of Israel at night go over the Holon cemetery. Landings and takeoffs from 20 min. before sunrise (or 5:50, whichever is earlier) until 20 min. before sunset are fine (takeoffs are actually close to half an hour after scheduled, so takeoffs should be scheduled from 50 minutes before sunrise until 50 minutes before sunset), and takeoffs between 01:00 and 02:00 (scheduled from 00:30 on) are also fine.

In this article we have not discussed flights on which a coffin is carried. These, too, are problematic – to an even greater degree than flying over graves. The following information is relevant:

Around half the El Al flights from JFK take coffins; El Al from Newark does not take coffins at all. Other flights have various percentages of flights with coffins. Flights with stopovers don’t carry coffins unless they pick them up on the way, so stopovers in any destination in Europe are fine, except France (stopovers in England are fine, but it is better to avoid El Al from Heathrow).

For details and questions, Rabbi Lombard can be contacted at ++972 50 4162026.

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