Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Blessing and Learning Torah on an Airplane. Blessing Again After the Journey


The Torah commands us to keep connected with it at all times, "…and in your walking along the way." When traveling on an airplane one must not only keep the Mitzvah of studying Torah, but one must also bless and pray to G-d for a successful and safe journey. Upon safe arrival, one must bless again. Even if everything seems perfectly safe, still these are the laws that must be followed.

Many ask if there is any danger on an airplane. Is there a real need to ask G-d to protect us there? Everything seems safe enough. The planes are built according to the strictest requirements today. Engineers check everything again and again. Pre-flight tests are administered etc. Security checks, upon boarding, have become so strict, that the average person may feel like they're being accused of being a terrorist (G-d forbid) if security happens to find a pin in their pocket! The events of a current tragedy – as with others – clearly points us towards reminding us of these important laws of the Torah. The Torah is true for every single situation of today – no matter how awesome modern technology is.

Years ago, when man would travel by ship (only,) the Torah instructed us to make a blessing while traveling, for everything to be well during the trip, that robbers not attack one etc. In addition, when arriving safely, one must bless G-d at the first opportunity, by being given an Aliyah in Shul and reciting a blessing indicating one's thanks at the great favour G-d has bestowed in allowing us to live through this dangerous experience.

This was the Halacha before airplanes were invented. The Torah is constant. The laws applicable to times long past, still have value today. Today, however, it is the duty of the great rabbis of our generation to teach us the correct way when things "change." Many may think that the laws of the Torah are ancient – something to be practiced then, but not now. Yet today – we see quite literally how our sages of years ago, knew well what they spoke about then – and how these same laws would apply today. There is nothing new ever added to the Torah – just another angle of seeing the exact same law. A slight change in technology – and the Torah must be taught to accommodate the new lifestyle.

The Torah is as fresh today as it was thousands of years ago. The rabbis of today *must* give us guidance on understanding Torah for our times! We must live with the times. We must take the Torah which is not only thousands of years old, but indeed the very blueprint of creation, and apply every single law that was then – to what must be today.

Hundreds of years ago we had ships. Today we also have airplanes. When the Talmud was written, there were no airplanes. But could our sages have meant the same things about ships as they might mean about planes too?! Do the rabbis of today simply make things up – or do they in fact show clearly how everything is included in the root itself?

Think upon this: Electricity did not exist thousands of years ago. Could Moses have commanded us not to turn on a light on Shabbat nowadays? After all… it isn't really much work to do at all!

The Torah is infinite. Everything in it from the time it was given (and before that) – is the same as it applies today. Our job is to learn out from the previous cases, so that we can better understand how to apply things to today. "Moses" did indeed take electricity on Shabbat into account. "He" also took into account driving a car on Shabbat (even though it's far less work to do than to walk miles on end to get to shul!) And, in fact, he well took into account airplanes… Our duty now, is to learn from the events that happen in our day to day lives, and to know well, that every law of Torah must be observed. And we must know, that the legal authorities of Torah Judaism today, are as much connected with the laws of thousands of years ago – as they are, with the happenings and progress of today's technology.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers a letter addressed to him: The person asking is interested to know if we really do need to say any special blessing while traveling on a plane today. They also want to know if we need to study Torah on the plane (is it really included in the Mitzvah of learning Torah "…and in your walking along the way" – after all you're not actually walking!) And they want to know if one still needs to bless G-d after a safe arrival, after all, the Gemara doesn't speak about planes… but only ships!

The Rebbe replies:

"You ask whether an air passenger should say the blessing of HaGomel. It seems to me that the answer depends on which stand one takes in the question as to whether or not the Sages meant to be exclusive and specific when they listed the four categories of people who are obliged to express their gratitude through reciting this blessing. In Seder Birkas HaNehenin 13:7, the Alter Rebbe ruled that people in circumstances similar to those listed are also obliged to say the blessing. And this is the rule that applies here.

"One might add by way of mere observation that even according to the contrary view, an airplane that crosses the ocean also belongs to the category of 'those who go down to the sea.' Why should it be different? It is true that rumor ascribes to a certain scholar the argument that the phrase in Tehillim speaks of 'those who go down to the sea in ships,' rather than speaking of those who travel over the sea. However, we cannot be responsible for rumors, especially considering the view (cited in Sdei Chemed, Klalei HaPoskim, Klal 16, sec. 50) that we should not initiate derushim from Scripture that are not cited by the Sages. On the other hand, one might distinguish somewhat between the dangers undergone by a ship crossing the waves and an airplane flying far above them. But, as mentioned above, this whole discussion is merely academic, for common usage prescribes that the blessing is also said by people in circumstances similar to those listed.

"And now to a related question. Should one recite Tefillas HaDerech [lit., 'the prayer for the road,' i.e., the Prayer for Travelers; Siddur, p. 86] when in an aircraft? The Gaon of Rogatchov answered negatively, since its route is not a 'road' (cf. Chullin 139b; cited by R. Zevin in Ishim VeShitos, p. 97). This view, however, calls for close scrutiny, for it would seem that what matters is not whether or not a 'road' is involved, but rather the fact that a man leaves his home and travels outside his town through a place of possible danger involving enemies and so on, as specified there.

"Moreover, in the vast majority of cases a person has to travel by road until he reaches his airport (and likewise on arrival at his destination). If instead of taking his flight he would then (say) return home, the drive to the airport would be an ordinary occurrence. However, when this drive is about to be followed by a further journey by any means whatever, the Prayer for Travelers should be recited. Anyway, this is not the place for any lengthy discussion.
"(In lighter vein, one might seek to prove the point from the obligation to study Torah even in an airplane, despite the fact that the relevant verse obliges one to do so 'when you walk on the road....')"

(Quoted from "Sefer HaMinhagim – The Book of Chabad-Lubavitch Customs. Highly recommended purchase. Or read it online. As the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe said in the name of the Alter Rebbe – the founder of Chabad Chassidism – the teachings of Chassidus in general are not intended for a specific group or class of Jews, but are relevant to all. See introduction to the book for more info.)

Need to learn more about the various blessings and prayers to be recited? Contact Rav Eliyahu and set up a private or group lesson – ONLINE – today!

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