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Travel Conundrum: Violate Shabbat or Cause a Chilul Hashem?

This week’s (Sept 24, 2011) NY Times Magazine “Ethicist” article dealt with an inherently difficult Jewish Travel issue: potentially break Shabbat or cause a chilul Hashem (desicration of G-d’s name — or more practically: make Jews & Judaism look really bad)?

The issue at hand was as follows: An 11:30am flight from NYC-Milwaukee (~2.25hr flight) was delayed and didn’t board until 4pm. The plane didn’t leave the gate until 4:40pm and by 5:10pm, wasn’t projected to takeoff for another 30 minutes.

At that point, a Jewish family on board realized that they weren’t going to arrive in time for Shabbat and asked to disembark the plane.

The pilot obliged and when they did, the plane was to get in back of the line to takeoff, and was ultimately canceled as a result.

When I first read the situation, I thought they did the right thing, but upon reading Ariel Kaminer’s rationale that they were wrong, I came around.

The fault was actually on the family.

The flight didn’t board until 4pm. Assuming that this recently took place (i.e. Shabbat started late), it still didn’t give them much time.

Many rabbis and podium have said that it is not preferable to travel past chatzot (midday) on a Friday (Erev Shabbat). Additionally, it is customary to allow yourself twice the amount of time to get someplace when traveling on Erev Shabbat (Ohr L’tziyon 2:16:7). Milwaukee is only one hour behind NY, so they were boarding their flight at 3pm local time.

Let’s assume that Shabbat was ~8pm in Milwaukee and that it takes between 45-60 minutes to get to their final destination after landing (which is quite generous). Let’s also assume that the flight were to take off within 30 minutes of boarding (which is also generous for any of the 3 NYC airports).

So, takeoff is 3:30pm (at destination), flight time is 2.25 hrs, and getting to final destination is another 45 minutes. That’s a total of 3 hours if absolutely noting goes wrong. No flight delays. No baggage delays. No traffic upon leaving the airport.

They should’ve left themselves at least 6 hours from boarding the plane until the start of Shabbat to make it in time. In my generous scenario, they only gave themselves 4.5 hrs and were setting themselves up to likely to spend Shabbat in the Milwaukee airport.

Having said that, once they boarded the plane, they committed to making the trip, no matter the consequences. They were in it, delays and all, with the rest of their fellow passengers.

Asking the pilot to turn the plane around, further delaying the other hundred-plus passengers, may have resulted in the family keeping Shabbat, but caused a major chilul Hashem in the process.

The flight was cancelled in the end because of the Jewish family’s request, and who knows how much money was lost and aggravation was caused to their fellow passengers due to their actions? Personally, I find this request to be very selfish in nature, whether it be for religious purposes or not. Once you board the plane and it leaves the gate, you’ve committed to flying until it reaches its destination. You’re not boarding the plane on condition that if it takes off in the next 45 minutes we’re good, but afterward, I’m getting off. It’s all or nothing with flying.

The family here made 2 bad decisions. 1) To board the plane in the first place at 4pm, and 2) to ask the flight to disembark, further delaying everyone’s trip (even if it wasn’t going to get canceled).

Either don’t board that flight, or ride it till the end. People need to take responsibility for their mistakes. At the end of the day it’s a lose-lose situation. You’re either going to be mechalel Shabbat or cause a huge chilul Hashem. No right answer.

This is a lesson that should be rooted in our Judaism beyond travel.

About the author

Dani Klein

Dani Klein is the founder of YeahThatsKosher, is passionate about global travel, good kosher food / restaurants, social media & the web, technology, digital marketing, and spending time with his friends & family.

Dani has an MBA in Marketing and works in the Social Media Marketing field for a large media agency.

  • Emesornt

    Maybe they asked a shaila? In any case I never travel on erev shabbos or yom tov

    • Alyssa

      the family should have known that boarding at 4PM would make it close to impossible to get to their destination on time before Shabbat and thus should not have boarded the flight at that time. The article quotes Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of the two-volume “Code of Jewish Ethics.” “He said the situation puts two values in conflict: honoring God through his commandments and not dishonoring Judaism in the public eye, as might happen if the other passengers blamed the religion rather than the family’s risky choice for their inconvenience. As for the family in question, the rabbi —a frequent traveler — advises, “Once a flight has been delayed a lot, there are no guarantees, so be aware of that before, not after, you board a flight on a Friday afternoon.”

  • A Jewish Girl

    It’s not really your place to decide whether they made the right or wrong choice.  You are not God.  The family did what they thought was best and it wasn’t their fault that the plane was delayed so much.  I think you’re far to judgemental and critical.  This is exactly what the world does not need.  As the old saying goes – “you are not the boss of me”…. You don’t get to decide how other people run their lives.  Let people live in peace. We have all made good decisions in life, and some not so great decisions.  It’ s just about learning and moving forward.  Get over yourself.  It’s almost the New Year.  Stay out of other people’s business. 
    Shana Tova.

  • Shmuel – Chicago

    The family made a serious error in traveling that late on a Friday. But the statement, “Once you board the plane and it leaves the gate, you’ve committed to flying until it reaches its destination,” is patently false. Committed? To whom? The airline? The pilot? Your fellow passengers? Certainly not to G-d, to Whom you owe the ultimate commitment. (If they had stayed on the plane, what were they supposed to do when they arrived? Refuse to leave it? Or go ahead and desecrate Shabbos in umpteen other ways in order to get off the plane, carrying their muktzah from one r’shus to another, and on and on?)

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