Caleb’s Gift

When I was a teenager, a long, long time ago, I felt self-conscious about praying in public places like airports. On at least one occasion I entered a phone booth (remember those?) while awaiting a flight, closed the door (yes, they had doors) and spoke to the Creator of the universe through the telephone mouthpiece. (In its own strange way, it enhanced the experience.)

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that praying was nothing of which to be ashamed. And in subsequent years, when there was no other option, I performed my share of religious devotions, even with tallit and tefillin, in an assortment of public places. When on a plane, though – and this has been my practice since well before 2001 – I engage my seatmate in some conversation first, to try to establish my normalcy credentials, and then explain what I am about to do.

Caleb Leibowitz, the young man whose tefillin-donning inadvertently caused the diversion of a flight from New York to Louisville, Kentucky a few weeks ago, acted in a similar responsible way. Seated nearby was his sister; presumably she knew what he was doing. And, according to the boy’s father, quoted in the January 25 daily Hamodia, when a flight attendant inquired about the leather straps and the small boxes on the boy’s arm and head, he politely explained to her that it was a religious ritual.

Some have sought to blame the attendant for then reporting the still-suspicious-to-her goings-on to the captain. But while most experienced attendants have probably seen tefillin, there are surely neophytes who haven’t, and she may well have been one of them. (Agudath Israel of America has tried to sensitize the Transportation Security Administration to the religious practices of Orthodox Jews, and has reached out to airlines as well, offering a brochure explaining Orthodox laws and customs.)

In any event, security protocol apparently required the pilot to land the plane at the next available airport, in this case, Philadelphia, and the rest was history – or, at least, a few days of grist for news organizations, which posted the story of the suspect tefillin before the plane had even landed.

(There was considerable amusement value in some news reports too. A Philadelphia law enforcement official soberly informed television viewers how the “devices” worn by Mr. Leibowitz were called “olfactories.”)

Although the halachic parameters of what constitutes Kiddush Hashem, or “sanctification of G-d’s name,” are complex, the term is colloquially used to mean a Jew’s act that impresses others and generates positive feelings. That is not to say, though, that any act resulting in such feelings is a Kiddush Hashem – or, conversely, that an act resulting in negative feelings in others cannot be proper, and even a Kiddush Hashem.

For an example of the latter, we need look no further than a few weeks hence, when the Book of Esther will be publicly read on Purim. It describes how Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. The Midrash explains that the Purim villain wore an idol around his neck, the reason for Mordechai’s refusal. Many Jews at the time were disapproving of Mordechai’s decision – after all, they argued, it will only stoke Haman’s hatred and render all Jews even more vulnerable! Nevertheless, it was the right decision, whether or not it was a popular one. Haman’s hatred was indeed stoked, but in the end it led to his downfall.

Caleb Leibowitz did something right, too, on the plane that morning. He donned tefillin with pride and explained politely what he was doing. And most people recognized that Mr. Leibowitz was a shining example of an observant Jew, an example only reiterated when law enforcement personnel described him as “completely cooperative” throughout. And if his tefillin-donning frightened a flight attendant or bothered others, or if the image of a young Jewish man kneeling on a tarmac in handcuffs brought anyone to think of Mr. Leibowitz as some wrongdoer, that’s unfortunate. But no amount of misguided disapproval can change the fact that G-d’s name was sanctified by his performance of a mitzvah.

It was a Kiddush Hashem with ramifications, too, a gift that kept on giving. As the New York Jewish Week reported recently, an annual program among the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs that encouraged members to don tefillin experienced a huge surge of interest in the wake of the phylactery fiasco. A movement spokesperson noted that the international “World Wide Wrap” event “had 5000 participants the first years and the number has been consistent ever since.”

This year, though, he added, nearly 9000 men had pledged their participation.

May Caleb’s gift continue to give.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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6 Responses

  1. YGB says:

    Now, Reb Avi et al, let’s continue doing the right things and get the JO back into business!!!

  2. Joe Hill says:

    Rabbi Shafran — Beautiful article and very well stated indeed.

    Calev made a massive Kiddush Hashem simply by putting on his tefilin in public. Even if nothing else would have transpired. And the fact that this made international news made Calev’s Kiddush Hashem that much greater — now the whole world knows a Jew is proud to wear his tefilin, as G-d wishes him to, even amongst people who may find it quaint. He is not embarrassed of his religious duties.

  3. joel rich says:

    Does anyone have a timeline for that day -what time was dawn, sunrise, check in, boarding….
    Joel Rich

  4. Yochanan Sender says:

    Shavua tov from Israel.

    Thank you, that was well done. It would also be highly appropriate to mention where the young high-school student studies and who his rebbeim are, as likely would have been done for other schools. I leave it to the author to correct that.

  5. Raymond says:

    I do not think that most people in this forum who read what I am about to say, will like its contents. I would not send this in, though, if I did not think I have a legitimate point to make.

    There are positive commandments and negative commandments. Using the language of philosophy, I would say that the negative commandments are the more necessary ones, but are not necessarily sufficient. I say they are more necessary, in a way similar to how medical students being trained to be doctors, are given as their first principal to do no harm. The three commandments in the Torah that are literally considered worth more than our lives, are the prohibitions against murder, idolatry, and certain sexual practices such as adultery. Notice how all of those three are negative commandments. In plain language, it is better for a person to neither hurt nor help people, than it is to both hurt and help people.

    The negative commandments are the meat and potatoes of following G-d’s will, while the positive commandments are like icing on the cake, like a special bonus, an opportunity to come closer to G-d. One cannot get closer to G-d and in fact one gets further and further removed from G-d, if one violates the negative commandments. One can, however, refrain from doing the wrong things, even if one does not do much in the way of positive commandments.

    Well, prayer is one such positive commandment. If one fails to pray at a certain time, that does not make him a bad person, it just means that he missed an opportunity to come closer to G-d. It therefore seems to me that given the tense situation we have with airplanes and islamofascist terrorism, that praying on an airplane is a behavior that can be easily misinterpreted as a threat, and should therefore be avoided. One can pray at home or wherever else one is staying, before and after the plane trip. Perhaps one can take a kind of middle ground, limiting his prayers to the Shema and waiting until later to put on tefillin.

    I really think it is a mistake for us Jews to make a spectacle of ourselves. It is not that I am ashamed of being a Jew, but there are far better ways of publicizing our special nature as a people than to wear things that look strange to the general public. One such example of a true sanctification of G-d’s Name, was the recent one in Haiti, where Israel was actually quicker than the United States in helping Haitian refugees, and the whole world knew it. When I heard the news, I beamed with pride at being a member of the most remarkable people who has ever walked the face of the Earth.

  6. Shira says:

    Raymond, thanks for posting your thoughts, it’s definitely food for the brain.

    I wonder to what extent someone could take your argument and say, until someone does a more complete job of the negative commandments, he shouldn’t partake in the positive – albeit spiritually inspiring – ones?

    Rather than a binary (black-and-white) approach to tefilin on the plane, others have suggested to first approach the attendant – after all the tefilin did pass security inspection to get on the plane. I think many of us who grew up in a more binary (computer) age forget that human communication is a great tool to prevent misunderstandings.

    Is wearing tefilin outside of home or synagogue, “making a spectacle”? To someone who never saw it before, it certainly looks weird. But I’m not sure how poskim respond to the idea that someone should forgo a mitzvah to avoid looking weird.

    There is a discussion regarding whether in the Diaspora one should wear his talit in full view when walking to synagogue on Shabbat. But that case has acceptable alternatives – carry it, wear it under your suit jacket, leave it in shul. Regarding tefilin, the question is whether to take a step down in observance of a mitzvah, or whether continuing but as modestly as possible.

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