Ask The Rabbi: Prayer in the air

Must one have a minyan to pray on a plane?

December 17, 2010 15:17
4 minute read.
Delta airplane terror attempt 248.88 AP

Delta airplane terror attempt 248.88 AP. (photo credit: )

On long and crowded international flights, creating a minyan can cause tension. Airplane staff and other passengers feel encroached upon by people who desire (and feel entitled) to fulfill their religious obligations.

With that combination, the 747 can quickly turn into the Knesset! The sages extol praying within a communal setting, declaring, “Communal prayer is always answered” (Midrash Rabba Deuteronomy 2:12); “Prayer with a quorum is always a propitious time” (Brachot 8a); and “God always hears the prayer of the public” (Sota 33a).

Even though communal prayer is only of rabbinic origin, it took on tremendous significance as a public sanctification of God’s name (Shulhan Aruch Harav 90:17).

Despite its virtues, scholars debate whether an individual has a personal obligation to pray in a minyan. The talmudic sage Rabbi Nahman did not pray in the synagogue one morning because of some significant “burden” (tircha), leading Rabbi Yitzhak to emphasize to him the virtues of minyan attendance (Brachot 7b-8a). While some commentators stated that Rabbi Nahman was exempt because of illness (Rashi), others concluded that communal prayer, while a tremendous virtue, does not constitute a definitive obligation. Rather, it constitutes an extremely helpful step toward the larger goal of achieving efficacious prayer (Yalkut Yosef OC 90, p. 245).

In his Shulhan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo rules that upon arrival in a town, one must extend his travel (within certain time limits) to pray in the synagogue (OC 90:16), thereby indicating a definitive obligation. Yet elsewhere he states that one should merely “exert” himself to attend a minyan (90:9). While some interpreted this tempered language as an indication that a minyan is a wonderful yet non-obligatory action (Yabia Omer OC 6:10), most understood it as an exhortation to make great efforts to fulfill this mitzva (Aruch Hahulhan 90:13), perhaps even when one has a legitimate exemption (Minhat Yitzhak 7:6).

Others imply that there is an indirect obligation on individuals to help the community establish communal services (Ramban, Milhamot Megila 3b), especially in smaller communities (OC 55:22).

It remains clear that all decisors believe that minyan attendance is a desideratum, with many issuing strong condemnations of those who make little effort (MB 90:52). One may even arouse a sleeping person so he can attend minyan, albeit only if he knows the person would want to be awakened (Teshuvot Vehanhagot 2:50). Women, while exempt from minyan attendance, certainly enjoy the same spiritual benefits when they attend communal prayers (Piskei Teshuvot 90:8).

Nonetheless, the decisors list several factors that permit one to pray privately, including physical weakness, other pressing mitzvot, direct financial loss (MB 90:29,53) or the need to arrive early for work (Aruch Hashulhan 90:20).

While some sources prioritize Torah study over communal prayer (90:18), many scholars, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, urge yeshiva students to arrange their study schedule to ensure minyan attendance (Igrot Moshe OC 2:27), even if they feel their prayer would be more inspiring while praying alone (3:7).

Especially on flights to and from Israel, some people desire to establish a minyan in common areas, such as the kitchen. While well intentioned, it remains questionable if a quorum is achieved if the various participants cannot hear the minyan leader over the airplane noise. More significantly, the noise and tumult from the gathering may awake or inconvenience other passengers (gezel sheina), interrupt the flight crew and endanger the minyan attendees during unexpected turbulence. As such, Rabbis Shlomo Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo, Tefilla p.

75), Shmuel Wosner and Herschel Schachter ( contend that one should not establish a minyan on a flight, a position I personally practice. (Mourners reciting Kaddish fulfill their basic obligation with a single daily recitation. If necessary, they can organize a minyan for its recital before embarking or after landing.) Others believe a minyan remains permissible when the airline allows it. Rabbi Chaim P.

Scheinberg cautions that one should prepare appropriately so as to not wake another passenger while retrieving prayer articles, including a jacket, hat, tallit or tefillin (JHCS 56).

Given the distractions from turbulence and crowdedness, one should definitely try, when possible, to pray before or after the flight, even if this entails using certain dispensations for time requirements (Piskei Teshuvot 94:9). If it is necessary to pray in flight, one must pray in accordance with the hour of one’s current location, keeping in mind changes in time zones. (See for calculation assistance.) While the Amida is generally recited while standing, one should remain seated if standing is unsafe or will distract one’s concentration (OC 94:5).

Especially if one must don a tallit and tefillin, it remains courteous and prudent to explain your intentions to your neighbor before you begin. In general, those qualities go a long way toward preventing any tensions, thereby ensuring that our ritual obligations do not interfere with our ethical imperatives.

The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

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