With the thousands of El Al tickets recently sold, it’s appropriate to discuss some of the halachos of davening on a plane. Although the Gemara doesn’t mention traveling on a plane per se, it does discuss the next best option: donkey travel. To understand the Gemara properly, we must first provide some background.
What is the reason to daven Shemoneh Esreih while standing? The Shulchan Aruch writes (O.C. 98:4, loose translation): “Tefillah is in place of a korban. Therefore a person should be careful with his intent as if he were bringing a korban. Inappropriate intent can invalidate a sacrifice. Likewise, he should recite Shemoneh Esreih while standing, just as the Avodah was performed while standing. He should have a set place to daven, just as every korban was brought in a specific place. It is also fitting that he should have special nice clothing exclusively for davening, just as the kohanim had their special clothing for the Avodah. However, not everyone can afford that.”
From the Shulchan Aruch’s own words we see that if one fails to daven in special clothing, he has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation. Does that mean that everything mentioned, including standing during Shemoneh Esreih, is a mitzvah that one can forgo when the need arises?
The Gemara in Berachos (30a) quotes Rebbe that if a person was riding on a donkey, he does not have to dismount to daven but can daven while he is sitting and riding. This halacha is codified in the Shulchan Aruch. The Mishnah Berurah explains that if we obligated a person to dismount, he would not be able to concentrate. He would rush his davening so that he could continue on his journey. Therefore, our sages permitted him to daven while still riding on his donkey.
However, the permit not to stand while praying should not be taken sitting down. The Shulchan Aruch rules that if, after davening while sitting, an opportunity arises to daven Shemoneh Esreih while standing, he should daven again (O.C. 94:8). Nevertheless, the Mishnah Berurah sides with the majority of Acharonim who differ and say repetition is not required
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, ruled that one should not daven while driving, because distracted driving can be fatal. A car is different from a donkey. The donkey is smarter than the most intelligent vehicle and can on its own avoid a ten-donkey pileup. Therefore, no law was ever passed restricting texting while riding a donkey. A car, on the other hand, needs the driver’s full attention.
The Shulchan Aruch writes, “If someone was on a boat or wagon, if he is able to stand he should do so; otherwise, he should sit in his place and daven. Everything depends on the route, the place, and his apprehension and state of mind. Some are stringent that a person should at least stand for the first three berachos. One should initially follow that opinion.” The Rema adds, “Even if a person is sitting during the entire Shemoneh Esreih, he should still try to stand for the places that he should bow down and for the three steps after Shemoneh Esreih.”
The halachah is clear that in pressing circumstances one can daven Shemoneh Esreih while sitting. Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt’l, ruled that one should in fact daven on an airplane while sitting. It is difficult to keep one’s balance while standing and it is no different from davening while on a ship. Further, even if one could keep his balance, very often the only place where one can daven is in the aisle or in front of the bathrooms. One has no right to interfere with other people’s use of the bathroom or aisle so that he can daven while standing. (A chillul Hashem occurs when people davening on a plane block the bathrooms.)
It is interesting to note that the Rema writes that if a person is davening Shemoneh Esreih while riding on a donkey and cannot dismount even for the three steps at the end, he should have the animal take three steps backward. Rav Shlomo Zalman writes that a similar halachah applies to someone, R’l, in a wheelchair. He should roll backward the length of three steps. Would the same hold true of a motorcycle or car?
The Sefer Ishei Yisrael has an appendix of many questions that he asked R’ Chaim Kanievsky to which he received answers in writing. A few of them are apropos. R’ Chaim Kanievsky paskened that if someone is davening Shemoneh Esreih while on a bus, he is permitted to exit the bus when it reaches his stop. He reasons that this is no worse than davening while traveling, which the Shulchan Aruch permitted.
If a person is traveling on a bus and could daven Minchah either before sunset while sitting, or right after sunset at his stop while standing, which is preferable? If you are a chassid then you are laughing at this question. However, R’ Chaim ruled that davening Minchah before sunset trumps davening Shemoneh Esreih while standing.
If a person could daven Ma’ariv between plag ha’Minchah (one and a quarter seasonal hours before sunset) and sunset while standing, or after sunset while sitting, which is preferable? R’ Chaim Kanievsky ruled that since one may daven Ma’ariv (even during the week), in pressing circumstances, between plag ha’Minchah and sunset, it is better to daven while standing and not wait until sunset and daven while sitting.
One rav ruled that davening Ma’ariv after chatzos (halachic midnight) while standing is preferable to davening before chatzos while traveling and sitting. (Generally, someone who davens Ma’ariv after chatzos is considered over al divrei Chachamim, transgressing the words of the sages.) He based his ruling on the Mishnah Berurah. However, Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt’l, is quoted in Halichos Shlomo as ruling the opposite, that davening while sitting is preferable to davening after chatzos while standing. It seems that the Mishnah Berurah does not necessarily disagree. The Mishnah Berurah writes (89:42), “And when one is traveling at night and he will arrive at an inn and can daven Ma’ariv there, it is correct to delay his prayers until he gets there and not pray on the road. This is true unless he is sleeping on the wagon and is afraid that perhaps Alos HaShachar will pass.”
One may suggest that the Mishnah Berurah prefers Ma’ariv prayers to be recited before chatzos while sitting rather than after chatzos while standing. If the traveler expects to arrive at an inn before chatzos, he should delay his prayers until then. However, if he is sleeping he should not delay his prayers because he might sleep past chatzos and right into the morning.
The Gemara discusses another potential dilemma. The earliest time to recite Shemoneh Esreih for Shacharis is Alos HaShachar, usually stated as 72 minutes before sunrise. Some authorities say you must wait until the “eastern side is lit up,” which is 12 minutes later. However, the time for Shema is not until one can recognize an acquaintance from four amos away. For example on a recent day, Alos was at 4:51. The earliest time for Shema was 5:26. If a person has time to daven Shemoneh Esreih while standing at 5:05, what should he do? If he davens at 5:05 he obviously has the advantage of davening while standing. However, he would have to recite Shema and its berachos later while traveling. We place great emphasis on the juxtaposition of the last beracha of Shema to Shemoneh Esreih. This is referred to as semichas Geulah l’tefillah. He would lose out on this important symbolism. Perhaps it would be better to recite everything in the proper order later while sitting.
The Gemara records a machlokes on this very point. Shmuel’s father and Levi preferred the first option of davening while standing and reciting Shema and its berachos later. Davening while standing is important because tefillah is compared to avodah. Semichas Geulah l’tefillah is also important. Rashi explains that the deciding factor was that generally one can concentrate better while he is standing. The halachah is in accordance with Levi and Shmuel’s father. The Chofetz Chaim is at a loss to explain why it seems that travelers don’t generally follow this ruling.
I hope this article didn’t fly over your head. I tried to keep it plane and simple. May all our tefillos soar to new heights.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and offers a program to help children with ADD increase focus and concentration. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.