By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
A year ago, I was asked to keep a group of 40 or so youngsters of varying ages busy on yom tov so that their parents could daven. I elected to tell them a story. There were numerous boys in the group who are well-read and are familiar with all the classic Jewish stories found in English literature. I therefore had to come up with an original story that had a lesson.
I needed a basic plotline that the rest of the story would revolve around. Thankfully, I recalled an incident that occurred to a relative of mine. The boys were entertained by the story of a kohen jumping out of an El Al jetliner after receiving a parachute from an IDF soldier who was on board. This year, many boys came up to me to tell me that they still remembered the story.
You might have guessed what the original story was. A relative of mine who is a kohen flew to Israel on the most inexpensive flights his travel agent could find. While in Israel, he bumped into a fellow kohen, and his return flight became the topic of conversation. The other kohen was pretty sure that the particular flight that this guy was booked on flew over a cemetery in Holon.
Surprised at this revelation, he telephoned his posek in New York. The posek in New York said that it was indeed a problem. My relative pressed further: “This is certainly a case of a hefsed merubah—a significant loss; the only ‘kosher’ return flight will cost me an additional $1,000. Further, my original ticket is non-refundable.”
The posek said that that was irrelevant: The halachah is that one must use all his available funds to prevent himself from transgressing a negative precept. Kohanim are enjoined from becoming tamei to a meis by virtue of a clear injunction in the Torah. While it is true that one should not use more than 20% of his funds to fulfill a mitzvah, that only refers to a mitzvas asei. To prevent one from transgressing a lav, one must use all of his funds.
The Chofetz Chaim makes this very point in regard to the sin of lashon ha’ra. He writes that a person is not allowed to engage in lashon ha’ra even if it means he will lose his job. “This is like any other lav that a person is obligated to give everything he has in order to not transgress it” (Chofetz Chaim 1:6).
My relative shelled out a thousand dollars and purchased a one-way ticket home. His wife flew back on a different airline, using the original tickets.
The tumah of the cemetery extends skyward without any upper limit. One rav, though, suggested that because the plane travels very fast, the traveler can be spared from some aspects of tumah. The poskim reject that theory.
One may also wonder: Shouldn’t the plane form some sort of protection from the tumah of the cemetery? To some extent, this issue is dealt with in Nazir (as well as other places in Shas.) Chazal instituted that someone who leaves Eretz Yisrael and enters chutz la’aretz becomes tamei. Tosfos suggest that one explanation for the decree is that people who died in the Great Flood are buried haphazardly all over chutz la’aretz. According to biblical law, a kohen need not be concerned with the possibility that he is walking over a grave from the times of the Mabul. However, Chazal ordained that one who walks around chutz la’aretz becomes tamei. Perhaps they instituted this decree because in general they were trying to dissuade people from leaving Eretz Yisrael. (In fact, Tosfos suggest this latter reason may stand on its own. The intricacies of this point are beyond the scope of this article.)
What would happen if someone absolutely needed to go to chutz la’aretz from Eretz Yisrael? Is there any way to bypass the decree? Rebbe Yossi ben Rebbe Yehudah suggests that there is. One can be carried in a large box. The box will form a separate domain and save the individual from the tumah of chutz la’aretz. The tumah of chutz la’aretz rises skyward, but will be blocked by the large box. The airplane should be analogous to the large box and save everyone inside it from the tumah of the cemetery.
However, the Gemara offers an alternate understanding of why the box in chutz la’aretz works. In fact, the Gemara suggests that according to the letter of the law, the box shouldn’t work at all. The Gemara says that while a stationary box may form a protective domain from tumah, a movable box does not.
Further, Rabbeinu Chananel’s reasoning suggests that even if we were to accept that a moving box would form a protective domain, it would not apply to a plane or anything similar. He writes that the only reason a box would be viewed as a separate domain is that it is being supported by someone or something on the ground. A box that was thrown through the air would not be a separate domain, even according to Rebbe Yossi ben Rebbe Yehudah.
Lastly, according to the Rambam, the understanding of Rebbe Yossi ben Rebbe Yehudah is moot. He rules that in any case we follow the disputant of Rebbe Yossi ben Rebbe Yehudah, and a box never works as an interposition for tumah. Hence, a kohen who relies on his jet to save him from the tumah of a cemetery below is just plain wrong. (For an elaborate discussion of this issue, see the article “Kohanim and Flights Leaving Israel,” by Rabbi Bleich in Tradition 36:4)
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.