Passengers boarding El Al flights in recent days have been surprised to hear the traditional Traveler’s Prayer (Tefillat HaDerech) over their plane’s public address system, as they entered the plane and once again as the plane was taxiing to its takeoff position, Yedioth Aharonot reported.
An airline employee told Yedioth that, about two years ago, the company placed a sign with the text of the Traveler’s Prayer at the entrance, and passengers did not complain because they barely noticed it.
“But now we’re receiving complaints from the air crews and the passengers. The company employs many non-Jews, and it’s certainly unpleasant,” the El Al employee said.
A non-Jewish El Al passenger told Yedioth that in the U.S. airlines have switched from the “Merry Christmas” greeting to “Season’s Greetings,” to spare the feelings of non-Christian passengers. Although, as Bill O’reilly correctly argued, this year, with Hanukkah falling on Thanksgiving day, there’s nothing but the C holiday in the season, which should free those airlines to return to the more parochial salutation.
El Al responded to the complaints by saying the public address system Traveler’s Prayer was initiated by the company chaplain, Rabbi Yochanan Chayut. They also announced that the prayer would be removed by the end of the week.
Rabbi Chayut was ordered to attend a hearing on his decision, before the company brass.
My first reaction to this story was: El Al has its own rabbi?
Should Egged, the national bus company, have a rabbi, too? What about the trains? Car rental companies? Large parking lots? major intersections?
I called Rabbi Chayut’s office, where a very polite gentleman answered me that El Al uses the services of 11 kitchens worldwide, and so it requires a Rabbi to monitor their kashrut standards.
Yes, I would concede that El Al needs a mashgiach—kashrut supervisor, for sure. But the great thing about a mashgiach is that the parameters of his or her area of authority are limited to food purchase and preparation, including, I’m sure, Shabbat and holiday related food preparation issues.
But as soon as you promote your mashgiach to company rabbi, he’s bound to seek other things to do once all the kashrut procedures had been taken care off for the day.
Like playing the Traveler’s Prayer over the loudspeaker system.
This gesture may sound harmless enough, and I’m sure the majority of the passengers were not deeply scarred by hearing some Jewish guy asking God to protect them from the dangers of the road (including from wild animals, which is always a bonus).
It’s highly problematic, though, if one promotes it as being a prayer. It isn’t. It’s some text a guy is reading over the PA system. Prayer must be uttered by the individual—or the group—with intent. You’re talking to God, for heaven’s sake, it’s not a commercial.
Just as hearing the shofar blown over the radio does not constitute fulfilling the mitzvah of hearing a shofar on Rosh Hashanah, so is hearing a recorded prayer entirely worthless.
But it has many negative effects, such as being loathed by a few passengers, who are now armed with one more reason to hate their forefathers’ tradition.
It would have worked better if the captain, or one of the flight crew were to read it, just before the exit door speech. Then he or she would be actually asking God to protect them, and the recitation would have value.
Or maybe, after landing, as the crew ineffectually asks the passengers to remain seated as the airplane taxis to the airport, the crew can add Birkat HaGomel, the Thanksgiving Prayer, the prayer one is mandated to say after completing a dangerous journey, traveling overseas and getting out of jail.
But, of course, as these things tend to evolve in work places, the entire thing would become a mockery in a short time, like everything spiritual that’s forced by decree.
Incidentally, I’m hiring a rabbi for my car. It’s a 2011 Chevy which could use spiritual guidance, for sure. Traveler’s prayers mandatory.