Brooklyn couple Roberto and Elana Birman are suing American Airlines for unspecified damages over their ejection from a flight last August for refusing to stash the husband’s tallit & tefillin bag under his seat, the NY Post reported Saturday.
Roberto, 76, and Elana, 71, who were coming home from Miami, Florida, had stashed the bag in the overhead compartment, but, according to their lawsuit, a flight attendant who was checking the bin before takeoff asked “Whose is this?” and removed the Tallit bag. The couple reported that when the husband said the bag belonged to him, the flight attendant threw it in his lap and ordered him to put it under his seat. When he told her that the bag contained holy objects, she screamed at him that it didn’t matter and pointed her finger at him, the couple said.
“Nobody said a word. Nobody defended us. It was embarrassing,” the wife related.
The NY Post asked Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, a graduate of Yeshiva University, about Jewish law’s view on this matter and he answered that “It’s considered disgraceful,” and that “it would be like taking a Bible or a Koran and dumping it on the floor.”
Incorrect. According to Jewish law, if a sacred object is inside a bag, it is permitted to place it on the floor. There is no prohibition on placing on the floor a bag containing a sacred book, a siddur, a tallit, or tefillin that are inside their containers and bag (Ginzei Hakodesh on the halachot of geniza and honoring of sacred books, 2008, by Rabbi Yechezkel Feindler, C. 2).
Rabbi David Lau wrote on Elul 24, 5764 (2004) that “Tefillin in their containers are like sacred books, and there’s no prohibition against placing on the floor a bag or a plastic bag (sakit) that contain sacred books.”
Back to our story: the pilot came, according to the Birmans, but did not speak to the couple. Finally, they were ushered out by a member of the ground crew, and the plane’s door was shut behind them.
If the couple can’t sue on religious grounds, they can certainly do so based on the flight staff’s alleged rudeness, and the fact that the husband’s diabetes medications were left onboard with their checked luggage. Also: the delay forced them to stay in Florida during an ensuing hurricane.
The couple’s attorney, Brad Gerstman, told the NY Post: “My clients were ejected from the flight based on the prejudices and complete lack of sensitivity of American Airlines employees for reasons wholly unrelated to security. The flight attendant and pilot’s conduct was as offensive as it was illogical.”