Kohanim: Air Travel
Dead bodies are routinely flown in the baggage compartments on passenger flights for burial in distant places. Since it is considered very worthwhile and meritorious to be buried in the Land of Israel, this is an especially frequent occurrence on El Al flights.
Indeed, over 65 percent of all El Al flights have dead bodies on board. This is problematic for the many Kohanim that are likely to be on such flights, as a Kohen is forbidden to be in the presence of a dead body. This is because the tumah emanating from a dead body in the baggage compartment rises into the passenger cabin. Most authorities forbid a Kohen to fly on such flights. Other authorities are lenient and permit a Kohen to fly on a plane that has a dead body in the baggage compartment, especially in extenuating circumstances. It is proper for a Kohen to inquire whether there will be any dead bodies on his flight and to then make the appropriate decisions accordingly. A Kohen need not worry that his flight might fly over cemeteries.
Nevertheless, El Al Airlines may have eliminated the halachic concerns for Kohanim flying on a plane containing a dead body. This is because the baggage compartments on El Al airplanes conform to the required dimensions of empty space needed in order to properly separate the baggage compartment from the passenger cabin so that the tumah does not enter the passenger cabin. In fact, the baggage compartment is also constructed in such a way that it is halachically considered to be a separate structure from the body of the airplane. Therefore, there are no concerns that a Kohen may be in violation of being in the same “domain” as a dead body. There is also a unique, halachically approved method for packing coffins on these flights that prevents the tumah from spreading to other parts of the plane.
It appears, however, that even with all the precautions and arrangements mentioned above, Rav Moshe Feinstein would still forbid a Kohen to fly on any plane containing a dead body. El Al is prepared to assist their Kohen passengers who subscribe to this ruling and place them on flights that do not contain a dead body. Most other contemporary halachic authorities approve of the arrangements mentioned above and allow a Kohen to fly on such flights, and common custom is in accordance with this view.
Similar to the construction of the El Al baggage compartments, many hospitals in Israel are built in a manner such that the morgue and similar areas of the hospital are halachically considered to be separate structures from the rest of the hospital building. Without such an arrangement it would be very difficult for a Kohen to ever enter a hospital, whether for a routine medical procedure or to visit a loved one. A Kohen should inquire whether the hospital he wants to visit has been constructed in such a manner and whether there are currently any dead Jewish bodies in the hospital. A Kohen need not worry about such things where most of the patients in a hospital are non-Jews.
There is some discussion whether the prohibition for a Kohen to fly on the same plane as a dead body also applies to a Kohen who is escorting the body of a close relative in order to personally oversee the transport and burial arrangements. According to some authorities, it is permitted, as it is considered to be in the category of tzarchei hamet (tending to the needs of the dead). According to this approach, just as it is permitted for a Kohen to attend the funeral and burial of a close relative, he is also permitted to accompany the body on the plane. Other authorities limit the dispensation of tzarchei hamet to things that only the Kohen himself, to the exclusion of anyone else, is able to do. In most cases, it is possible to arrange for a different family member to accompany the deceased on the plane, thereby allowing the Kohen to fly on a separate flight that has no dead bodies. According to this approach, it would be forbidden for a Kohen to fly with the body of his close relative if there is someone else who can do so in his place.
- Special thanks to Rabbi Ari Enkin author of the Peot HaShulchani and Dalet Amot Shel Halacha for this article. If you would like to purchase his books please click here.
- As of 2010, there are no dead bodies on any El Al flights departing from Newark.
- Igrot Moshe, YD 2:164; Chelkat Yaakov YD 213; Teshuvot V’hanhagot 1:678. See also Teshuvot V’hanhagot 3:347.
- Shema Shlomo, YD 6:18:5.
- Teshuvot V’hanhagot 2:569; She’arim Metzuyanim B’halacha 202:8; V’harim Hacohen 3:63. See also Even Yisrael 9:124.
- Teshuvot V’hanhagot 1:678, 3:347. See also Igrot Moshe, YD 164.
- Chelkat Yaakov, YD 209–12.
- Igrot Moshe, YD 2:164.
- See, for example, Shema Shlomo, YD 18. It is also the ruling of Rav Herschel Schachter. Again, this ruling only applies to El Al flights.
- For more on the issue of Kohanim and hospitals, see Shevut Yaakov 1:98; Igrot Moshe, YD 2:166; Chelkat Yaakov 1:27.
- Shevet Halevi 1:205; Mishneh Halachot 4:146, 6:205.
- Chelkat Yaakov, YD 215.
- Chazon Ovadia, Aveilut, vol. 2, p. 51.
- Shevet Halevi 9:251.