While recently waiting for a flight out of the Dallas airport to Seattle pretty early in the morning, a fellow passenger, obviously Jewish, took out his tallit and tefillin and, right there at the gate, proceeded to put them on and to pray. Other travelers began to stare. I kept thinking, Why did he not do this in the privacy of his own home? But then I thought, Maybe the praying would be okay in public, but why with the tallit and the tefillin? I have seen this at the El Al terminal, which I can understand. But this, I feel, was out of place. What do you think?
I confess on occasion I have traveled with individuals who have been wont to whip out their own tallit and tefillin and perform similar acts of public prayer, indeed in a multiplicity of airports throughout the world. Though airports are not synagogues, I guess they sometimes become impromptu places of prayer when there is no other recourse.
Allow me to unpack each of the three components of the scenario that you were privy to witness: prayer, tallit and tefillin in the hopes that we can understand the situation of prayer in public.
Traditionally, Jews pray three times a day. Early reference to this practice is found in Psalms 55:18, “Evening, and morning, and at noon, I pray, and cry aloud;” and the Book of Daniel 6:11, “Now when Daniel learned that the writing was signed, he went into his house; his windows were open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed.”
People are usually surprised to hear that the notion of praying three times a day has such an early mention in our literature.
In the Talmud, sages debate the origin of the three daily prayer phenomenon. One opinion contends that prayers are recited three times a day because each of the forefathers established one of them. Abraham introduced Shacharit, the morning service; Isaac initiated Mincha, the afternoon service; and Jacob instituted the evening service of Maariv. The second rabbinic opinion is that three times daily prayer was established in place of the sacrifices that were offered twice a day in the Temple, with the leftover portions burned in the evening on the altar.
The precise and accurate time of prayers is the subject of extensive discussions in the Talmud, the detailed study of which always painfully taxes my non-mathematically inclined brain. The pedantic precision of the conversations of these times are startling: Shacharit should preferably be offered after sunrise, but before one third of the day has elapsed; Mincha is recited from one half-hour after midday and before dark; Maariv is said when it is night.
All these specifications beg the question; why does the exact time of the prayers matter? Shouldn’t prayer be a spontaneous burst of spirituality, an unplanned expression of devotion? Why all the time constraints? Prayer, one would think, must have that holy, other-worldly, non-automatic quality.
Yet, there is much to say for disciplined devotion. It displays tireless faithfulness, consistent steady servitude, and engenders patterns of constant commitment. Our lives are packed with constrictions and limitations of time — meetings, appointments, events, classes and yes, air travel, all operate by virtue of precise timing. We bow to their demanding schedules and comply with humble cooperation. This is how we function.
Prayer also has a schedule, though at times it may be inconvenient. The morning prayer cannot be offered before or after the appropriate time, even if you’ve got a plane to catch. The only time to get that prayer in might just be that very public gate.
Both tefillin and tallit are symbolic ritual objects mentioned in the Torah: tefillin in Shemoth 13:9: “And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in thy mouth; for with a strong hand hath the Lord brought thee out of Egypt.”
Our tefillin are remarkably identical to the ancient ones found at excavations on Masada. They are made from leather boxes and straps used to bind them on the arm and on to the head. Inside the boxes are four paragraphs from the Torah written on parchment — a symbolic memorial of the Exodus from Egypt. The word tefillin is related to the word tefillah — prayer. It is considered a very sacred act to wear tefillin and is therefore not embarked upon until Jewish adulthood.
Tallit are mentioned in Bamidbar 15:38: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.” The tallit, commonly referred to as a prayer shawl, is simply a four-cornered garment with fringes attached. The fringes were traditionally blue and white, the blue dye coming from the rare sea creature the Chilazon. Though the blue has a practical use to discern the arrival of daylight, it also represents the transcendent.
Rabbi Meir used to ask, “Why is blue specified from all colors?”
Because blue resembles the color of the sea, and the sea resembles the color of the sky, and the sky resembles the color of the sapphire, and sapphire resembles the color of the Throne of Glory.
These ritual objects are worn during prayer, though tefillin may be worn all day on the condition that the wearer is engaged exclusively in holy pursuits and capable of retaining a high level of thought. Though tallit are not worn usually outside of prayer, tallit katan, or tzitzit, as they are usually referred to, are often worn by many all day long.
But back to the airport and the public display of devotion. Though the act may have engendered glares, for the devout there may be no other alternative but to don the tefillin and tallit, even in such a non-intimate of settings. Probably not the individual’s own first choice either.
The next time you witness such behavior, you might embrace the path of the legendary Reb Levi Yischak of Berditchev. Once, while walking, he saw a Jewish wagon driver donning tefillin while fixing a broken wheel. His companion scoffed pejoratively, “What kind of Jew wears tefillin while doing such lowly work?”
Reb Levi Yischak remarked, “What a holy Jew, even while working he serves God.”
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Judaic Principal at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail at email@example.com.