By now most folks have heard about the U.S. Airways jet that diverted from its flight path last week and landed in Philadelphia because an Orthodox Jewish boy was using phylacteries in a morning prayer ritual. The flight attendant had never seen anyone doing that before, and warned the pilot that a passenger was behaving strangely and might be manipulating wires and a bomb.

Oy. We’re so paranoid about security and fearful of anyone different — and in this case, woefully ignorant of a common religious practice — that we’ll stop a plane because a boy wants to pray.

Of course, most Americans probably haven’t seen phylacteries in action. Also called tefillin, they are used by Orthodox Jewish men in conjunction with a prayer shawl and in what they believe to be strict obedience to a command from Deuteronomy. The two phylacteries are small black leather boxes attached to leather straps. One is tied around the forehead so that it sits just above and between the eyes. The other is attached to the bicep of the left arm with a very long strap that is wound all the way down the arm and twisted in a precise pattern among the fingers. Orthodox boys first put on phylacteries at their bar mitzvah, and are taught to use them in conjunction with morning prayers except for Sabbaths and certain high holy days. When worn at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, as above, they appear in character. On a plane, not so much.

The leather boxes contain hand-written copies of Exod. 13:1-10, 11-16 and Deut. 6:4- 9; 11:13-21. Their usage is based on a very literal interpretation of Exod. 13:9, 16; and Deut. 6:8, 11:18, all of which speak of binding “a sign upon your hand and as frontlets between your eyes” as a reminder of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. 

To folks unaware of the custom, the phylacteries look about as strange as the 18th century Polish frock coats and fur hats still worn by many Orthodox Jews, as well as the long sideburn ringlets that reflect the literal interpretation of another text. Even so, one would think that flight attendants would have sufficient training to make them aware of typical behaviors of various ethnic groups. 

It occurs to me that, while the flight crew was entirely mistaken in thinking the boy had a bomb, they were not wrong in recognizing that the tefillin twisted around his arm and head, as they contain words of scripture, do indeed have amazing power inside — but it’s only when scriptures themselves are twisted that they take on power to bring down planes.

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