The Torah forbids a kohen to become impure (“tammei”) to a dead body. Sometime made into ridicule by ignorant parties (see this post), or causing excessive discomfort to other passengers (see this article),  The religious kohen taking an airline flight should be concerned with a corpse in the cargo hold; is that corpse a Jew or non-Jew? What about human remains being transported on his flight that the kohen should be aware of?

Reason for leniency for tumah in the cargo hold

Based on mishna and tosefta, there is room for leniency if the said corpse is stored in the cargo hold – as opposed to the actual passenger cabin, the same can be said for flying over a cemetery.

Although generally, there is not צמיד פתיל protection from blocking tumah from exiting a sealed container,1)1 an example of Liquid contained in a sealed container remains pure even whilst in the same ohel as a מת – a corpse.2)2

Cargo hold of a Boeing 747 - a corpse stored here is halachically categorized as in a אוהל סתום.

Cargo hold of a Boeing 747 – a corpse stored here is halachically categorized as in a אוהל סתום. However, some insist that the passenger cabin is it its own right as if a vessel of its own – protecting the kohen from the tumah below

On a similar note, the mishna (masachet oholoth 15:8), discusses a person in a שדה תיבה ומגדל who enters a cemetery -the person remains tahor. Assuming that he will pass over טומאה רצוצה and nonetheless remains tahor, the same logic may apply to the kohen sitting in the passenger cabin and a corpse being present in the cargo hold, if that passenger cabin has the status of שידה תיבה or מגדל – the kohen does not become tammei.

Another mishna (mishna oholoth 7 10) proving the same; שתי מערות זו על גב זו וטומאה בתחתונה תחתונה וקרקע טמאה עליונה וקרקע טהורה – “two caves, one on top of another with tumah in the lower cave, the lower and its floor are tammei while the upper and its floor are tahor”. Again, this shows the kohen in the passenger cabin is in a pure place.

This same idea is brought by tosefta; אדם שנתנו בפכוות והקיפו צמיד פתיל ועשאו גולל לקבר טהור (tosefta oholoth 16 11).

Where to draw the line

Image of Kohen wearing a plastic bag

Lee Moran of the New York Daily News shared this post on 5/12/13 – The seated kohen created an improvised צמיד פתיל covering to avoid the issur of טומאת מת

however a corpse on a small boat or airplane (small enough to move when a passenger moves about) -the kohen may not board such a craft (yoreh deah 371 6).

Body parts in the passenger cabin

Another issue of concern is where airline policy has short cut-off times that allow for human body parts to be allowed on board. This means that up to an hour prior to departure, those parts are permitted to be brought into the cabin where the kohen is passenger.

This posses a concern even if those parts are of a non-jew, and if those parts are in fact of a jew even a כזית (size of an olive) measurement of the body is sufficient to transmit טומאת מת (mishna Oholot 2:1).

Although there is reason to be stringent even if those body parts belong to a non-jew (see mishna Oholot end of ch. 18, Rashi to במדבר לא יט), in actuality, leniency can be applied since standard airline policy requires the containment of human-body parts in an airtight vessel (צמיד פתיל).

Here is an example of Southwest Airline’s policy regarding transporting human remains;

  • Human remains, other than cremated remains, must be adequately secured in a casket, approved metal container, or combination unit to prevent shifting and escape of offensive odors. If the remains are in a casket, the casket must be enclosed in an outside shipping container of wood, canvas, plastic, or paper-board construction which has at least six (6) handles and sufficient rigidity and padding to protect the casket from damage with ordinary care in handling.
  • Unembalmed remains must be placed inside two sealed body bags; or a sealed casket or metal container that prevents the escape of offensive odors or fluids; and then placed in an approved outside container that will adequately protect the contents from damage with ordinary care and handling.
Alaska Airlines

Our respons from Alaska Airlines dated June 16, 2015;

I appreciate that you took the time to contact Alaska Airlines with regard to human remains onboard. We only allow urns with cremated remains in the passenger cabin. They must be sealed in a leak-proof container that fits in the overhead bin and can be properly screened by security. We do allow non-cremated remains to be shipped as cargo. They must be secured in a tightly closed and leak proof container. The container must then be enclosed in a shipping container of wood, metal, canvas, plastic or paperboard construction with sufficient support to prevent the container from damage.

Allen Adams
Customer Care Representative


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