JERUSALEM – The Israeli government has promised ultra-Orthodox Jews that El Al airliners bound for New York will fly around a Jewish cemetery to avoid desecrating it, officials said Tuesday.
Under Jewish law, those of priestly descent are forbidden to enter a cemetery, and the defilement is believed to extend all the way up to the heavens. Some passengers had even asked to be wrapped in plastic bags to protect the cemetery.
The problem arose when an El Al pilot informed his rabbi that the company's planes sometimes fly over the cemetery at Holon, south of Tel Aviv, shortly after takeoff from Ben-Gurion Airport.
Some ultra-Orthodox Jews who are descendants of the priests, or Cohanim, began flying by way of the Jordanian capital, Amman, or the Netherlands because those flights do not pass over the cemetery, said Yitzhak Soudri, adviser to Eli Ishai, leader of the religious Shas party.
Airports Authority spokesman Pini Schiff said the authorized flight path passed just south of the cemetery, but he could not guarantee that pilots had never cut corners.
One eminent rabbi ruled that the defilement could be avoided if a Cohen wrapped himself in the kind of plastic body bag used for corpses, but El Al refused to allow the bags on board.
"We did get requests by people wanting to be wrapped in body bags, but in an emergency they would be helpless and unable to move quickly," said El Al spokesman Nachman Kleiman.
To resolve the problem, Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh sent a letter this week to leading rabbis and ultra-Orthodox politicians, including Ishai, promising that El Al planes would avoid the cemetery.
He said El Al had promised to "adhere strictly to procedure, so as not to cause Cohanim among the company's passengers to commit a sin, heaven forbid."