A picture of what appeared to be a plastic-wrapped ultra-Orthodox Jewish man on a plane stirred speculation across the Internet Thursday as to the reason behind his unorthodox choice of apparel.
At first, commentators posited that the man, not identified, had donned the plastic as a measure to uphold extremist conceptions of modesty and segregate himself from women on the flight.
Later, however, a second option came up: that the man was a Kohen — a member of the priestly caste — who was isolating himself due to a biblical prohibition against coming into contact with the dead.
That prohibition extends to cemeteries, precluding a Kohen from walking over or driving on top of a Jewish burial ground, even if it is buried.
In halachic thought, the tumah, or ritual impurity, associated with a cemetery is projected skyward. Thus, a stringent interpretation of the edict could have led the man to adopt the outlandish garb to insulate himself from the impurity tens of thousands of feet below him, in line with the halachic opinion that plastic doesn’t mekabel — a word that literally means “receive,” although it can also be taken to mean “conduct” in this context — tumah.
The photograph prompted a fair amount of humor, playing off security questions asked of passengers on flights to and from Israel — “Did you pack this yourself?” It also opened the possibility that a similar solution could be applied to the issue of the separation of the sexes on predominantly ultra-Orthodox bus lines, to which many Israelis object: Instead of sending women to the back of the bus, encase the menfolk in plastic. Presto.
In Facebook exchanges, there were also many defenses posted of the man in the bag, along the lines of: “He’s not harming anybody” and “Respect his beliefs.”