A Shabbat Lesson From Doomed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — or Not

God Didn't Help Anyone Miss Plane That Crashed

Unending Grief: A passenger’s relative weeps after authorities say they believe Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 crashed in Indian Ocean, killing all those aboard.
getty images
Unending Grief: A passenger’s relative weeps after authorities say they believe Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 crashed in Indian Ocean, killing all those aboard.

By Eliyahu Fink

Published March 24, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

(Haaretz) — While the world anxiously awaits information regarding the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a perplexing Jewish angle to the story has emerged.

In short, a Jewish traveler who is not Sabbath observant was booking a flight through a Jewish travel agent. The traveler planned on flying on Flight 370 on the Sabbath, but the travel agent was uncomfortable booking travel for a Jewish passenger that would violate the prohibition against flying on the Sabbath. The traveler agreed to take a different flight and was spared whatever horrors the passengers of Flight 370 are experiencing or have already experienced.

The story is being cheerfully passed around the Internet and its lesson is ostensibly that Sabbath observance saved the traveler’s life. This is a terrible lesson. While it is true that the observance of the Sabbath has the practical effect of sparing this traveler’s life, it is extremely dangerous to attribute salvation to a particular religious observance.

Every religion has stories of miraculous salvation. The hubris of Jewish people pointing to this miracle as some sort of support for Jewish religious beliefs faces an unanswerable question when confronted by stories of similar salvation from other religions. One Christian published a book about how Jesus saved him and U.S. Airways Flight 1549 because of his faith in God. Muslims often point to Mosques that survive natural disasters as proof that God saves Muslims.

There is nothing unique about a story of someone who did not travel on the Sabbath and was spared from a disaster. It is a common and fallacious claim to say that not being present or being spared from any particular harm is the hand of God saving the saved for religious reasons.

If, as believers in Judaism, we reject the claims that Jesus or Allah spared their followers how do we blindly accept that our God saves adherents to Judaism? What are we to say about Sabbath observant people who die in plane crashes? Or non-observant people who survive because they missed their flight? The application of miraculous salvations to one person of one religion out of millions of counter examples is disingenuous and incredibly arrogant.

Even worse is the implication of such a claim. If God saved one person from the plane for observing the Sabbath, we are also saying that God caused the other people on the plane to suffer whatever harm has befallen them. This is a disturbing worldview that even if we believe to be true, is quite offensive to the family and friends of the passengers of Flight 370. In our zeal to proclaim that our beliefs save lives, we are in effect condemning others to death for their religious beliefs. This is not a message that we should feel comfortable projecting.

Further, the religious arithmetic is incorrect. Boarding an airplane on the Sabbath is forbidden according to Jewish law. However, the prohibition is almost certainly Rabbinic. It might even be permissible according to some rabbinic opinions posited by the great Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg in his Halakhic work Tzitz Eliezer. Rabbinic prohibitions on the Sabbath are common and it’s safe to say that almost anyone who is not consciously trying to avoid violating a rabbinic decree on the Sabbath will inevitably violate the Sabbath. In fact, it’s likely that the traveler who stayed home violated Torah prohibitions on that particular Sabbath. If he cooked a meal, or drove a car, or signed his name in ink he violated the much more severe Torah level prohibition of not breaking the Sabbath.

So while it is indeed laudable that the traveler did not violate the possible rabbinic prohibition of boarding a plane on the Sabbath, it is extremely unlikely that he actually kept the Sabbath according to Jewish law. It just doesn’t seem to compute that even assuming that God saves Sabbath observers, but not others, from peril, that our traveler would be spared for not breaking the Sabbath in one way but breaking it in another way that likely involved greater violations of Jewish law.

Finally, I am afraid that stories like this give people the impression we should keep the Sabbath so that we are saved from incidents like Flight 370. This is entirely false. God commands the Jewish people to keep the Sabbath. Several reasons are given in the Bible and the rabbis of the Talmud and their successors provide other lessons and meaning to Sabbath observance. None of our sources teach that the Sabbath is to be observed so that God will save you.

Sabbath observance is not a charm or talisman. Making the Sabbath into an amulet is religious malpractice that detracts from its innate beauty and vibrancy. It is downright offensive. It’s akin to saying the Mona Lisa is beautiful because it wards off the evil eye or that Niagara Falls is awe-inspiring because its waters can heal the sick.

What are we to make of this story? Nothing really. Things happen. It was noble of the travel agent to suggest keeping the Sabbath in a pleasant way and it was nice that the traveler valued the Sabbath enough not to travel. The traveler should feel grateful that his choice to connect with his Jewish roots might have spared his life. But we who hear the story dare not conclude with any certainty that God saved this one traveler for this or any particular reason.

Most importantly, we must not turn the Sabbath into a magic trick. The Sabbath its own eternal meaning. Let’s explore the rich tradition of the Sabbath and soar to the heights of one of the great spiritual gifts of Judaism, the Sabbath.

For more stories, go to Haaretz.com or to subscribe to Haaretz, click here and use the following promotional code for Forward readers: FWD13.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.