Waking Up on a Plane to Daven

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: I will be on a trans-Atlantic overnight flight travelling east, so that during the time people normally sleep, the time for Shacharit will pass quickly. Is it necessary to get up, or do we say that one who is sleeping is exempt from mitzvot?

Answer: You raise a fascinating question: do obligations in mitzvot apply to a person while he is sleeping? This issue is at the heart of questions of what others should do when observing a sleeping person in a halachically problematic situation. However, that point is not necessary to answer your practical question.

While certain sources indicate that when a person is sleeping, the laws of the Torah fundamentally do not apply to him, there are several and stronger sources that prove that mitzvot do apply at least on some level. If rain forces one to sleep inside his house on Sukkot and the rain stops during the night, he does not have to go then to the sukka (Sukka 29a). The Beit Yosef (Orach Chayim 639; see also Mishna Berura 639:43) says that a major part of this discussion is about the people of the household not being required to wake the sleeping person. The simple implication of the sources (compare Shulchan Aruch, OC 639:6 and 7) is that this is a specific exemption from sukka for someone who will be unusually bothered to be in the sukka under those circumstances. The classical commentaries do not speak of a sweeping rule that mitzvot do not apply to those sleeping, implying that there is no such rule. On the other hand, Rav S.Z. Auerbach said that one is not obligated in sukka when he is sleeping and therefore it is (theoretically) permitted to remove a sleeping person from the sukka (see Halichot Shlomo, Tefilla, pp.335-337). Another important source involves someone who died in the room where a kohen is sleeping. The Rama (Yoreh Deah 372:1) says that people should wake the kohen so he can leave the premises.

Playing out the different approaches to a case of one who sees his friend sleeping as the end time for reciting Kri’at Shema approaches, Rav Auerbach’s camp would not require waking him, while others would (see Halichot Shlomo ibid.). There is logic to distinguish between mitzvot and aveirot in two directions. In some ways, being physically involved in a situation of aveira while sleeping may be more problematic than simply not doing a mitzva at that point (ibid.; see also Shut R. Akiva Eiger I:8). In the opposite direction, even if one is exempt from a mitzva when sleeping, if he does not perform it, he will not be credited for what he did not do; therefore, there is certainly what to gain by waking him. In short, there is room for other distinctions: whether a Torah-level mitzva, e.g., Kri’at Shema, or a Rabbinic one, e.g., Shacharit, is at stake (see Keren L’Dovid, OC 18; Shach, YD 372:3); whether the specific person would want to be woken (see Keren L’Dovid ibid.; Halichot Shlomo ibid.); whether the person went to sleep with a realization that the problem would arise while he would be sleeping (ibid.).

This last distinction brings us to the crucial practical point regarding your question. It is forbidden for one to go to sleep in a manner that will likely bring him to miss a mitzva. In several cases, there are Rabbinical prohibitions about eating or sleeping before doing a mitzva even when his plan is to perform the mitzva within its proper time (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 692:4 and Mishna Berura 692:15). This prohibition sometimes begins even before the mitzva applies (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 235:2 and Mishna Berura ad loc. 17). While Chazal obviously do not forbid going to sleep at night out of fear one will wake up too late for Kri’at Shema and Shacharit, they had harsh things to say about those who are not careful to wake up in time (see Avot D’Rabbi Natan 21; Pirkei Avot 3:10 with Bartenura). Therefore, whatever one’s fundamental approach to obligations while one sleeps, before going to sleep, one must have a good plan to ensure he will perform the mitzva when it becomes incumbent (see Halichot Shlomo ibid.).

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.


  1. There are multiple flights that avoid this issue entirely, and one need not put oneself intentionally into a problematic halachic situation when 9 all-daytime flights a day to Heathrow, and countless others to Europe, solve the problem quite nicely.
    NB: In the case of sefirat ha’omer and transPacific fights potentially missing a day, the simple solution was to fly the European/Tel Aviv route, a few hours longer but with normal sunrise sunset for sefira.

  2. Still, it leaves everyone else in a very questionable position. Last time I went to Israel, I had trouble sleeping, kept waking up every hour or so, rutch around to find a better position, go to sleep again. After 4-5 hours, I notice the sun was coming up, and everyone else was still out. So I got up, went to the back, and davened, with one or two other guys. By the time most of the plane woke up and davened, I think it was well past local noon, so they were all davening late, even the non-chassidim. While I’ve seen people starting Shacharit at 770 at 1 pm, I don’t think most non-chassidim would consider that possible. So are they in a pickle for davening late and not having done anything like set an alarm to make sure they daven on time?

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