Passenger wraps himself in plastic bag
The passenger is believed to have wrapped himself in plastic to ward off evil spirits, or to protect himself from mixing with women. Reddit

A photograph of an Ultra Orthodox Jewish man wrapped in a life-size plastic bag after boarding a plane has caused controversy after going viral on the internet.

Beneath his plastic wrapping, the man is dressed entirely in black, and appears to be wearing a Jewish skullcap or "kippah" for the photo, which was posted on the Reddit social networking site, accompanied by the caption: "An Orthodox Jew in an airplane with women - so he covers himself with a plastic bag..."

A strict code of conduct prevents Orthodox Jewish men and women from mixing in public, with Israeli airline El Al seeing an increase in the number of religious men demanding to be reseated away from women in recent years.

One woman even sued the airline after staff moved her to the back of a plane when an Ultra Orthodox man refused to sit next to her.

But other commentators have suggested the man may belong to the Kohein sect of Judaism, whose adherents hold that they are descended from the priests of ancient Israel, and would be defiled by contact with dead bodies.

Strict adherents fear they would be contaminated should their plane fly over one of the many cemeteries near ben Gurion airport in the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv, and believe the bag affords protection from impurities or "tumah" in the atmosphere.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community in Israel, recently revealed he had "found a solution to this issue, ruling that wrapping oneself in thick plastic bags while the plane crossed over the cemetery is permissible", Haaretz newspaper reported.,

Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser wrote on the website "In Orthodox and conservative communities, Kohanim', plural of Kohein', are expected to abstain from coming in contact with the dead, which includes a prohibition on visiting cemeteries except for the funerals of close relatives,"

There have been previous occurrences of Kohenin attempting to fly while wrapped in plastic. In 2001, El Al introduced a policy stating that "flight safety considerations do not allow for passengers to board while covered in plastic bags", after noting the increasing prevalence of passengers who "hermetically seal themselves in plastic bags when flying over the Holon cemetery to avoid religious impurity".

The following year, an El Al pilot was forced to turn back after the flight crew became involved in a heated row with an Ultra Orthodox passenger, who was attempting to wrap himself in plastic.

El Al has at times gone to some lengths to take specific flightpaths that avoid cemeteries, and advise passengers in advance if a body will be aboard the plane in cargo.

The question of how to breathe properly has naturally become a concern among the sect. However, punching ventilation holes in the plastic would nullify the spiritual protection they offer, according to religious authorities.

"Only if when the Kohein is putting on this bag it accidentally rips can there be some leniency," a commentator in the Jewish newspaper Yated Ne'eman opined.

"Kohanim have a duty to protect their taharah, purity. They have been bestowed with extra kedushah [holiness]... At times, there may be extra demands made upon them in order to maintain that standard of kedushah and taharah."