Stupid religious rule #11734, and a note on my ancestry

April 12, 2013 • 5:37 am
I’ve never seen this before, but maybe the readers can determine if the explanation is true (see the link below).  This photo appeared on Gothamist, and I reproduce the caption in its entirety:

We don’t often see the classic Twin Peaks phrase “wrapped in plastic” taken so literally—but a Redditor posted the above photo of an Orthodox Jewish man who did just that on a recent flight. Poster “FinalSay” initially assumed the man was covering up because he was in front of women, but others pointed out that it is much more likely that the man is a “Kohen”, who are holy priests (or descended from them).

Kohens are prohibited from flying over cemeteries (“A kohen initially was not supposed to approach any dead body, and if he did so he became ritually impure”), which as you can imagine, could be a major problem for travel. According to Haaretz, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community in Israel, “found a solution to this issue, ruling that wrapping oneself in thick plastic bags while the plane crossed over the cemetery is permissible.”

I once thought that Jews weren’t as ludicrously religious as adherents to many other faiths, but that notion is slowly slipping away! It comes from my bias, of course, for I am of Jewish ancestry, and consider myself a secular Jew.

Now I once thought that I too was a “kohen” (a member of the “kohanim”, which are the supposed male descendants of Aaron (from the tribe of Levi), a designated “priestly caste” of Jews whose duties originally included animal sacrifice but are now limited to proffering special blessings, handling the Torah (first five books of the bible in a scroll) and so on. The designation of this patrilineal caste traces back to the first four verses of Exodus 28. 

Many Jews named “Cohen,” “Cohan,” and, perhaps, “Coyne” (possibly a change intended to disguise Jewish origins) are indeed of the kohanim lineage, and, curiously, kohanim do have a unique Y-chromosome DNA signature, veryifying the patrilineal passing on of the duties and the name (this does not, of course, prove anything about the truth of the Bible—merely that a single lineage was given special duties and a special monicker).

My own name, Coyne, has always puzzled me. It’s a common Irish name, but my parents and relatives are Jewish, leading me to suspect that at some point “Coyne” was an alteration of “Cohan” or “Cohen,” for it was common long ago, when my relatives immigrated to the U.S., for Jews to change their names to something that looked goyisch. I subsequently found out though, that my paternal great-grandfather was named Peter Coyne, as you can see in this wedding announcement from 1879 that my cousin dug up:

Monday, 27 January 1879


The wedding of Miss Pauline ZOFFER and Mr. Peter COYNE took place at the Jewish Synagogue, at Boerum and State streets, at 3:30 P. M., yesterday, and was celebrated by a reception at Nilsson Hall, Fulton street and Gallatin place, at 5 o’clock. A large number of friends of the two families were present in response to cards of invitation from the parents of the bride and groom, and the occasion was one of agreeable festivities.

I found this announcement puzzling, for the name “Coyne” was, although presumably Jewish (I’m assuming this was not a mixed-religious wedding), was in use as early as 1879. But could there possibly be some Irish in my lineage as well: a tint of green in the Coyne gene pool? Did Peter Coyne have Irish paternal ancestors?

I was curious about that, and so, when I started writing WEIT, I got my Y-chromosome tested to see if it carried the kohen genotype.  I did this because I intended to start off the book with the idea that our curiosity about evolution, and our own place in the genealogy of life, was simply an extension of many people’s curiosity about their own genealogy within modern humans. Evolution is our family tree writ large.

It turned out that I am one of the many fake kohanim: those with a variant of the name but lacking the DNA signature of membership in the priestly caste. I have to admit I was a tad disappointed, for I would have felt slightly elevated had I been a true kohen (isn’t that stupid for an atheist?). But what this did confirm is that, at least for my Y chromosome, I am not in the least Irish: my Y DNA was indicative of pure eastern European Jewish ancestry. (All kohanim are named “Cohan” or “Cohen,” but not all people with those names are kohanim. It’s the same way with the Indian name “Singh”: all Sikhs are named Singh, but not all Singhs are Sikhs.)

At any rate, this DNA mishegas didn’t make it in to WEIT, as I eventually decided that conceit was a bit twee, but I did, at least, gain some notion of my ancestry, confirming what I thought all along. The Peter Coyne of 1879 still mystifies me; I know very little of my remote ancestry, particularly on my father’s side.

And I no longer think my name is Irish, for, of course, male names are transmitted precisely with Y-chromosome DNA, as if the names themselves resided on that chromosome. (They don’t, of course, but both are passed on from father to son.)

I would, however, like to get more than my Y-chromosome DNA tested. You can now obtain comprehensive tests of most of your DNA from places like 23andme for around $100-$150.  If you can spare that dosh, I’d urge you to do it: the technology and databases are growing exponentially, and you’ll learn a ton of stuff from simply sending in a bit of your saliva or a cheek swab.  You’ll learn about not only your ancestry but, if you’re brave, you can find out what disease genes you’re carrying as well. (That wasn’t available at the time, and I’m not sure I want to know!)

h/t: Chris

200 thoughts on “Stupid religious rule #11734, and a note on my ancestry

    1. A (now deceased) Jewish colleague named Brody always claimed that the name derived from an Irish immigration officer who admitted his grand parents at Ellis Island and couldn’t take the time to spell out their long Polish/Jewish name. No verification of this, but seems plausible. Coyne could certainly come by a similar route.

      1. I have read that most Jewish people named Brody had ancestors living in the Ukrainian city of Brody, which was a big center of Jewish life.

        The museum at Ellis Island addresses this claim that many names were changed there. They say there’s no documentary evidence of this. But I’m not sure what form the documentation would take.

        No idea about Coyne!

        1. I have actually heard older, Yiddish speaking people pronounce Cohen as if it were spelled “Coyen”; considering that “Kane” is also a corrupted form of the word Cohen, as is Kahane, it seems quite likely that Coyne is Cohen with an exaggerated Yiddish accent.

              1. And in South Africa the name Cohen was pronounced as “coin” – at least until a few decades ago. I think the idea of this pronunciation coming from Yiddish could well be right.

    2. I did a very little bit of googling on these Ellis Island name change stories, and found many articles claiming that the stories are all myths.

      Apparently there were pretty high standards among the workers at Ellis island, there was a high degree of multilingual proficiency and a large team of translators available. People didn’t have hurried interviews with frustrated workers jotting down their names. Instead they went through twenty minute interviews designed to determine who may not be able to fend for themselves. Passengers had documentation, and names were verified from ship’s manifests.

      This still leaves lots of room for name change stories, but they probably didn’t happen at Ellis Island. They either happened when procuring documentation for passage, when being entered in a ship’s manifest before the journey, or else they were voluntarily changed by immigrants afterwards in order to make assimilation easier.

      Here are a few examples that seem to be persuasive and based on some real research.

    1. Surnames aren’t universal even now. People get by with single names in Afghanistan. Name and patronymic is still the norm in Iceland, as it was in Sweden until the twentieth century. Surnames were imposed in Prussia by the Napoleonic occupiers, and patronymics in Scotland became fixed as surnames in the seventeenth century. Or so I’ve read.

      1. Which reminds me of Magnus Magnusson, the Icelandic television presenter (best known for BBC’s Mastermind) and writer (including translations, with Hermann Pálsson, of Icelandic sagas for Penguin Classics).

        Although Wikipedia says, “Under Iceland naming conventions, his name would have been Magnús Sigursteinsson (Magnús, son of Sigursteinn), but his family adopted British naming conventions and he took his father’s surname [actually Magnússon]”, I clearly remember seeing him on tv recounting how he was teased at school in Scotland because his surname differed from his father’s. But I guess that might have been the motivation for his family to adopt British naming conventions!


  1. While it is not true that all religious people are stupid, it is true that most stupid people are religious (apologies to John Stuart Mill).

  2. I’m in for a little spit. Of course, as I heard once from someone that I have a maternal ancestor nemd Davidson, I’m already certain I’m in the Messianic Line.

  3. I’ve done the 23andMe sequencing and find it quite interesting. (I got into this a number of years ago when Spencer Wells did the first Nat Geo sequencing project. Subsequently I’ve also done the FamilyTree DNA sequencing.)

    23andMe doesn’t really tell you what diseases you destined to get but it does give you insights into the comparative probabilities you have relative to a whole lot of genetically influenced potential problems.

    And you can find out some other fun bits… I got confirmation of Welsh paternal line which was cool. And they tell me I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi ancestry coming down from my mom’s side (I got her sequenced and the comparisons are informative). So who knows, Jerry, maybe there’s a Coyne in my distant past!

    1. I’ve been curious, but leery of these websites. But it sounds like two thumbs up for 23andme from you and Jerry. I’m going to try it. I reviewed the site and $99 seems fair.

  4. In one of the Science of Discworld books (I can’t remember which one, possibly the 2nd or 3rd), they (Pratchett, Stewart & Cohen) talk about the Cohen lineage. It mentions a study that was done which found that the lineage was well preserved because if & when a Cohen wife cheated on her husband, they would cheat with another Cohen!
    (Please forgive the sloppiness of the anecdote, I don’t have the books to hand so can’t find the details, but thought it was worth mentioning!)

    1. I don’t remember which book this anecdote in either. Anyway, their suggested explanation is that cheating wives prefer high status lovers and Cohens are as high as it gets.

      1. They don’t know that the wives cheated, and I’m sure there are lots of fully faithful wives, but in all other examined groups it was found that a proportion of children were not biological offspring of their mothers’ husbands and it would be very strange if Cohen wives had been for centuries the only exception.

      1. Wondering which bit of their holy book said do not fly over cemetaries(unless you are an angel ofr a prophet ascending to heaven)????!

      2. I really would like to hear the “reasoning”, such as it is, to explain why wrapping yourself in aluminum is no good but wrapping yourself in plastic is. And what about other materials? Is plastic the uniquely effective material? Could you wrap yourself in burlap? Latex? Fine Egyptian cotton?

        And are there air holes in that bag? What are the regulations on that?

        1. My understanding is that this is a result of a previous rabbinical ruling about how close a kohan could get to a corpse in a body bag. Apparently, it was decided that the bag mitigated the defiling effect, so long as there was still some distance between the priest and the dead. And if worked when the corpse was bagged, why not when the kohen was?

          My family’s lore says that we belong to the kohanim lineage. I thought about getting my Y chromosome tested, but I ultimately decided not to. I don’t really want to find out that I’m not actually descended from the priestly caste. That sounds silly, I suppose, since I am an atheist, and my own status as a kohanim has been alienated for other reasons, but I’ve discovered that’s nonetheless how I feel.

          1. I agree but to the adherents of a particular religion their religion is the exception to that statement. Or, at least, so it seems.

    1. Haha.
      Maybe he stays indoors all the time covered in a polythene tent!
      How does one know which is and which is not a grave with so many unmarked graves in so many places?

    2. It would really depend on the direction vector of ghostly emanations. They may well have a distinct vertical bias in the minds of rabbis.

  5. so, do plastic bags now need warnings on them “not for use near silly religious types” in case they might suffocate? Does letting air in allow the cooties from graveyards in?

    Mordanicus aced it!

    1. I’m sure you’ve seen the warnings on plastic bags, usually aimed at children.

      Anyway, a guy at work committed suicide with a plastic bag. In the gymnasium. (Management sent round an email saying the gym was off limits, no reason given, and warning against speculation – which says a lot about management’s grip on reality, I think). I’ve always wanted to ask whether the bag carried the usual warning but I felt the enquiry wouldn’t go down too well.

      I’m a bit surprised the airline let the guy fly like that, but I supposed he played the ‘religion’ trump card…

      1. In the event of an emergency, not only would that bag be a severe impediment to him, but he’d be a severe impediment to those around and behind him. Yes, I’m also surprised this was allowed.

        1. Well, in the event of a ‘ditching’, and if you could manhandle him out of the exit, I suppose he might come in handy as a flotation device…

  6. Just when you think you’ve heard all the craziest stuff about goddies….

    A guy in a bag on a plane. Maybe he worked out a way to get himself registered as carry-on luggage for the guy sat next to him. 1 less air fare!

    1. But then he should be in the overhead bin, or under the seat in front. If the plastic bag were longer, he would probably fit in the overhead bin.

      1. And should he wish to join the “Mile High” club, full body condom is already in place! How convenient.

  7. Interesting logistical issues with the plastic bag set-up. Presumably there are no holes in the bag for ventilation, because that would constitute exposure the cemetery. Does that mean the rabbi has an oxygen tank in there with him? Or perhaps he calculated the amount of oxygen he would need for the flight and had it pumped into the bag before the plane took off?

    I also wondered (as did one of the commenters on the Gothamist site) why a plastic bag was considered protection, where the aircraft fuselage didn’t, but perhaps the rabbi was distrustful of the plane’s ventiilation systems.

    1. There MUST be holes in it, since he’s not wearing a seat belt OVER the bag, and I’m sure they wouldn’t allow him to fly without seat belts.

  8. But is this photo really taken on an airplane? Big windows! This looks more like a train or a bus or a hovercraft to me.

  9. I had my DNA tested at 23andme. I paid about $500 for it a few years ago, so $100 is a bargain! You’ll discover lots of cool stuff about your health, your genes, and your heritage. (e.g., I found out I’m part Jewish and used this fact to antagonize my Catholic family.)

  10. Yes, thanks Gerry – that was vv interesting. BTW in the late 1970s I used to work for a bookmaker named Sam Cowan and always assumed that that was a variant of Cohen. A v good employer, as most bookies were in those days.

  11. Re Jewish people with Irish names I heard this story a few years ago, supposedly about a New York Jew with an unmistakeably Irish name. The story goes that he landed on Ellis Island and as his name was deemed too difficult to pronounce he was given a new one. When he went to the next table for the next stage in the process he was asked for his name, to which he answered, in German, that he’d forgotten already. The clerk, on hearing the words ‘schon vergessen’ duly made out documents in the name of Shaun Fergusson…

    1. A variant: The guy ahead of him was Johann Johansson,. Wen the clerk asked his name he replied “Same Thing”, which is how he became “Sam Ting”.

      1. Those who saw the movie ‘Zabriskie Point’ may remember the scene where one of the characters, having been arrested at a demonstration, is being processed –
        (sarcastically) “Karl Marx”
        police clerk types “Carl Marks”

  12. Many Jews named “Cohen,” “Cohan,” and, perhaps, “Coyne” (possibly a change intended to disguise Jewish origins) are indeed of the kohanim lineage

    So are Jews named Kaplan, as this word means “priest” in several Eastern European languages. And of course the Israeli name Kahane is of the same origin.

  13. “I once thought that Jews weren’t as ludicrously religious as adherents to many other faiths”.

    Whilst many orthodox Jewish beliefs seem less harmful than the beliefs of some religions I’d say they score very high on the “ludicrous” scale. Eruvs, sabbath compliant fridges and lifts, the shabbos goy, women forbidden from showing their own hair but feeling comfortable wearing wigs of other women’s hair. Do orthodox Jews really believe their god is so easily fooled?

    1. I always got the idea that the Jews don’t care about fooling him, they just care about following the letter of the law.

      It’s easy to forget, from all the Christianity, but Judiasm had Yahweh in a much less absolute position. The prophets argued with him, and even won on occasion.

      Exactly how this translates to their culture, I’m not sure, but it seems reasonable that they don’t see this as ‘fooling’ Yahwehs laws, just dealing with them. Kind of like how you or I might deal with natural laws that trouble us.

  14. Flatulence might be an issue with any metals that can spark (not to mention the smell). Also, the bag is knotted at the top. Someone else tied him up. How do we know that isn’t a hate crime?

  15. As is typical for Southerners in particular, my dad is supremely interested in family history and genealogy and can trace his paternal lineage (including marriages and children) back to pre-Civil War. In fact, he once diagrammed the family history for me all the way back to biblical Adam, with a few “missing links” – his words – in between (I’m supposed to just accept those, as opposed to the “missing links in the fossil record” that to him disprove evolution).

    At least with his excellent record keeping and numerous trips over the years to public libraries in Ohio, I can now prove to any doubters that I am, in fact, part of a Union lineage, not Confederate. Boy did that make for some awkward Civil War celebration ceremonies in Alabama growing up.

    I’ve been interested for a while now in 23andme and the like. But as someone who suffers from pretty serious health anxiety anyway, I’m hesitant.

    1. With possibly around 32 paternal ancestors alive during the Civl War it seems entirely likely that you had paternal ancestors on both sides of the conflict.

      1. That would assume something like a random distribution across geographic/political space.

        I have 8 Civil War era paternal ancestors, three of which were in the war, all on the Union side. All eight candidates were living in Illinois and Wisconsin or hadn’t immigrated to the US yet.

    1. That was a good read. Thanks.

      Onomastics doesn’t sound like something fit for decent company, somehow, although it doesn’t sound as silly as vexillology (flags).

      By the way, Graham is currently #17, and I’m sure the story in my reply is equally apocryphal.

  16. Y’know, you do sound like Leonard Cohen.
    Your story is very interesting and the way it turned out reminds me of a very funny episode of Frazier, the one w/ the Antiques Roadshow and where he thought he was of royal descent…. not so of course.

  17. In certain regions in eastern Europe Yiddish speakers pronounce the sound “O” as if it were “OY”; a woman I knew from Russia, for example, used to laugh (lovingly) at her father’s pronunciation of “shalom” as if it were spelled “shaloym”. That, I propose, accounts for your name; “Cohen” would be pronounced “Coyhen” or “Coyen”.
    I was raised in a totally secular Jewish household (I’ve often had to explain how I can be both an Atheist and Jewish) but I have very religious family members, and yes, Orthodox Judaism can be as odd as any other religion.

    1. Gary Lee Weinrib is another case of how pronunciations can cause name changes. His mother had a thick Polish accent and Gary’s schoolmates in Ontario used to tease him by saying that his mother couldn’t even say his name right and that she called him “Geddy”. At age 12 he decided that he would just start going by “Geddy”. Around that same time he started hanging out with that weird Zivojinovic kid. Whatever became of them?

  18. As to Mr. Coyne feeling a bit silly for thoughts not in line with atheism, I can relate. I am a retiree that took up PC gaming as a pastime. As I began learning about upgrading components and eventually taking the plunge and building my own rig, I found myself in a dilemma; talking about how great my system was running would invariably lead to something going haywire, so I then refrained from talking up my achievements due to not wanting to “jinx” things.

    I got over it, and I can semi-confidently report that my rig is running flawlessly, and if that changes, I’m now more confident in my ability to determine the problem, so no worries of jinxing.

    Back to Skyrim!

  19. So is the prohibition against wearing mixed fabrics* trumped by the cemetery cooties prohibition ?

    * Yes, I know that only wool and linen are mentioned.

  20. Genealogy is fascinating in that we discover most notions of ‘purity’ of lineage are a bit of a joke.
    There’s a branch of my family named d’Estienne. Most French ‘nobiliaires’ describe a lineage all the way back to the crusades, but because of some amazing research in a book called Juifs et Neophytes en Provence by Daniel Iancu, we discovered that there was a Jewish family in Aix-en-Provence circa 1600 named Cohen who converted in 1605, changed their name to d’Estienne, and then intermarried with the French noble d’Estienne family. The first generation of converts married Catholic, but two generations later many of the neophytes (converts) were marrying other converts again. Anyway, it’s a very interesting book.

    1. Ha! My first thought was “He’s right where he belongs.” Didn’t even have to tell him.

      Alas. He won’t stay in the sack.

      1. In my book, a geek invents a home dna kit with a usb connection that automatically generates a family tree. It was banned in the Maghreb as the body count rocketed.
        It’s only a matter of time before a lot of people find out the truth of their lineage – even me.
        As a bit of gossip – did you know the Queen Mother (Queen Elizabeth’s mother) was the daughter of the Royal Cook – she was always called ‘cookie’ at the palace.

        1. It seems that the oldest recorded joke was that a king, noticing a subject with a striking resemblance, asked him whether his mother had ever worked at the palace. The subject replied that she hadn’t, but his father had.

  21. While a name change upon arriving to America is a strong possibility, there is another potential explanation for mystery of having an Irish name but the Jewish Y choromosome. While what Jerry says – “For, of course, male names are transmitted precisely with Y-chromosome DNA, as if the names themselves resided on that chromosome. (They don’t, of course, but both are passed on from father to son.” – is typical, there are plenty of cases where the child receives the mother’s last name. It could be, for instance, that somewhere along Jerry’s paternal line, an Irish woman had an illegitimate child with a Jewish man.

  22. There’s nothing on except that Pauline Zoffer was born in Germany in June 1856 and immigrated to the USA in 1858. It might suggest that Peter Coyne was also of German descent.

    Peter and Pauline’s children were Lillie, Joseph, and Mike but the boys’ descendants are not named. That means Jerry isn’t on!

        1. now I’m interested. Given that I was used as an exhibit for “Neanderthals could pass” in my 1962 PhysAnthro class, and my wife’s claim that my pheromones don’t work on a sapiens gal…

  23. I’ve often wondered about my ancestry. I was born in Germany, of German parents. Except that my maternal grandmother was French (cue joke about “French quarter”). Both of my parents were in their late teens at the start of the war. We used to have a photo of my mother wearing a sort of brooch that bore the swastika — a symbol my mother scratched off the photo before I was born.

    Over the years my siblings and I became aware of whispers among our parents and their siblings — whispers which seemed to reference Jewishness in the family’s history. I never found out, but guessed that there may well have been some Jewish blood there somewhere. The reason for my parents’ silence on the matter had much to do with the fact that in 1950s Australia, which is where much of my extended family migrated to, neither Germans nor Jews were particularly popular.

    Nowadays, at the ripe age of 63, I find myself asking: how far back does one need to go to establish one’s “true” ancestry? Is it folly to insist one is either that or this? My answer would be a yes. As Popeye said, “I yam what I yam and tha’s all what I yam.”

  24. Though I’m no expert, I would think that being an orthodox Jew does not exempt one from the need to breath oxygen. This particular stupid religious belief appears to be self-limiting.

  25. I had a gene scan by 23andme particularly to find whether I was likely to get Alzheimers as my grandmother, mother, and several of her siblings had it. Fortunately I do not carry the gene though that does not mean that I will not get it, just less likely.
    I have also found some relatives that I did not know existed. Well worth the $100 or so.

  26. The Eruv is my favorite comical orthodox custom. This is a string or wire, which, evidently based on some passage in the Torah, when strung around a community provides certain exceptions or immunity to the Sabbath restrictions on work. Carrying things is allowed inside of the Eruv, which allows carrying keys, medicines, taking babies out in a stroller, and others.

    The really funny thing is that Eruvs are strung usually on telephone poles, and can be damaged. There are websites that allow people to check “Eruv Status” before they take their baby out in a stroller or get an aspirin for their spouse.

    The Daily Show once did a hilarious segment on the debate over stringing up an Eruv in some communitiy in the Hamptons. Wyat Cenac appeared in the segment, and at one point he horrified an orthodox man by dipping bacon into a glass of milk, then eating it. He wore a hat with a mini-Eruv strung about the top, and pretended that it exempted him temporarily from the kosher restrictions. Quite amusing.

        1. I love the idea of a piece of bacon hoping for a higher destiny. They probably all hope – if they hope at all, this is some kind of micro-dualism – to die in an old pig, but only those lucky enough to be in wild pigs will.

    1. Topology suggests that, on a spheroidal planet (a.k.a. Earth), one could string an eruv in a circle and designate the enclosed area as the ‘outside’ where kosher laws still apply, while the much larger ‘inside’ (i.e. the rest of the Earth’s surface) is exempt. Since topologically, both ‘sides’ of the string are equivalent.

  27. Thanks to the work of some of my distant relatives, I can trace back to when the first ancestor with my surname arrived in North America, and even back to the part of Saxony he came from. It’s still a mystery whether his family was named for the area Theegarden Farms or whether the Farms were named for them. Thanks to the vagaries of 17th Century German spelling, we also don’t know if it was a farm with animals (Tiergarten = zoo in modern German) or an establishment that served tea (Teegarten).

    And yes, I am related – very, very distantly – to both Jack Teagarden the jazz musician and David Teegarden the rock musician.

  28. Everyone understands and accepts the magical/protective properties of, say, camel hide. But how did scholars figure out that a plastic bag works too?

    1. I love how the caption indicates that Eliashiv “found” a solution. As though this was an actual problem and the solution was “out there” somewhere and not simply concocted in the good rabbi’s brain.

  29. It seems to me like this bizarre Talmudic parsing of the laws has an element in common with scientific analysis.

    A Christian approach, for example, might be to just rely on the power of prayer to protect them in any circumstance.

    The orthodox Jewish laws are much more elaborate and detailed, and based on assigning properties to material objects, and often extrapolating the effect these objects may have on serving God in different contexts. It’s as if they created a complex taxonomy of cause and effect relationships between objects and actions based on Torah rather than based on empirical measurable properties. So in a vague way it is a more analytical or material, and of course still utterly useless, approach to the problem of serving God.

    I wonder if the name “Coyne” could be related simply to the word “Coin”. Presumably because of the history of persecution and the need to be mobile, many Jews specialized in trades involving portable assets. Consequently names involving gold, silver, diamond, money etc. are fairly common.

    Here is a name etymology relating to Minter, Muntzer, Muntz, and Munce which relates to minting coins, including a variety of derivative names in various European languages:

    It’s conceivable that the name Muntz or Munce or some derivative was converted to the more goyish Coin or Coyne at some point in history.

    1. With women, the problem is physical contact. He would be ritually impure if he touches a menstruating woman. This is then extended to all women, because he cannot tell by looking if she is or isn’t.

      Actually when this plays out in Orthodox areas of Israel, the women are expected to sit behind the men, at the back of the bus.

      Or so I’ve been told.

  30. …for, of course, male names are transmitted precisely with Y-chromosome DNA…

    If that were precisely true, we wouldn’t need paternity tests.

  31. Looks like the man beside him tied the knot for him, based on the Kippah he is also wearing. Apparently not a similarly Orthodox Cohen himself, though.

    Good thing nobody here would stoop so low as to declare that to be a beanie bag.

    Is it possible that Rabbi Eliashiv was actually just playing a prank on his followers?

  32. Stonyground:
    I don’t think that you should feel bad about your Jewish brethren behaving stupidly, we all have our silly relatives. I am now an atheist but my background is Methodist, I suppose that I could feel smug that Methodism seems to be devoid of an extremist loony wing*. But if I spread the net a little wider, then culturally I am a Christian, Christianity has no shortage of reality challenged nutters.

    Regarding surnames.
    Having done some research into our family tree, we have found that, in times past, a combination of strong accents and widespread illiteracy has led to records containing lots of variations on everyone’s surnames.

    *It would not surprise me at all to learn that there is one.

    1. “Methodism seems to be devoid of an extremist loony wing”.

      That may be why it’s dying, here in the UK at least. Not much to differentiate it from other ‘middle ground’ Christian groups such as the URC, Quakers or soft-core C of E.

  33. I still consider “secular Jew” a contradictory in terms. Judaism is rooted in religion. I am certainly not a “secular Catholic.” I am an ex-Catholic as I do not support Catholicism in any way. By labeling yourself Jewish in one way or another you are helping to support Judaism.

    1. Perhaps “cultural Jew” is more accurate.

      I think the lack of nation and nationality for Judaism has made it more than a religion, but also a cultural identity, something akin to how ethnicity or nationality serves as an identity for other people.

      So it makes perfect sense that there is Jewishness left after the religious belief is gone. Catholicism approaches this, I think because it is so dominant in certain countries, say Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Latin America.

      But Catholics have never been displaced in the way Jews have for so many centuries.

    2. Yes, Judaism is a religion, but it is different from Christianity and Catholicism in that it does not require belief; instead, it requires ritual. I am not completely sure but I believe Christianity was the first western religion to require belief; Jews don’t have to believe as long as they follow all the rules. As a secular, Atheist Jew, I observe a few of the holidays, but I omit all references to any deity or miracles and I transform them so they are more relevant to my personal values. Passover, for example, becomes a celebration of the struggle for equal rights for everyone. Chanukah is nothing more than an excuse to give my kids presents and cook latkes, which are yummy.

    3. I still consider “secular Jew” a contradictory in terms. Judaism is rooted in religion. I am certainly not a “secular Catholic.”

      This analogy is flawed. Jews are an ethnic group. Catholics are not.

      By labeling yourself Jewish in one way or another you are helping to support Judaism.

      One doesn’t “label” oneself Jewish, and one doesn’t cease to be Jewish just by not believing in God. Jewishness is more than religion, it’s genetic as well as cultural heritage.

      1. Thank you all for the replies. I will try to understand this cultural, without a country, position a little more.

      2. I would add that anti-Semites don’t care and never ask if you are a believer or even if you are observant; if you are Jewish at all, they will hate you.

        1. That was certainly the case during the Holocaust. It made no difference whether you were an ultra-orthodox religious Jew or a completely assimilated, secular atheist with a Jewish grandparent or two. The Nazis sent them all to their deaths.

          1. As the Nazis hated atheists as much as they hated Jews – Nazis were christians. So, I’m wondering what meaning you are ascribing to “completely assimilated”?

            1. Interestingly, Reform Judaism was started in Germany by German Jews who wanted to assimilate into the larger culture. Initially, Reform religious services were modeled on Protestant services, not only in allowing women and men to sit together and not only in the use of the vernacular as opposed to Hebrew (the official language of prayer) but even so far as holding religious services on Sunday instead of Saturday, the traditional Jewish sabbath. It was only when Reform Judaism was brought to the United States by German immigrants that Reform services were returned to Saturdays because American Jews were uncomfortable with Sunday services, which struck them as too Christian.

          2. That is the reason I continue to identify myself as a Jewish Atheist; my absence of belief makes not one whit of difference to people who hate Jews.

        2. I would add that anti-Semites don’t care and never ask if you are a believer or even if you are observant; if you are Jewish at all, they will hate you.

          And anti-Semites in places like Poland will hate Jewish atheists even more, because they associate them with the evils of Communism.
          (Sadly, many members of the higher echelons of the Polish Communist establishment under Stalin were secular Jews – thus qualifying for Jerry’s label “Jews behaving badly”. This ended rapidly in 1960s when antisemitic purges in the party took place. Many Jews emigrated – but anti-Semitism remained.)

      3. If someone practiced all the ritual but wasn’t genetically Jewish would they be considered Jewish? And going the other way, if a person was genetically Jewish but refused to participate in any of the ritual would they be Jewish? What if they were 1/2, 1/4, 1/8… genetically Jewish?

        1. According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish you are Jewish, whether you follow any of the laws or practice any of the rituals or not. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews (the two most liberal forms of Judaism) also accept as Jewish anyone whose father is Jewish, while Conservative and Orthodox rabbis would require conversion for someone with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who wants to be considered Jewish.
          It is, by the way, very difficult to convert to Judaism; if you ask a rabbi to convert you, he or she is supposed to try to discourage you first. There is an old saying: anyone foolish enough to want to be a Jew is a Jew.

        1. Sorry, ipad malfunction. Meant to say that it is interesting that in previous posts Dr. Coyne has written that Jewish is not a race or ethnicity, but in this post he does treat it as an ethnicity. Which it sort of is. Technically, one should be more specific and say Ashkenazi or Sephardic, etc. instead of just plain Jewish.

  34. I’m trying to work out how the evil emanations from a cemetery are blocked by a few microns of polythene after traversing two metres of earth, some hundreds of metres of atmosphere (if the cemetery was near a runway) and several layers of aluminium alloy in the plane. They sound a bit like N-rays. But since just sitting on a sheet of polythene wasn’t enough, it seems they are deflected by air currents, etc. and the “passing over” need not be strict. The workings of the religious mind are a wonder to behold.

  35. I’d like to see the part of the sacred writings where is says a plastic bag protects from ritual contamination of dead bodies. You have to admire the extraordinary talent for making life difficult that some people have, you really do.

  36. I suppose everyone’s familiar with Richard Feynman’s anecdote re ‘is electricity fire’? – asked of him by some religious Jews. Seems they had to hire someone to press the elevator buttons for them on the Sabbath since the little electric spark constituted ‘making fire’.

    What baffles me is not the idiocy of worrying about tiny electric sparks, but the mentality that says it’s forbidden to do something oneself but quite okay to pay someone else to do it. Is Yahweh so easily fooled?

  37. Have you considered adoption somewhere along the line may be the reason for the lack of a genetic link to the “kohen” line?

  38. “I once thought that Jews weren’t as ludicrously religious as adherents to many other faiths”

    I thought a similar thing once about Roman Catholics …

    ~ Dutchdoc .. former catholic.

  39. This does have an up side; it doesn’t take much to suffocate from too much CO2. Perhaps the Kohens will be kind enough to rid the planet of one particular religious cult? Hell, if I were the pilot I’d do a few circles of any large cemetery along the way.

  40. Jerry, haven’t you considered the probability/certainty that the photo is a Photoshop fake? The man appears to be sitting comfortably while encased in what looks like a heavy plastic bag tied tightly at the top. I don’t see any air holes, or any evidence that the bag is being sucked inward as would quickly happen in real life. Personal feelings about your ancestral religion aside, how is that even physically possible?

    1. Why would the bag be sucked inward? Whether he breathes in or breathes out, total volume doesn’t change.

      Actually, as the plane climbs and the air pressure in the cabin falls to its set minimum pressure, the bag would inflate.

  41. As a Kohen and also an orthodox Jew who lives in Israel and occasionally flies to the states I can clearly state that this is not normative behavior. The explanation is correct. However, we Jews do have some practices which can appear odd, it’s not exactly legitimate to take such a rare case of over-zealousness to make that case.

    Here it is in more detail as posted on a friend’s Facebook, if anyone is interested:

    A huge area of Jewish law involved ritual impurity. It’s complex, and to the modern mind a little weird. Almost all of it was made irrelevant with the destruction of the 2nd temple 2000 years ago. Only one aspect of ritual impurity persisted, that which relates to Kohanim (“priests”, ie those descended patrilineally from Moses’ brother Aaron. They’ve actually identified a Kohen gene!) Basically a Kohen cannot come in contact with a dead body. With the exception of his close relatives or a body that has no one else to bury it. “Contact” includes direct contact and also being in proximity of the impurity. Proximity includes being under the same roof as a corpse or being over the corpse, like walking over a grave. The “roof” does act to stop the impurity.

    So how do we get to airplanes? Basically you have the ingredients of the problem. A Kohen can’t be “over” a dead body. The Rabbis of the Talmud determined that the impurity emanating upwards from a corpse has no end. Except, of course if a structure interferes. So if you build a tree house over a grave the Kohen would be safe inside it. But isn’t an airplane such a structure that would impede the impurity? Well, the rabbis of the Talmud raised such a issue. They brought up the case of a Kohen being transported over a cemetery in an enclosed coach, say by being carried. Since the impurity goes all the way up it becomes irrelevant whether the “coach” is 5 feet off the ground or 35,000 ft (and is first class ). So, Joan, they didn’t need to know about airplanes to create a law that is applicable to them.

    Now to our friend in the bag. As with many, most, issues discussed in the Talmud there are differing opinions. (I mean really, what do you expect with a book of Rabbis’ opinions?) One Rabbi held that the travelling coach does block the impurity just as if it was stationary and another held that because it’s in motion the blocking effect is not there. A thousand years later Maimonides (a doctor by the way) compiled the first organized codification of Jewish law which remains largely authoritative today. He decided this law in favor of the Rabbi in the Talmud who said that the moving coach does not block the impurity.

    Since, for a time, all planes departing Israel’s only international airport flew over a huge cemetery directly West of the airport it was a certainty that Kohanim on the plane would be “exposed” to this impurity. (There is a lot of room for leniency in Jewish law if something is not “certain”.) Without getting into a whole other discussion, accept for now that a way to block the impurity, even while in motion is to have a material in very close proximity to the object you want to block. Thus the plastic bag.

    All that said, as a Kohen myself, I certainly do not do this when I fly from Israel as it true with most Kohanim. There are two reasons, first the government ceded to requests to change the flight path, so that most of the time flights do not go over the cemetery. Second, and more import to me, there’s a general concept that, when possible, Jews shouldn’t do things that make Judaism look foolish. So since in the case there was a Talmudic opinion that the moving coach does block the impurity that can and should be relied on here.

    1. The most bizarre part of this is that there was once doubt and argument over whether a moving carriage or other conveyance would block the unidentified impurity until Maimonides came along. He could have decided differently, and then the plane would be safe. What method did Maimonides use to resolve this question? Did he perform an empirical test? How would he know if someone passing over a grave had been in fact infected by this impurity, as opposed to suffering a bout of hypochondria? Or did Maimonides simply flip a coin? The arbitrariness of it seems comical.

      Now you’ve reminded me of a joke I heard somewhere. Four Rabbis are arguing over some point of law. Three agree, the fourth holds a contrary view, but even though he is outvoted, he is certain that he is right, that God himself would be on his side. He keeps appealing to God to show signs to convince the other three. A series of minor signs appear, the clouds parting, a gust of wind, a nearby tree struck by lightening, but each time the three are not impressed, saying those could be coincidences. Finally God’s voice thunders from the sky, saying this one is right, and you three are wrong. There us a stunned silence as the three rabbi’s look at one another, and the vindicated rabbi beams with satisfaction. Finally one of the three speaks and says “Meh. So what, now it’s three against two.”

      1. I know this won’t go over well here, but the “impurity” is spiritual, not physical. So there’s nothing to “test”. Maimonides made his decision based on his understanding, of this area of Jewish law.

        There is actually a story in the Talmud, very similar to your joke. A bunch of rabbis are arguing over some small point of law. Actually, it’s one rabbi against several. The one rabbi keeps producing miracles showing that “God is on his side” and the others don’t give in. Finally, a voice booms out from Heaven supporting the one rabbi, at which point the leader of the majority says the “The Torah is not it heaven”. After which the “voice” laughs and says “my sons have defeated me”. Obviously the lesson from the story (which few take to be real) is that man gets to decide the law now that its in in our hands. Of course it means that some men will end up doing ridiculous things like in the picture above.

        1. So do you doubt that Maimonides had the correct answer?

          And if there is no test that can distinguish exposure to the impurity from non-exposure, because as you say, it is spiritual, how is one ever to know about such a contamination occurring inadvertantly? Or that it is real at all? How can you distinguish this concern from imaginary fear?

          Are there consequences that would enable one rabbi to know if another has been tainted? In what way would it impact anyone’s life if nobody can know or detect when it happens?

          If the difference between a contamination with consequences, and one without consequences is limited to the mere fact that people know about it in one case and not in the other, how is it any different than any imaginary phantom that people fear with no reason?

          1. In this case, where there were essentially two valid opinions, I think the proper phrasing would be “authoritative” rather than correct. Maimonides’ codification is generally considered authoritative.

            Again, this is not the type of thing that goes over well in this group as we’re talking about something that is untestable. The whole system of ritual impurity was created by the religion (whether people or God depending on one’s inclination). Yes, there are (were) consequences, but again all withing the framework of these “rules”. Remember, just to blow your mind a bit, the case we’re talking about there is one tiny remnant of the entire body of these laws. There are no “consequences” today for such “exposure”, it’s all self-policed by those who buy into the system.

            1. So are you comfortable with the characterization that this is purely a matter of human convention without real consequences?

              You say this doesn’t go over well in this group. To me it seems like imaginary role playing, something that humans do for fun in many contexts. I have no problem with that as long as people don’t mistake it with reality, with something that has real import and real consequences.

              The problem with religion is that people take something that is a creation only of the human mind and in the human mind, and elevate it to the status of something real with grave consequences. Religion has enormous consequences, lethal consequences, and in Jerusalem tragic consequences because of competition over “sacred” ground. The idea “sacred” is another creation of the human mind. It is a profound irony, and a sad failure of humanity, when people are willing to fight to the death over matters of invented convention as though they were of real cosmic importance.

              Reasonable people, with minds not under the influence of religion, should be much more able to find agreement to share this land. Religious ideas are imaginary and without consequence unless people decide to treat them as real, in which case they affect behaviors, and thus they become invested with real consequences.

              To me it seems like a useless game driven by a form of madness that has tragic lethal impact. Very sad.

              1. I’m comfortable with that for myself. There are those that believe that there are consequences.

                The US constitution is not “real” either, its a system that people agreed upon to help create a civil society. Religious ideas are no more imaginary than political ideas.

                You’re correct in that religion abused, just like government abused, can cause suffering. (Hitler was “democratically” elected.)

                The implication that religion is the ONLY impetus for was is just silly. There are many reasons land is not “shared”, religion being just one.

    2. Seems to me that if one looks to Talumdic opinion as justification one is making a profound error, whether the conclusion is for or against climbing in a bag.

      1. If you’re outside the “system” you’re totally correct. But if you buy into it, for whatever reason, then you try to work with its rules.

          1. Actually, I was going to compare it to freeze tag. I certainly understand that sentiment and of course if one doesn’t believe in any sort of divine involvement then of course the foundational rules were arbitrary. However, once those rules were established, by whatever means, then there has existed a methodology for how to interpret those rules. It’s not quite as random as Calvinball.

            1. It’s commendable you can see alternative view points and imagine how arbitrary it seems to one who does not believe in the spiritual component.

              I take it that following the rules is not done for the sake of the rules themselves, but because it is seen as fulfilling a higher purpose.

              What baffles me is connected with something you mentioned in another post: that there is no test to detect a spiritual effect. I’m extrapolating something more general from the specific example of passing over a grave.

              In science, things we can not see, such as X-rays, are known to exist and are understood to be real because of the measurable effects they have on other material substances, and because of this we have learned how to stimulate the emission of X-rays and to control them for useful purposes.

              If the spiritual is entirely parallel and non-intersecting with the physical, then nobody could ever know it is real. Conversely, if it were real, shouldn’t it in some way interact with or effect material existence? And if it did, there would be a test for its reality because we could measure its effects on material existence, even though we could not see it directly, as we do for example with X-rays.

              Doesn’t this bother you at all?

              1. This is not science, it’s religion. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, there are no proofs for any of this stuff. For me, well, actually, I’ve been trying to give you a reasonable understanding of how the religion works. I personally do not believe in most, if not all of this metaphysical stuff.

                Maimonides had a seminal work called “Guide to the perplexed”. It is written very cryptically and essentially on two levels. The simple level, for what he believed are the masses of people who needed the security that blind faith provides. The deeper level was for the rationalists, the thinkers, for Maimonides, the ultimate goal was the acquisition of knowledge and through that, the search for truth. For instance as an Aristotelian he was willing to jettison the biblical understanding that the universe had a beginning for the prevailing view of Aristotle that the universe always existed. (I know, ironic, isn’t it?) While he did believe in God as more of a “first cause” he did not believe in God’s day to day involvement in the world. He believed that biblical reward and punishment were again just for those masses who needed that concept to be decent people.

                There is no question that Maimonides would have been totally on board with evolution as a natural process.

                I could go on, but you get the idea. And yet he , as I, still believed that there was value to this system. I’m not saying it’s for everyone or that can’t have a wonderful life without it. But as someone who’s chosen the system and lived in it for most of my life, I can tell you that it’s provided me with an amazing marriage, life and family.

              2. @Michael,
                What you are describing sounds more like deism than theism. With a view of God as a first cause who doesn’t intervene, then ritual and prayer are solely structure and discipline for and by the individual, as well as providing a context to integrate into a society. They no longer have a direct connection to God, though perhaps an indirect one if you think of God as still having expectations of people, though he is at a distance and does not intervene. Even so the rituals could help guide people to fulfill those expectations, even if the putative source of those expectations may not even know they are being fulfilled.

                I still find it impossible to see “spiritual” as something real, as in having an existence independent of human imagination. To me it seems like a metaphor for what humans might aspire to be, something better than they really are. I know what it is to feel inner peace and satisfaction when life seems to be in harmony with my intuitive and rational sense of goodness, and the opposite when that harmony fails. But I simply regard this as a natural property of being a human biological organism, not as fulfillment of some greater being’s expectation. This sense of a greater being with expectations seems to be nothing other than the human child’s psychology and its relation to its parents being abstracted by the adult and extended to a mythological parent for whatever sense of comfort it may bring.

                Whatever the force behind existence, it is impossible for me to imagine it has motives and intentions that resemble human concerns. Any such intelligence would need to be a product of some other intelligible context in which it is situated. To me the idea of a simple seed that grows and develops is a better metaphor for our origins than a grand and powerful creative intelligence. It leaves the mystery of how a seed could spontaneously originate, but this seems a much smaller mystery than wondering how a grand and powerful intelligence could spontaneously originate. This makes me an atheist. I don’t deny there are unknown mysteries, but the available evidence makes the idea of a theistic creator seem so improbable as to be barely worth considering among all the other unknown possibilities.

            2. I read somewhere that the more irksome, difficult and apparently pointless the observance, the more credit accrued to the subject.

              I can’t see the point, myself. (Literally).

              1. It looks like some adjectives got added in there. The basic idea is “the more difficult the “mitzvah” the greater the “reward””. Irksome and pointless are not really part of the concept. And of course, this idea is disputed. 🙂

              2. @Michael: I was freely paraphrasing something I read ages ago, so the adjectives are probably mine.

                Though I suspect those attributes may often creep in by themselves, since the urge to make the mitzvah a bit more difficult may generate a certain degree of avoidable difficulty. Plastic bags being a case in point.

        1. If you make the profound error of “being inside the system” then it makes no difference what the rules are, you are not being reasonable. Whatever you build on this error is baseless and silly at best, baseless and dangerous at worst. But always baseless.

          1. Then that’s true of any man-made system. A more reasonable, and less judgmental approach, is that people either choose or are born into systems. Some, not all, have the choice to assess if that system works for them and makes for a good life.

            1. No, the reasonable thing is to question one’s assumptions. You’re making an excuse for simply accepting whatever assumptions one is born into (or chooses? on what basis is the choice made?).

              And I do not accept your “little people” argument. People can think for themselves and can make judgements accordingly. Making judgements (“being judgmental”) is something everyone does. One should question how judgements are made, not the act of judging.

              1. Not at all, one can question assumptions and still agree to life within the systemic framework. All is a cost-benefit analysis. Do the problems with the “system” outweigh the benefits?

  42. Religious rules are strange and arbitrary. Decades ago, I spent the weekend with family friends who were modern orthodox, that is, they followed all the rules except that the women wore pants from time to time and the married women did not cover their hair, while the men wore modern clothing with a small head covering (a kippah or yarmulke) and a fringed undergarment. On most weekends, they made a pot of highly concentrated tea which could be diluted with hot water from an electric urn (all prepared and turn on before sundown Friday) when you wanted some tea. On this particular weekend, they had forgotten to make the concentrate, so I thought I could made tea by decanting some of the hot water onto a tea bag. Not so; doing that was “cooking” and therefore forbidden. However, I could decant the hot water onto a tea bag in one cup, then pour the prepared tea into another cup, and that would not be considered cooking. Huh?

    1. Strange, yes. Arbitrary, not necessarily. The end result that you described certainly does sound arbitrary, but there’s a whole structure of legal precedent and logical discussion that went on for thousands of years to get to that iceberg tip you experienced.

  43. ” You can now obtain comprehensive tests of most of your DNA from places like 23andme for around $100-$150. If you can spare that dosh, I’d urge you to do it: the technology and databases are growing exponentially, and you’ll learn a ton of stuff from simply sending in a bit of your saliva or a cheek swab. ”

    My brother did this test–two of them, in fact–one more in depth (he did the ancestry tests, not the health risks test). Results were fascinating, partly because he compared the DNA-ancestry results with what he’s found about our family tree and with family stories/lore. The latter turned out to be (no surprise) a bit mythical. We had always figured we were classic midwestern white anglo protestant scottish-british-german. Lo and behold, some African and some near-eastern DNA appears, traced to pre-1700s. Which jived with some recent research my brother did that said we had a British ancestor named “M. Israel” in the 17th c.

    Few people in the USA would ever show up as “pure” ANYTHING in our DNA. All you have to have is relatives who lived in a city or a seaport, and you have “mixing.”

    Unless maybe you are from North Korea.

  44. @Jeff, That was beautifully stated. In the end, you and I are not different. The truth is that I don’t need a theistic or deistic explanation for the universe. I live within the orthodox framework because I get the positive benefits from it that you seem to get from yours. Additionally, I have an implicit, if not explicit, contract with my wife of 32 years and family to live this life. Yes, there are some wacky things in our religion, and in some circles they are getting wackier. Much of that is easy to ignore, even within the framework, as there are a range of opinions on just about every subject. But at the core the framework of observance provides me with a lot of the peace and inner satisfaction to which you refer.

  45. Generally I don’t read post on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, very nice article.

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  47. “…for I would have felt slightly elevated had I been a true kohen…”

    Then he realized that he is just another run-of-the-mill moron.

    Cheers fool!

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