An Alaska Airlines flight attendant enacted a security lockdown onboard a flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles on Sunday when three Orthodox Jews began praying.
The flight crew locked down the cockpit and alerted Los Angeles police, FBI and custom agents, who met the flight at 8:30 a.m. and escorted the three Jews off the airplane.
According to media reports, the flight attendant called the alert after the three men donned tefillin (phalacteries) and began praying in Hebrew.
"Shortly after takeoff, a flight attendant saw what she believed was unusual behavior from three passengers on board," Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobby Egan told the Los Angeles Daily News.
"The three passengers were praying aloud in Hebrew and were wearing what appeared to be leather straps on their foreheads and arms," she said.
"We've since learned from law enforcement that the passengers onboard were practicing a traditional Orthodox Jew [sic] ritual called Tefillin," Egan said.
The fairly well-known ritual involves wrapping a long leather strap around the right arm and forehead to secure small leather boxes containing four tiny handwritten scrolls of Deut. 6:48, Deut. 11:13-21, Ex. 13:1-10 and Ex. 13:11-16.
These verses from the Torah (first five books of Moses) speak of "a sign upon thy hand and for frontlets between thine eyes," which became the basis for the tradition of placing the verses physically on the arms and foreheads.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told the L.A. Daily News the men, identified as Mexican nationals, were detained for questioning and then released to make their connecting flights.