My family was "traveling" from our home before virtual travel was cool.
When I was a kid, a few times a year my family and I would choose a country that we wanted to visit, research everything about the location from it's arts, dance, music, and culture, to the language, and of course, it's food.
Our very first "trip" was to Cuba. Sitting on a row of plastic red chairs in our basement, our "airplane," we flew to Cuba, got off the makeshift plane, made Cuba t-shirts to remember our trip by, spent the day cooking Cuban food in the kitchen, and took part in a variety of Cuban activities. We danced, we listened to music, and we learned some basic Spanish words. (A few years later when we "traveled" to India, we even got to wear traditional Indian clothing, borrowed from my dad's friend.)
Although physically still in Cleveland, Ohio, each time we "traveled," for an entire day, I was immersed in the life of another country, filled with the excitement that real travel brings.
In 2020, the rest of the world seemed to discover my childhood world of virtual travel--but instead of makeshift airplanes in the basement, desk chairs and couches became the mode through which tons of exploring happened. With the emergence of virtual travel, naturally, Jewish themed virtual travel became popular as well.
It is now possible to tour synagogues, Jewish quarters, even full Jewish museums, from the comfort of our homes. Organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have arranged full week length virtual trips to visit Jewish communities around the world.
In July 2020 I participated in a virtual week-long trip to Jewish Morocco. Everything about the trip emulated what an in-person group travel experience would have included: I was part of a cohort of individuals who I got to know better over the course of our trip. We had reflection sessions after activities and tours, to discuss our thoughts. We even received a souvenir from our trip in the mail, and took a group photo through our Zoom squares.
Jewish virtual travel has grown in such a way that it is the next best thing to real travel. The trips are carefully planned, and the itineraries carefully curated, to feel as close as possible to real travel. With this being the case, I began to wonder: should we say Tefilat Haderech, the Jewish Traveler's Prayer, before virtual travel?
Tefilat Haderech, a prayer for a safe journey, is recited after the onset of every journey. (Some people believe it should be said after departing the city limits.) There was never a Jewish youth group trip or bus ride to my Jewish sleepaway camp that didn't include this prayer. Regardless of the mode of transport used for travel, for example, whether by airplane, boat, car, train, or feet, it is customary to recite this prayer when embarking on a trip. The prayer asks God to deliver the travelers safely, to protect them from any dangers they may encounter along the way, and to return them in peace.
In literal terms, there should not be any dangers encountered during virtual travel (except the potential interruption of Zoom bombers), and participants in virtual travel do not actually go and then return anywhere. The whole "journey" takes place from one's home. It is really hard to imagine what type of protection a virtual traveler would need.
While I'm not a rabbi, nor am I any sort of Jewish law expert, my understanding is that for someone who follows Halakhah (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah), there is no Halakhic obligation to recite Tefilat Haderach prior to virtual travel. Virtual travel could be equated to watching a movie--and why would we say Tefilat Haderech for watching a movie?
That being said, I don't think there is anything wrong with saying Tefilat Haderech before virtual travel, and I don't believe there is an issue with taking extra precaution.
As we have already learned, it is customary to say this prayer prior to travel, regardless of the mode of transport. In the case of virtual travel, isn't our computer screens our mode of transport? Virtual travel is simply another way of traveling.
The idea behind virtual travel comes from the whole reason we travel at all. People travel because of a love for different cultures, a desire to just leave everything behind, an interest in meeting new people, experiencing new things or searching for a sense of self, and, most importantly, we travel to learn.
When virtually traveling, we do so for all the same reasons as real travel, striving to emulate real travel. When we emulate real travel, that is when we set up the plastic chairs in the basement to pretend we are on an airplane, we create a cohort of travelers so that we can meet new people, and we go on video tours of a variety of locations so that we can actually see history. Why should it be any different with the Traveler's Prayer? Saying the Traveler's Prayer before virtual travel is just another way to make virtual travel seem as real as possible.
Interestingly, there are some differences between Ashkenazim (Jewish people of central or eastern European descent) and Sephardim (Jewish people of Spanish or Portuguese descent,) on how Tefilat Haderech should be said. Sephardim hold that no matter what mode of transportation is used, if one travels at least 72 minutes from one city to another city then one should say Tefilat Haderech. Even if there are cities along the way, the Sephardic custom is to say Tefilat Haderech.
Unlike the Sephardim who stick to the 72 minutes measurement, according to Ashkenazim, as long as the distance traveled is 3.84 kilometers, then one should say the prayer. Additionally, if there is a continuous line of cities along the way, one should say Tefilat Haderech without reciting God's name in the prayer. This shows an ability to adapt the prayer to fit a situation. Maybe virtual travel also calls for adapting the Traveler's Prayer to fit this new situation: changing the prayer around so that it is specifically geared towards virtual travel.
While many people hold the belief that the Traveler's Prayer is mainly for safety, others maintain that reciting the Traveler’s Prayer is a way for individuals to express their hopes as they embark on a trip. Personally, I like this interpretation. As we embark on a trip, in person or virtually, we all have hopes for what we want to get out of the journey, knowledge we hope to gain, people we hope to meet, new connections and ideas we hope to form.
Why should we give up a tradition that is part of Jewish travel, just because we are now partaking in Jewish travel virtually? We can replicate the experience of saying the Traveler's Prayer, so that when we do return to in-person travel, individuals remember that Tefilat Haderech is part of the Jewish journey. At the same time, we can adapt the prayer to fit our current needs.
My parents wanted my sister and I to "explore" different countries as kids, so that we could experience all that the world has to offer. From start to finish we set up our virtual trips as if we were actually moving destinations. With modern day virtual travel now available for all ages, saying some version of Tefilat Haderech will allow us to remember who we are as a people and why we set out on a virtual journey.