Steve Sachs Duke


Thursday, January 16, 2003


Jews... In... Spaaaace... As the New York Times reports, the Jan. 16 launch of the space shuttle Columbia carried into space the first Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon. The real story, though, is buried in the ninth paragraph: how does one observe the Sabbath in orbit?

Colonel Ramon describes himself as a secular Jew, but he said that in space he would try to observe Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, if it did not interfere with his duties. Shabbat, observed every seventh day, normally goes from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This raised the question of when the day of observance occurred in orbit, since the shuttle circles Earth every 90 minutes. The astronaut consulted a group of rabbis, who developed a consensus that the day of rest should be observed based on times at his launching point, Cape Canaveral.

Clearly, this is big news. The rabbis' decision will have obvious implications for future astronauts living in the International Space Station -- or in lunar colonies, where Jews would otherwise be useless for a full month due to the slow rotation of the Moon. (No adjustment would be needed for a colony on Mars, since each Mars day is 27 Earth-hours long -- close enough.) But the rabbis don't seemed to have answered the question fully. If what matters is the time of sunset in the place of departure, then the beginning of the Sabbath will vary by the individual astronaut. And what do you do when spacecraft launched from six different time zones all dock at the same space station?

One way to solve this problem is to look at the similar questions that arise without venturing so far afield. When, for instance, does Shabbat begin north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun doesn't set for six months out of the year?

A quick Google search reveals a variety of religious interpretations. "Ask the Rabbi" supports the Cape Canaveral approach, with times dictated by the traveler's non-Arctic city of origin, but this won't work when a single time is needed for everyone. To provide a standard time, some argue that the days should be divided by the lowest point of the sun's dip in the sky, even if that dip takes place entirely below the horizon. Others hold that sunset in the nearest city outside the Arctic Circle should be taken as the reference point.

But neither of these approaches will work well in outer space, where the sun doesn't dip and the nearest city can be several million miles away. What is needed is a single rule, such as that applied by an Orthodox chaplain at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. He simplified matters by beginning the Sabbath at 6:00 p.m. every Friday, rain or shine. Richard C. Nickels, who hails from Neck City, Mo., offers a more complex interpretation; he writes on that the dividing line in the Arctic is noon during the six months of darkness, but midnight during the six months of daylight.

Such a system may work for most of the Arctic Circle, but it doesn't answer the question for the poles themselves. Since all time zones converge there, couldn't a few feet result in several hours' difference? When would a Jewish Santa Claus -- or someone working at McMurdo Station, Antarctica -- rest from his labors? As it turns out, Antarctica uses New Zealand's time zone for the sake of convenience, and presumably this choice would apply to Sabbath times as well. (Even during several months of total darkness, Antarctica still adopts Daylight Savings Time.) The simplest solution to the rabbis' problem, it seems, would be to adopt the same convention and to declare all of outer space to be in New Zealand.

For those who find such questions pointless, I can only say that they're part of a long tradition. The Talmud tells the following story of Rabbi Jeremiah (quoted here):

"If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it. Rabbi Jeremiah asked: 'If one foot of the fledgling is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law?' ... It was for this reason that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the house of study."




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