When Does Shabbat Begin in Alaska: A Guide to Perplexed Alaskans Part 1

When Does Shabbat Begin in Alaska:  A Guide to Perplexed Alaskans   Part 1

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg


When we moved to Alaska two years ago we found that the first question Jewish visitors would ask me when they found out I was a Rabbi was, “When does Shabbat start in Alaska?”  To avoid an answer, I told them that I lived in Juneau and that they should ask the Jews in Barrow.  But that is a copout since even in the Southeastern panhandle we are part of Alaska.  While we do not have endless days of sunlight or darkness as locales farther north, our sunrises and sunsets can be very early and very late.


I discovered through my rabbinic research that the timing of Sabbath and festivals in the Polar Regions has been a subject of a halachic-Jewish legal-dispute for nearly three centuries. The subject has expanded to address the question of how to observe the Sabbath and festivals in space.   I am indebted to Rabbi David Golinkin of Jerusalem who wrote on the subject in 2003 in memory of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died tragically in the Columbia disaster.   (Golinkin Insight Israel   p. 104)


Some rabbis when asked how to observe Shabbat in Polar Regions betrayed a certain closed-mindedness toward the ‘Frozen Chosen’.   In June 1886 Judah Bamberger asked his father, the distinguished Rabbi Simhah Halevi Bamberger of Aschaffenburg, Bavaria how he should observe Shabbat in Norway.  Rabbi Bamberger told his soon, “You should not live there since it raises doubts about prayer, Shabbat, and festival observances.”


Another rabbinic opinion in 1934 suggests that a Jew can live in the North Pole, but “You are not required to observe Shabbat in such places because the Torah ties Shabbat to ‘days’ as in Exodus 34:21: ‘Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor’. Days have hours, and since there are no such ‘days’ there, there is no Shabbat.”


Or consider this rabbinic opinion about the obligations of an observant Jewish astronaut orbiting the earth. “A Jewish astronaut should count each orbit as a day. Therefore, he should pray three daily services during every ninety minute orbit, and observe Shabbat every nine hours for ninety minutes. But festivals should be observed following the calendar of the earth since Jewish holidays follow the moon and moon days are the same in space.”


These rabbinic opinions are underwhelming. They deter Jewish children from wanting to be astronauts and imagine that Jews in Alaska will move to Palm Springs or cancel High Holidays and Sabbath services entirely (although I know some would do just that).  These rabbinic responses reveal the severe myopia of some interpreters of Jewish tradition and their failure to adapt our tradition to changing realities.  These are good examples of the dead tradition of the living as opposed to a more enlightened view of Judaism as the living tradition of the dead.


One way to dismiss these unhelpful opinions is to resort to humor.


The first frum Jewish astronaut returns to earth utterly exhausted. He is asked: “What happened?” He replied, “”shahrit, minchah, maariv, shahrit, minchah, maariv!


Instead we should seek rabbinic teachers who embody the living tradition of the dead, those who embrace common sense and a sensitivity to changing circumstances when addressing problems in Jewish law and life experience.  The Torah is called Torat Hayim-a living Torah because we trust that it is profoundly applicable in all ages on giving us guidance on how to live meaningful Jewish lives.


Jewish law and lore deal with the issue of how to observe the Sabbath and festivals where the sun does not rise or set for months on end and is characterized for much of the year by very short days and very long days.  By extension the discussions apply to Jewish communities in far north or far south regions when the Sabbath and some festivals begin and end extremely early or late causing hardship for those attempting to keep them.


There are four groupings of opinions starting from the 18th century.


The first school relies on a Talmudic passage about an observant Jew lost in the desert who loses track of time and no longer knows which day Shabbat will occur.  They teach that the lost Jew counts six days of 24 hours and the 7th day is Shabbat.


The second view suggest that once in a polar zone, you rely on the time of your point of origin, you observe Shabbat according to your point of origin. This follows the principle of following the customs of the local place where you reside-suggesting that in the polar regions you observe the Shabbat according the last place you lived where there was a minyan-or viable Jewish community.


A third group argues that you should observe the Sabbath according to places with the same longitude.


A fourth opinion rendered by a Reform scholar of Jewish law argues that you observe Sabbath and festivals according to the closest Jewish community as in the case of Jewish soldiers stationed in Alaska during WW II who were instructed by a rabbinic chaplains to follow the candle lighting times of Portland, Oregon.


Which one of these views do you think is most sensible?  What do they assume about the Sabbath itself and its purpose?

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