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Stars of David
(Part 2 in a series)

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"...all the days which you are alive on the Earth."
- Deuteronomy 12:1

In the 1970s the military rabbinate of the Israeli armed forces held a conference regarding Jews on the moon. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then Chief Army Chaplain (formerly Chief Rabbi of Israel), declared: "The fact that the Israel Army Rabbinate organized a discussion of religious problems arising out of man's penetration of space should not be interpreted to imply that the Israeli Army is preparing to launch a manned moon rocket ... But Jewish military personnel of other armies and air forces may soon be hurled into space with manned interplanetary vehicles. If they are observant, they may ask their own Jewish chaplains how to behave on the moon, for instance. Their chaplains will ask us, and we want to have all the answers ready. It is also possible, of course, that as man conquers space, Israel will contribute to interplanetary research and penetration..."

The military rabbinate at that conference, and other rabbis writing on these issues, have tackled the following question: Since Jewish commandments, restrictions and rituals were made for humans on Earth, are space travelers exempt from them? Is outer space outside of the jurisdiction of the Torah?

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firrer, cited by Rabbi J. David Bleich in Contemporary Halachic Problems (1977), tentatively suggested that Jews are not required to do mitzvot [commandments] outside of our planet. This is based on a discussion in the Talmud (Kiddushin 37a). The Talmud asserts that most commandments which are required in Israel are also required in the Diaspora, because it is written "...all the days which you are alive on the Earth (adama)." (Deut. 12:1). Adama [Earth] is an inclusive term and obligates Jews to do mitzvot in the Diaspora as well as in Israel. However, in the case of space travel, reasoned Rabbi Firrer, you are exempt because you leave the Earth. Adama, in his view, excludes the obligation of mitzvot during extraterrestrial travel.

Goren, on the other hand, argued that wherever man goes, he will be bringing a piece of the Earth; i.e., oxygen, food, and other supplies necessary for survival. When the moon comes into contact with Earthly matter, it takes on the status of adama, Earth.

Firrer further cites a Talmudic precept to support the opposite view. The Talmud states that bodies of water in Israel are not considered part of the Land of Israel. Thus, a ship in the water is considered to be outside the borders of the Land of Israel. When the same ship touches ground, its status changes and it is then considered to be within the borders of Israel. Physical contact of the ship with the land changes the halachic status of the ship to that of part of the land. Likewise Earthly material coming into contact with the moon should acquire halachic status of the lunar soil - it becomes part of the moon. No longer being part of Adama thus precludes the obligation to do mitzvot.

Al ha-adama [on the Earth], may have yet different intentions. It may refer to the overriding influence of Earth on man, even when he leaves the Earth. When objects leave Earth and go into orbit around the planet, they are still under the influence of Earth's gravity. Earth's mass exerts a significant force on objects, including spacecrafts and satellites. The moon is a satellite of the Earth and orbits the Earth because of the gravitational pull. One could argue on that basis that Earth is still a major factor for astronauts. Space travelers orbiting the Earth or living on the moon are under the influence of Earth's gravity.

The distant planet Jupiter and its moons, also feel the tug of Earth's gravity. The effect of Earth on Jupiter and other distant bodies is relatively minuscule but it is still has a measurable influence. Because of a number of factors, Jupiter's moons are prime candidates for space colonies. In a colony some time in the future, on one of those distant moons, Adama -Earth- will still be a presence. Thus, travellers within our solar system would still be under the influence of Earth, and may still be obligated to do mitzvot.

When we leave the bounds of our solar system and discover planets fit to support life, where Earthly resources will not be needed, we will be free of Earth's gravitational pull and no longer dependent on Earth. At that point will mitzvot be required? The passage "And God formed man of dust from the ground - adama" (Genesis 2:7) indicates that man, himself, is from adama and where man goes, he brings a piece of Earth with him. "Al ha-adama" may therefore signify "wherever man is found".

The Israeli military rabbinate codified a similar idea in a resolution concerning observance in outer space: "Since space has been penetrated by human beings who use the Earth as their base of operations and initial starting point, and since the moon, planets, et cetera will be conquered by individuals coming from, or originating from Earth, these people will observe religious holidays, laws and customs just as if they were on Earth. Earth laws will apply to any place where Earthmen may arrive no matter how far away from our globe, since as far as our Earth human beings are concerned, the Earth is their center of the universe."

They further declared that observance of Sabbath, holidays, and prayer times will conform to norms on Earth. No work, writing or other desecration of the Sabbath is permitted, unless it is necessary for survival or preservation of human life. However, the rabbis noted, the notion of pikuach nefesh [saving a life] overrides Sabbath, and even Yom Kippur. Any work necessary for survival would be permitted. That is a significant observation, since in the hostile environment of space, violation of Sabbath and festivals may be necessary for survival.

The conclusions of the rabbinate are consistent with secular legal practices. Secular laws follow man into outer space; e.g., astronauts aboard American vessels must conform to U.S. laws. Religious observances should also be transportable. One could argue that when humans leave Earth they do not have to, and should not, leave their morals, ethics, or societal structure behind.

Next: Part 3. How will Jews in space determine when Sabbath and holidays occur?

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is Director of General Education and Professor of Biology at William Paterson University of New Jersey, and Science Correspondent for the New Jersey Jewish Standard and the Jewish Community News.


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