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Stars of David: Sabbath and holidays in outer space? (Part 3 in a series)

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

The moon rotates every 29.5 days, therefore each lunar day lasts approximately four weeks. This can create problems in calculating times for observance of mitzvot. Many Jewish observances are time bound and Earth bound. Now that humankind is capable of space travel, has reached the moon and will undoubtably reach other planets, how will observant Jews address these issues? How will Jews in space determine when Sabbath and holidays occur?

A popular joke, from the days of the first space missions, describes the space voyage of the first Orthodox Jewish astronaut. When he returns to Earth he is asked about his experience. The Jewish astronaut replies, "Oy, am I tired! Shacharis, Mincha, Maariv, Shacharis, Mincha Maariv..." referring to the fact that the orbiting capsule experiences sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes, requiring a constant succession of morning, afternoon and evening prayers.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren considered that mitzvot contingent upon time, such as recitation of the Shema, cannot be performed in their correct time in orbit, or on the moon, since there is no 24 hour light/dark period. There is also a problem with determining the start of Sabbath and festivals.

Rabbi David Slush tackled the question of calculating the time for prayers. He recommended that the Shema be recited when the astronaut goes to sleep and when he wakes up, regardless of what time it is in the zone of Earth he is flying over. However, this is not consistent with the Mishnah's discussion of prayer [Berachot 1:3], where "when thou liest down and when thou risest up" is interpreted as "the time when men usually lie down and the time when men usually rise up". It is defined as actual time - linked to the sun - and not whether a person is asleep or awake. On intercontinental jet flights traveling east, religious Jews say their morning prayers shortly after sunrise, even though it occurs only a few hours after the previous sunset. The time of prayer is linked to the sunrise seen from the plane, even though the travellers just experienced an abbreviated night.

Rabbi Menachem Kasher compares time issues in space travel to the situation at the Northern and Southern polar regions of Earth, which experience six months of daylight and six months of darkness. Observant Jews dwelling in those regions should maintain 24 hour days, and schedule alternating 12 hour periods of "day" and "night". Residents of the moon could use the same principles to guide their calculations. They could establish a 24 hour day similar to what is recommended for Earth's polar regions.

According to the Israeli military rabbinate, since astronauts in space will be in constant contact with Earth, they will be aware of times and dates on Earth. The rabbinate proposed that Jews should observe holidays and prayer based on the observances in the holy city of Jerusalem. On the moon, for instance, Jews would observe Sabbath about four times every lunar day (Each lunar day has 14 3/4 Earth days of light and 14 3/4 Earth days of darkness). Of course, if space travelers lose contact with Earth, then they will have to use their own instruments to calculate days and times.

Jewish astronauts have already reached outer space. NASA astronauts Judith Resnick, Jeffrey Hoffman and David Wolf are three such pioneering Jews in space. And David Wolf - who spent Rosh Hashonna, Yom Kippur and Chanukah in space - reported that the Russian Mir Space Station, where he spent four months, calculated time and days according to Moscow clocks.

The Israel Space Agency is not yet launching manned flights, but has sent satellites and experiments into orbit. However, two Israeli Air Force officers are currently training with NASA and will be participating in a U.S. Space Shuttle mission in the near future.

One day Jews will visit other stars and help colonize other planets because, after all, stars are part of Jewish history and Jewish destiny. From the six-pointed Jewish star, the so-called magen David, which originated from the shape of King David's shield, to the blue magen David which is the proud focal point of the Israeli flag. From the despised yellow stars used by the Nazis to oppress Jews, to the silver and gold stars proudly worn by Jewish girls and boys, displaying their heritage. As God pledged, "I shall multiply your seed.... as the stars of the heavens."


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. \end