On Thursday night, July 23, Rabbi Dr. Eli Yoggev of Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Congregation participated in a Zoom program presented by the Jewish Museum of Maryland titled, “How to Be Jewish in Space!”

The program was a preview to the JMM’s “Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit” exhibition, which is scheduled to open in September. A live stream sneak peek of the exhibition will be offered by the JMM on Tuesday, July 28, at 7 p.m. (For information, visit http://jewishmuseummd.org/.)

The following is excerpted from Rabbi Yoggev’s talk.

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While researching for this talk, I came across a Jewish space travel joke.

“What is the Jewish astronaut’s favorite song?”

“Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset …”

All jokes aside, the rising and setting of the sun can lead to sticky situations for the halachic space traveler. Think about it. At a certain distance from Earth, an astronaut will witness a sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes.

At three prayer services per every 90 minutes, that comes out to a lot of davening in a 24-hour span!

And it doesn’t stop there. As one halachic expert put it, “One would have to read the Shema 32 times in a 24-hour period … put on tefillin once every hour-and-a-half … pray 48 prayers every 24-hour period. … One would have at least two Shabboses every 24-hour period, each one an hour-and-a-half long.“

So that’s one issue: how to practice Jewish law amidst rapidly revolving days.

However, a more basic question remains: is Halacha even applicable outside of the Earth’s stratosphere?

After the first lunar landing in July of 1969, questions regarding outer space quickly transitioned from a fanciful imagination to a real-life halachic reality.

Israeli spacecraft Beresheet
Israeli spacecraft Beresheet takes a selfie with Earth, more than 23,000 miles away. (SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries)

In addressing these kinds of questions, Rabbi Ben-Zion Firrer (1914-1988) brought support for his exemption from mitzvah observance from Deuteronomy 12:1: “These are the statutes and judgments which you shall take care to do … all of the days that you live upon the earth [al ha-adamah].”

On his read, the commandments are only relevant on the adamah, the Earth (with a capital E). Outside of the Earth’s stratosphere, we are exempt from their performance.

And he elaborated that God gave the mitzvot to us so that they would be performed in the unique environment and conditions of the Earth: Shabbat based on a seven-day cycle of 24 hours, an earthly Temple bringing together materials and creatures from Earth in the service of God.

This is what Hashem desired. Outside of the Earth, none of this is possible.

However, Rabbi Menachem Kasher (1895-1983), author of the acclaimed encyclopedic commentary Torah Shleimah on the Torah, quickly penned a response to this lenient stance.

In it, he wrote, “Every Jew must keep the Torah wherever they live: up on the moon, or in the water underground, at the North Pole or the South Pole, where a large part of the year it remains light or dark, or in an airplane. … There is no place where a Jew could become absolved from the Torah’s mitzvot.”

Each authority brought their source texts. But upon deeper reflection, it’s possible that an underlying debate is at play here, with each side hinting to a different understanding of the function of mitzvot.

The first approach stresses how the mitzvot help correct and elevate the world. The commandments must be done in this world, and nowhere else. The second approach sees their purpose less in terms of the Earth and more in relation to the individual.

No matter where a person is, they must perform the commandments. This is a hiyyuv gavra in halachic terminology, an obligation which rests upon the individual. The main purpose is to elevate the individual, not the world.

So who won this debate? The majority approach is that one must perform mitzvot wherever they are, including in outer space.

Some say this is true only on a rabbinic level, but the obligation stands nevertheless.

Staying Grounded

Now that this has been established, we can return to our original query: how does one go about performing the commandments amidst the frequent rising and setting of the sun?

Upon approaching this new area of Halacha, authorities had to look toward similar precedent within Jewish law to help formulate their answer.

Their search led them to another abnormal weather reality: life in the Arctic Circle.

How does one guard the Shabbat in northern Sweden, for instance, where during parts of the year it is light outside for up to 50 days straight?

I don’t know about you, but for me three-day holidays in the Diaspora can be hard. Sometimes you just need to air out.

Imagine having to observe 50 days straight of Shabbat!

Like most halachic issues, there are varied opinions on this matter. One approach says, indeed, you observe the mitzvot based on the sunrise and sunset of your current Arctic Circle locale. If it’s sunny for a month and you arrived on Tuesday, that Tuesday will last for a month.

And the same goes for Shabbat and Holidays: you will have to guard them for as long as it takes until the completion of the rising and setting of the sun of that “day.”

A second, more stringent, approach says something to the effect of, “It’s not day there and it’s not night there. And you know what? You shouldn’t go there!”

Both of these approaches are a bit difficult to apply, each for different reasons. However, what appears to be a more applied view on the ground is the ruling of the commentary the Tiferet Yisrael, which holds that we base our count in the Arctic Circle on the times of the area from which we originally embarked as we left for the Arctic Circle.

That is why when the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, of blessed memory, approached the rabbis in 2003 requesting guidance on how to guard Shabbat in outer space, Rabbi Levi Yizhak Halperin (1933-2018) guided him to observe Shabbat based on his location of departure: Cape Canaveral, Fla.

According to many, this would also be the ruling for someone who travels into outer space. As we learned, one is obligated to guard the Halacha everywhere — including outer space.

How does one go about doing this? Based on the times of the area of departure.

This space discussion may not be the most practical for many of us right now (OK, for any of us!). But I am certain that as time passes and technology advances — and this could be in the not-so-distant future –these conversations will become much more ubiquitous and relevant.

Rabbi Eli Yoggev
Rabbi Dr. Eli Yoggev of Beth Tfiloh

In the meanwhile, I will leave you with an important message for us today. In our days, many feel as if they are walking around in outer space while living here on Earth! So much is going on around us — on an emotional, spiritual and political level.

In these turbulent moments, it’s ever more important than ever to grasp onto the Torah and the mitzvot. No matter where we are or what is happening, we always have the Torah.

This is our guide to a grounded life, whether in a far-off galaxy or for the duration of “the days that we live upon the Earth.”

For information about the “Jews in Space” exhibition, visit http://jewishmuseummd.org/single/jews-in-space/.