The Best of Wikipedia blog recently featured this fascinating article on Jewish law in the polar regions. Essentially, the issue is that the particular rules for many mitzvot depend on the rising and setting of the sun. As you go to extreme latitudes, that sort of definition of a day breaks down. Inside the Arctic Circle, there are rotations of the Earth during which the sun never “sets.” How is a Jew in northern Scandinavia to know, for example, when to observe the Sabbath?
(Regarding the Antarctic Circle … have there been any observant Jews working at McMurdo Station? They do have an “interfaith chapel” there but it seems to be mainly Christian.)
Of course, in true talmudic style, rabbis have been debating this for centuries. One citation in the Wikipedia article goes to a piece that’s actually called “Mizvot in the Polar Regions and in Earth Orbit” — Earth orbit! — in volume 5 of the series, Contemporary Halakhic Problems. Definitely, definitely, these are contemporary problems. At the time when all the foundational Jewish texts were being written, all the Jews lived in a comparatively small region on earth and at similar latitudes. Some ancient and potentially relevant scholarly opinions are discussed, regarding individuals who get lost and become isolated from their community with no way of knowing what day of the week it is.
One modern Jewish opinion is described in the article:
Rabbi Israel Lipschutz, in his commentary Tiferet Yisrael, writes that in polar regions there is a 24-hour day, as evidenced by the fact that the sun rotates in the sky from a high point at noon to a low point near the horizon at midnight. He does not offer a means of measuring the passage of a 24-hour day during the polar winter when the sun is invisible. He advises that a Jewish traveler observe the beginning and end of the Sabbath based on the clock of the location whence he came. It is unclear whether this refers to his residence or his port of embarkation.
The task of interpreting ancient rules to modern circumstances is interesting and absurd in its own right. I will never cease to be amazed that Orthodox Jews consider it “work” to drive a car (or be driven) to synagogue and therefore walk several miles on foot instead, or that they really do consider electricity to “count” as fire.
But this business about the definition of a single day using the times of sunrise and sunset seems to me to pose a deeper problem for Judaism. The 613 commandments are supposed to be given to the Jews by God, the creator of the universe, himself. Wouldn’t he know that the Earth was round, that the day/night cycle was caused by the planet’s rotations, and that sunrise and sunset didn’t happen at the same time throughout the year and across the latitudes? Wouldn’t he know that, in the future, Jews would live in a larger variety of locations on Earth, including places where there were “days” that had no sunset? It seems that God could have given unambiguous definitions of these things the first time around. He could have defined a day by the time from one solar noon to the next, for example. Even in the polar regions, on days with a “midnight sun,” there is a point when the sun is highest in the sky. Alternatively, he could have made it clear that in spite of the Earth’s rotations, the true definition of a day has to do with the rising and setting of the sun, and that there are some times when (and places where) one true day lasts a ridiculously long time.
The fact that Jewish scripture does not take any of these issues into account — that instead it describes Jewish law with all the scientific ignorance we would expect from ancient tribes, as opposed to an omniscient creator deity — is pretty good evidence that Judaism is just a mythology created by people.