Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise in FinlandThe 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.

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  1. This really does an excellent job of demonstrating the contortions that religious people have to go through, trying to live life in the modern world by rules that were invented by Iron Age pastoralists (as Sam Harris poetically puts it, people for whom the wheelbarrow would have been a major technological advance).

    I imagine Muslims, who have to bow towards Mecca when they pray, are going to run into similar difficulties if and when the human species eventually moves off-planet (how do you bow up when you pray?), or if they go into orbit. The direction of Mecca might change noticeably by the time they’re midway through their prayers!

  2. Haha, I love the wheelbarrow thing. Definitely going to have to start using that.

    Regarding Mecca: I’m not sure how much I buy this, being pretty comfortable with non-Euclidean geometry, but … I’ve heard the argument that almost no Muslim is facing Mecca when they pray, unless they’re right near the Ka’aba. They’re facing out into space, and should be angling downward to point through the planet. So, this might be an issue they’re already having.

    I was trying to figure out if there had been any Muslim astronauts so far — there have — but I came upon this neat Wired article about exactly this problem.

  3. NFQ point out…’… I’ve heard the argument that almost no Muslim is facing Mecca when they pray, unless they’re right near the Ka’aba. They’re facing out into space, and should be angling downward to point through the planet. ‘
    So if the muslin is in alaska and correctly find the great circle that passes through ka’aba. And this is still OK because like in any delusion you can make things up, their prayers arrive in ka’aba by the principle of diffraction of prayer around the globe. But this also means that by going in the opposite direction their bowing farts also arrive at ka’aba by using the opposite circle. So while they are praying they are also showing it their assholes. So they are praising and insulting allah at the same time. Aint science wonderful?

  4. David Canzi

     /  March 26, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    I once tried to figure out, as a recreational problem, how to interpret the rule for the start of Sabbath so that it could be applied consistently anywhere. I assumed that God meant his instructions to be understood correctly by the original geographically limited Hebrew population. Since sunset happens once every 90 minutes in low orbit and doesn’t happen for months at a time near the poles, a consistent interpretation of the rule cannot be based on local sunset. The only consistent interpretation I’ve come up with is that the Sabbath starts everywhere when the sun sets in Israel. This rule can be applied simply and consistently anywhere on Earth and in space near Earth.

    Farther from Earth, relativistic effects on moving clocks make determining what time on a space ship is the same time as the sunset in Israel more complicated. If an observer on the space ship and an observer in Israel both determined what time on the space ship was the same time as the sunset in Israel, they would arrive at different answers. An astronaut could sometimes cope with this by beginning to observe the Sabbath at whichever determination of the start of Sabbath is earlier, and ending observance at whichever determination of the end of Sabbath is later. When the space ship’s speed and distance from Earth are large enough, however, one observer’s determination of the start of Sabbath will be earlier than the other observer’s determination of the end of the previous Sabbath.

  5. grizzlybaker

     /  April 3, 2011 at 5:13 am

    Inference: The Koran assumes a flat earth. That would be the only way you could pray “towards” something parallel to your own plane: the surface must be Euclidean.

    Some research seems to bear that out. Much like the Bible, the revelation delivered by god to man fails cursory knowledge our planet.

    Making it even worse, a Greek fellow living in what’s now Libya, Eratosthenes, calculated the circumference of the Earth to an amazing level of accuracy some 800 years before the Koran was ever written, in so doing proving that the Earth is round.

    So not only was it written by man as opposed to god, but it was written by uneducated men.

  6. It’s not absurd, Jews are supposed to live in Israel. They wouldn’t have to worry about any of this if they hadn’t been thrown out and dispersed throughout the world.

    Also most orthodox Jews know electricity isn’t fire, they’re just going above an beyond on their own free will.

  7. [Comment Deleted]

     /  May 28, 2011 at 4:08 am

    Hateful, anti-Semitic, and off-topic nonsense is not tolerated in my comments. -NFQ

  8. Daniel Nuriyev

     /  August 6, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    This article shows the extent of your ignorance in the Jewish religion. Before discussing a matter, study it well directly from people who observe and study it in the orthodox way. Imagine a person completely ignorant in physics ridiculing some unobvious laws of physics, such as Einstein’s concepts of time and space.
    For example you say that you don’t understand how driving is work. If before writing this you had tried to find this out, you might have found out the following: the Jewish Law forbids 39 specific types of ‘melakha’. The word melakha may mean ‘craft’. One of the melakhoth is lighting fire. When you start a car, you ignite fire. A deeper question is why it is so important not to light fire in any form or way but this question is deeper and requires preparation. LInear Algebra cannot be explained without a few years of intensive math study.

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