Friday, December 10, 2010
By Susan Esther Barnes
Recently I wrote a critique of a novella that purported to be about Orthodox Jews who go into space in an attempt to find and populate another planet. Unfortunately, the novella appeared to have been written and edited by people who know very little about Jews in general, let alone the Orthodox.
Since that time, I have continued to wonder, if Orthodox Jews actually went on a long journey in outer space, what kinds of issues would they need to address?
One thing I mentioned in my other post is the issue of whether there would be any maintenance or other work that would be required on Shabbat, since normally no work is allowed on Shabbat. As one person pointed out to me, perhaps the concept of pikuach nefesh would apply. The Talmud says that certain laws, including those concerning Shabbat, may be broken in order to save a life. Therefore, one might think that if neglecting to do certain work on Shabbat would result in the death of one of more people on the space ship, that work would be permitted.
However, it is my understanding that pikuach nefesh only applies when the specific individual who would die has been identified. For example, if you see a person drowning on Shabbat, it is permissible to do things to save that person that would otherwise be forbidden, such as using a motor boat to reach them, using a phone to call for help, etc.
In a space ship, if, for example, an air filter breaks down on Shabbat and some people might die if weren’t replaced before the conclusion of Shabbat, but it is unknown which people might die from it, there might be some question regarding whether this work is permitted (no specific individual whose life is at risk has been identified).
On the other hand, if it is a person’s profession to save lives (such as a doctor or fire fighter), that person is allowed to work on Shabbat. So perhaps it would be determined that anyone who maintains or repairs life support systems would fall into this category.
Clearly, this is one of the kinds of issues the Orthodox Jewish inhabitants of a space ship would be wise to anticipate and come to an agreement on before embarking on their trip.
Another Shabbat issue, which appears to be more easily solved, revolves around the prohibition against carrying things outside one’s home or community on Shabbat. In some areas where a lot of Orthodox Jews live, they use an eruv, or enclosure, around their community. This allows, for example, a person to carry a house key with them to synagogue. I would think it would be easy to declare the space ship’s hull as an eruv, thereby allowing all of the space ship’s inhabitants to carry items throughout the ship on Shabbat.
Whether they would actually want to do so, however, is an interesting question. If they can carry anything anywhere on the ship at any time, then when their descendants finally reach their destination, those descendants will have never experienced the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, and may even have forgotten all about it. It seems highly possible that they, then, would be at risk of carrying things on Shabbat on their destination planet. Therefore, I can see this, too, as being an interesting topic of discussion before the ship leaves.
One issue this all leads up to is the question of sacred time. For Jews, one day of each week, namely Shabbat, is separate in time and holiness from the other six days of the week. Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday and continues until three stars are visible in the sky on Saturday night. In a space ship, there is no sundown, nor an appearance of the first three stars, to mark the beginning and the end of Shabbat.
In addition, certain other holy days (or holidays) are set aside in time as well. These days are fixed according to a lunar/solar calendar, meaning they are set based on the phase of the moon, with adjustments made in order to ensure that they don’t drift from one season to another. For instance, Pesach is always observed in the spring, and Yom Kippur is always observed in the fall. With no lunar or seasonal cycles, how should these days be set in the space ship’s calendar?
One possible option that might be considered would be to tie the ship’s calendar to the earth’s calendar. The ship’s clocks and calendar could be synchronized to a specific place on earth, such as the country where most of the ship’s original passengers came from, or with Jerusalem, for instance.
However, that would be harder to do than it sounds. Anyone who reads a fair amount of science fiction likely is familiar with the concept of how time changes with speed. Many stories have been written about people who make a journey that appears to be only a short amount of time to them, but when they return home they find many more years have passed at home.
Therefore, if a space ship tried to synchronize its time with a spot on Earth, as the ship moved faster and faster, the ship’s days and hours would get shorter and shorter. I don’t imagine a ship full of Jews being content with observing a two-hour-long Shabbat every 14 hours. That really isn’t enough time to get in all the traditional prayers, let alone to have enough time in between Shabbats to appreciate the break from work.
Even if the space farers came up with a satisfactory way to establish the correct time to observe Shabbat and the other holidays when en route, once they reached their destination planet, they would have to examine all these questions of time and calendar once again.
The length of the days, the years, and the seasons on the new planet, and whether or not it has more than one sun or more than one moon, will present a new host of questions to be answered by everyone concerned with establishing the correct placement of Shabbat and the holidays in time.
These are all questions that I think could be incorporated into a very interesting story about what might actually happen if Orthodox (or other observant) Jews endeavored to take a long journey in space to find and populate other planets.