Friday, December 10, 2010

Orthodox Jews in Space – The Real Questions

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.


  1. Pikuach nefesh helps others, like doctors. There are 24/7 security and maintenance jobs, water, electrity etc that are considered necesary. Ships travel on water for weeks including Shabbat. They're not supposed to just let the tides take them off course.

  2. I mean no disrespect but this sentence absolutely cracked me up:

    "I don’t imagine a ship full of Jews being content with observing a two-hour-long Shabbat every 14 hours."

    It seems to me, unschooled as I am on the subject, that one would look at the meanings behind a tradition/ritual and in a completely different situation, strive to find a new different way of achieving the same "meaning". That is, rather than just repeating a rigid ritual that might lose its meaning because it's no longer adaptable to the situation (taking into account time changing with speed, sunrise and star not being "there" anymore, etc).

    Then again, as a solitary practitioner of paganism, I'm way out of my league here. ;o)

    P.S. I keep telling Dan to bring back your book! MEN!

  3. Willow -

    There is no way I would think you meant any disrespect.

    The thing about Shabbat isn't, for me, so much about the ritual per se.

    The thing is that six days a week we work to repair the world. On Shabbat, we get a chance to rest and to imagine the world is perfect just the way it is.

    Unfortunately, it takes us some time (and sometimes some ritual, too!) to help us transition from the work week into the calm, relaxed feeling of Shabbat. And two hours is just not enough time for most of us to do that, and to get that re-energized feeling we need to be able to go out there and tackle the next work week.

  4. Susan - and i mean no disrespect, but somehow the core concept of that novella doesn't make sense to me, because the orthodox Jews I know would never consider populating another planet. From what they tell me, the physical place Eretz Yisrael is too important to leave permanently behind.

    Gail (trying to post as me but blogspot tells me my URL contains 'illegal' characters?)

  5. Gail -

    That's a good point. Of course the first hurdle would be finding Orthodox Jews who would even be willing to leave the planet.

    I think that hurdle could be overcome, though, in a variety of ways. For instance, maybe the Earth is going to be destroyed by a huge meteor that can't be averted, maybe we have so destroyed Earth's atmosphere and land so that it can no longer support human life, maybe, God forbid, in the story Eretz Yisrael has been nuked into oblivion, etc.

    P.S. Sorry about your illegal characters. Maybe they'll released early for good behavior.

  6. You need to write a book. I've learned more from reading your stuff than anything else I've ever read.

    Correction, I've learned a lot everywhere, but the way you write things gives them meaning on a very human and personal level.

    You're a very talented writer and teacher my friend!

  7. A Jewish man had recently begun to learn about Judaism. He wanted to start praying three times a day, and observe shabbat. There was just one problem - he worked on an oil tanker off of the Northern coast of Alaska. Above the arctic circle in the summer, the sun does not set for many months at a time.

    This man wrote a letter to the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory.

    He asked the rebbe, "How can I pray the evening prayer if the sun has not set?" "When do I keep shabbat if the calendar says Friday but the sun is nowhere near the horizon?"

    The rebbe wrote back and answered, "There are just some places where a Jew is not meant to live".

    Now, there are very detailed and technical answers given for those who find themselves in these far flung corners of the Earth - but I think the rebbe's answer makes the most sense.

    Eretz Yisrael is the best place to live for a Jew to follow the Torah. If that cannot be accomplished for whatever reason, then at least live somewhere that has a normal sunrise and sunset. That rules out the arctic / anarctic regions, as well as outer space.

    Then again - according to some Rabbinical views, the laws of the Torah only apply on planet Earth. So if you're just dying for a ham sandwich, you're better off eating it outside of the Earth's orbit. :o)

  8. Willow - You are very kind. I actually think I have enough for a book. I just need to organize it and then try to find a publisher.

    Former Reform Jew - I think it's sad that someone might say there are some places Jews shouldn't live rather than trying to come up with creative solutions.

    And I certainly hope the laws of Torah apply outside of earth. I don't see why it'd be okay for astronaut to eat a ham sandwich when it's not okay for the rest of us.

  9. Great questions/musings. Some of them have appeared over the years in marginal stories. Most to the point, as Batya already said, many of the halachic notions have been addressed in some form since Jews have been involved in terran commerce and exploration for a long time. Some people, like Rav Goren, famously dealt with many of the issues involved in running, maintaining, and protecting a state. Your spaceship is a state, by another definition (as is Batya's ocean ship). Your definition of pikuah nefesh, for instance, would not be correct when dealing with matters of public health and safety. It is too restrictive for the normative halachah. On the other hand, I think you have too permissive a notion of it in terms of what the individual health care worker, etc. may do. Again, much of this is well known to the many people who've served in Tzahal or the Israel Police, etc. and had to apply these ideas. There is a pretty thorough, and continually updated literature out there.

    There are well known halachic disputes and struggles to contend with things like the arctic circle or the international dateline, btw. One can see how these investigations would set some foundations for further discussion of extraterrestrial issues.

    The 'dealing with time' issue is most fascinating.

    IF you were to write about things with a halachic perspective, then the characters would be concerned about commandments and obligations and imperatives as much or more than 'the philosophy of the thing'. For a believing and observant Jew, what ultimately decides a practical, behavioral issue is halacha (obligation), rather than philosophy.

    Have you seen the interview with the first observant Jewish astronaut to experience Low Earth Orbit? "How was it?" "Fantastic! Inspiring! But very frustrating." "How so?" "Waddaya mean? Every 90 minutes - shacharit, mincha, maariv; shacharit, mincha, maariv; shacharit..."

  10. Thanks for your insights. Obviously, I'm not qualified to write a science fiction story about this, but I wish someone would!

  11. On a related note, the Lubavitcher Rebbe's position against traveling in ships run by Jews is well-known, because the ships invariably involve desecration of Shabbos.

    The halachic ruling concerning pikuach nefesh is well-known: One desecrates Shabbos even when there is a chance (safek) that a life might be in danger.