Chavurah Masarti

Lynchburg, VA                  Founded on 2 Cheshvan, 5766 

Shabbat in the Arctic

This Rabbinical opinion was developed by Michael Gillette and it represents a trans-denominational perspective.  Readers who identify with a particular Jewish movement or congregation should consider their local Rabbi as the appropriate authority.

 Question:  When is it permissible to light the Shabbat candles and recite Havdalah in a place, and at a time of year, where the sun does not set?

Opinion: One may initiate the Sabbath 150minutes before local midnight on Friday evening/Saturday morning and end Shabbat the following evening/early morning just after local midnight.

  During dinner after a recent Kabbalat Shabbat service, a member posed the question about when it would be appropriate to celebrate Shabbat if one lives in a place where the sun does not set for months on end.  Although we did discuss the rudimentary answer to the question at the time, I would like to provide a more detailed answer here.  In order to do so, however, it is necessary to review not just the laws of Shabbat, but also the concept of a 'day' in Jewish tradition.

  The first important distinction is that between a calendar day and the daytime portion of the calendar day.  The very first Mishnah in the tractate Berachot asks "From what time may one recite the Shema in the Evening?"  The question that opens the Gemara on this section immediately asks why the Rabbi's began with a discussion of the evening Shema rather than the morning Shema.  We then learn that according to Jewish tradition, the calendar day, and thus observance of holidays, begins at sunset not at sunrise.  This is based on two passages from the Torah that are repeated in several places, my emphasis added.  The first is Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:7 "And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up".  This passage is repeated in Devarim 11:19 where once again the evening is mentioned prior to the morning.  The second relevant passage is from Bereshit (Genesis) 1:5 and the relevant wording that mentions evening before morning is repeated five more times during the creation story.

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
4. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

 As the Gemara in Berachot states:

GEMARA. On what does the Tanna base himself that he commences: FROM WHAT TIME?  Furthermore, why does he deal first with the evening [Shema]? Let him begin with the morning [Shema]! The Tanna bases himself on the Scripture, where it is written [And thou shalt recite them] . . . when thou liest down and when thou risest up...  And if you like, I can answer: He learns [the precedence of the evening] from the account of the creation of the world, where it is written, And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

  From this piece of Talmud we learn that the day, and thus Shabbat, begins in the evening.  What we do not yet know is how to define 'evening', and that is where things become slightly more complex.

  It was common in all cultures that pre-dated mechanical clocks to divide the daylight portion of a day into a set number of hours.  The standard, inherited from the Babylonians, was to divide the day into twelve segments that we call hours.  The reason for the number twelve is interesting.  In ancient Babylon, people counted on their fingers, so you might think that a day should have ten hours, a night should have ten hours, and a calendar day should therefore have twenty hours.  Or you might think that a day should have five hours (one hand for the day) and the night should have five hours (one hand for the night), for a total of ten hours in a calendar day.  Interestingly, the Babylonians counted with their fingers but they came up with a total of 24 hours.  This is how they did it.  The Babylonians didn't use their thumbs to count and they counted the segments between joints on each finger rather than the fingers themselves.  There are three segments per finger on each of four fingers.  One hand -- twelve segments -- for the day, and one hand -- another twelve segments -- for the night results in a twenty four hour long calendar day.

  Once we have a twelve hour long day, all that we need to do is measure those hours.  If a sundial is used to measure the twelve daylight segments of a day, then the length of each of those segments will vary with the seasons.  If the sun rises at 6:00am and sets at 6:00pm on our mechanical clocks, each of the twelve 'hours' of the day will be 60 minutes long.  During the summer, however, when the days are longer, each one-twelfth of the day will be longer.  During the winter, each one-twelfth of the day will be shorter.  According to Jewish tradition, therefore, an hour is called a "sh'ah zemanit", or "seasonal hour", often referred to as a proportional hour.  The Jewish daylight portion of a day is always divided into twelve proportional hours.

  Sunset and sunrise are known reference points in the day, so morning and evening are defined in relation to them. Midnight is defined as the midway point between sunset and sunrise.  This can be termed 'local midnight' and it might not fall at 12:00 at night.  Noon is defined as the midway point between sunrise and sunset and can be termed 'local noon'.  This, too, might not fall at 12:00 in the afternoon at any given location.  Unfortunately, while we might know exactly when sunrise and sunset take place, we still do not have firm definitions of morning and evening.  Dawn, when things begin to get lighter, starts before sunrise and dusk, when things aren't entirely dark, lasts beyond sunset.  Extensive halachic discussions have taken place to figure out how long before sunrise the morning begins and how long after it, it ends.  Likewise for the evening.  At what point in the late afternoon does evening begin and for how long after sunset does it last before one can properly be said to be in the night?  There are Jewish answers to these questions.

  Some Jewish sources have argued that sunrise and dawn are identical, and they would suggest that one may only engage in morning mitzvoth, such as saying the Shema, after sunrise.  The prevailing opinion, however, is that dawn begins prior to sunrise when it starts to get light, and there is disagreement on how to calculate this.  The decisive Jewish opinion is presented in tractate Pesachim, daf 93b.  In that section of the Talmud there is a debate about what constitutes a long trip.  We don't need to concern ourselves with why the Rabbis were debating this point, but one piece of gemara sheds light, so to speak, on the definition of the dawn.  It defines the period of time between dawn and sunrise as being the time that it takes for a person to walk five mils [There is debate here, and the official distance is determined to be four mils].  A mil is a roman mile and is equivalent to 2,000 cubits.  The talmudic passage references Bereshit 19:15-23.  In verse 15 angels come to Lot at dawn and warn him to leave Sodom.  In verse 23 we learn that Lot had made it to Zoar by sunrise.  Thus, the time in between dawn and sunrise, according to the Torah, is the time it takes a man to walk from Sodom to Zoar, which is five mils.  Pesachim daf 93b states:

The Master said: Five mils from daybreak until the first sparklings of the rising sun. Whence do we know it? Because It is written, And when the morning arose [i.e., at daybreak], then the angels hastened Lot, saying etc.; and it is written, The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot came unto Zoar,. while R. Hanina said: I myself saw that place and it is five mils [from Sodom].

   So how long does it take to walk five [four] mils?  The consensus is 72 minutes [18 minutes per mil].  This corresponds to the time when the sun is 16 degrees below the horizon.  Some sources use proportional minutes to calculate dawn, however, and they indicate that Alot Hashachar, the rising of the morning,  is 75 proportional minutes prior to sunrise.  I prefer this latter calculation, because although it does introduce some questions (such as why people would walk faster or slower at different times of year), it corresponds to 1.25 proportional hours and is perfectly analogous to the established opinion of the span of time between the onset of evening and sunset as I will discuss below.

 Sticking with our discussion of the morning, however, even once we have been this careful in defining dawn as opposed to sunrise, it is still not clear when the morning begins.  Does the morning begin at dawn or at sunrise?  What is the earliest that one can engage in mitzvoth that are time linked to the morning, such as reciting the morning Shema?  To be sure that we do not recite the Shema too early, we wait until enough natural light exists such that it is possible to recognize a known acquaintance from a distance of approximately six feet (four cubits).  Daf 9b in Berachot contains the following:


GEMARA. What is the meaning of BETWEEN BLUE AND WHITE? Shall I say: between a lump of white wool and a lump of blue wool? This one may also distinguish in the night! It means rather: between the blue in it and the white in it.  It has been taught: R. Meir says: [The morning Shema is read] from the time that one can distinguish between a wolf and a dog; R. Akiba says: Between an ass and a wild ass. Others say: From the time that one can distinguish his friend at a distance of four cubits.

  This section of Talmud also answers the question as to how late in the day one may recite the morning Shema, which is three proportional hours into the day.  On this basis, we learn that the Jewish morning begins when it becomes light enough to see a friend from a distance (this has been technically measured to be when the sun is 11 degrees below the horizon and is also identified as 0.75 proportional hours before sunrise) until the third proportional hour of the day.  We also now know that dawn (Alot Hashachar) begins 72 minutes or 1.25 proportional hours prior to sunrise .

  We should now consider the length of the evening.   According to the prevailing opinion, evening begins 1.25 proportional hours prior to sunset (Plag Haminchah).  This position is attributed to Rabbi Judah in Berachot 27a where it states "When does the first half [of the second part of the afternoon] end and the second half begin? At the end of eleven hours less a quarter."  There is no debate in halachic circles that Plag Haminchah commences 1.25 proportional hours prior to sunset, and this sets up a perfect analogy to the morning, where dawn begins 1.25 proportional hours before sunrise.  Evening then extends until dusk concludes and it is once again dark.  The standard measure for this time is when it is possible to see three stars in the night sky.  This time is termed Tzeit Hakochavim.  Teitz Hakochavim is the evening analogue with the earliest Shema.  It is the time when the day becomes subjectively dark.  For the purposes of ending shabbat, we use an even stricter standard based on when three small stars can be seen in the sky.  This corresponds to the sun dipping eight degrees below the horizon and is calculated to be 72 minutes after sunset, which corresponds to a common method of reckoning Alot Hashachar.

  So, let's review.  The Jewish calendar day begins in the evening and it contains 24 hours.  The daylight portion of the calendar day always contains twelve hours, so those hours will vary in length with the seasons.  Morning begins when it the sky begins to lighten, 72 minutes prior to sunrise, and extends until three proportional hours after sunrise.  Midday then continues until 1.25 proportional hours prior to sunset when evening begins.  Evening continues until it is dark enough to see three stars, and shabbat continues until we can see three small stars.  The Jewish day thus contains the following basic parts:

1) Alot Hashachar, Dawn: 72 minutes or 75 proportional minutes prior to sunrise

2) Earliest Shema: The point at which one can recognize a friend from four cubits away (.75 proportional hours before sunrise)

3) Netz Hachamah: Sunrise

4) Latest Shema: Three proportional hours after sunrise

5)Chatzot: Local noon

6) Plag Haminchah: 1.25 proportional hours prior to sunset

7) Shkiah: Sunset

8) Tzeit Hakochavim: Evening ends, night begins; the point at which one can see three stars in the sky (to end shabbat we wait until 72 minutes after sunset, when we can see three small stars in the sky)

  To round out the discussion, it is important to point out that since Plag Haminchah is the earliest time at which one may recite Ma'ariv (evening prayers), it is also the earliest point at which one may usher in Shabbat.  Shabbat then ends the next night, when evening ends and night begins.  It is customary not to rush the Sabbath, so rather than waiting only until three stars are visible in the sky, Shabbat continues until three small stars are visible in the night sky.  Most sources set this time at 72 minutes after sunset and it corresponds to the point when the sun is 8 degrees below the horizon.

  We now have all the information we need to answer the specific question that was asked.  We know that Shabbat cannot begin prior to Plag Haminchah and that it cannot end until we are clearly beyond the end of evening.  In a place where the sun does not set, we should accept the point at which the sun begins to move higher into the sky as the beginning of the morning.  That means that local midnight, Alot Hashachar, sunrise, sunset and Teit Hakochavim will all take place simultaneously- when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky.  Since Shabbat cannot end until evening is clearly over, it cannot end until local midnight.  Shabbat cannot begin earlier than 1.25 proportional hours prior to sunset.  In a place where the sun never sets, the proportional hour, which is one twelfth of the time between sunrise and sunset, will be 120 minutes long.  1.25 proportional hours will, therefore, be 150 minutes long.

  For example:  If local midnight in the arctic is 2:00am, Shabbat cannot begin prior to 11:40pm on Friday night.  It would then end at 2:01am on Sunday morning.  Our question, therefore, has been answered.

I have created an Excel spreadsheet for calculating important times in the Jewish day.  My Zmanim Calculator requires that you input the sunrise and sunset times in military notation.

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