Tuesday, September 22, 2020 -
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Being in two places at one time

One of my long term goals is to be in two places at one time. I could finally meet all of my obligations.

Actually, I’m getting closer to my goal. Although I can’t yet be in two places simultaneously, I have figured out how to exist on two different dates of the year simultaneously.

I can recite Kiddush (Friday night) and Havdalah (Saturday night) one right after the other, at virtually the same time.

I can exist on two different dates simultaneously.

Don’t laugh.

This possibility may actually exist.

Usually, the prospect arises during the “Omer” count, the 49 days counted from Passover to Shavuot, the current period in the Jewish calendar. Temporal simultaneity begins as a trick question: How is it possible to miss the Omer count one day, but to make it up, with the appropriate blessing, the next day?

This should be impossible. Under Jewish law, if you miss the count one day, you can’t recite the blessing as you count the next day. You’re out of luck.

So what’s the answer? The trick is this: Cross the international dateline. Just step across it. Suddenly, it’s the day before. Now it’s the date you missed. Go ahead, count it! Then re-cross the dateline the other way, back into the next day, and keep counting. Simple!

Turns out, it isn’t so simple, and not just practically speaking. The idea of an international dateline in Jewish law is hardly simple. I mean, do you want to fast on Yom Kippur for two days? If you’re not sure what the exact date is, because maybe you just crossed the international dateline going east, should you observe two Yom Kippurs, one day after the next? This question actually came up in WW II as a few Jews miraculously escaped the clutches of Hitler by fleeing eastward to Japan and Shanghai. At which geographical point was it one day or the next? When was Yom Kippur? Out of doubt, were two sequential Yom Kippurs necessary?

Or, to come back to my first example: Can I straddle the dateline, with one foot on one patch of land where it is one date, and with the other foot on a patch of land where it is the next date? Can I make Kiddush because for one of my feet it is Friday night, and then make Havdalah because for my next foot it is Saturday night?

To answer, we need to understand the dateline and its implications for Judaism.

Rabbi Eliezer Zimble writes:

“Historically, the civil international dateline was established in 1884 as a result of the British empire’s need to have standardized time across the globe. The British empire created a system of 24 different one-hour time zones equally spaced 15 degrees apart.

“There is a problem with this, however, as counting times zones going west and counting time zones going east will give the same time of day but different dates. To solve this, an imaginary line was created for which one side is the beginning of the calendar date and the other side is a day behind.

“Since the line is complicated to deal with in daily life and the British empire was the superpower of the day, the civil dateline was established as far from England as possible, at 180 degrees away from Greenwich.”

So much for 1884 and the British empire. What about antiquity and Judaism? Does it have an international dateline? The arbitrary British dateline has no standing in Judaism.

Let’s take a look at Jewish dates — the Jewish, lunar calendar. In antiquity there was no fixed Jewish calendar. Rather, the first day of each Hebrew month was declared by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, after it received testimony from two witnesses that the first crescent of the moon had appeared in the sky.

What if it were cloudy when the moon aligned exactly between the earth and the sun? The “new moon” couldn’t be observed. Another factor: The first crescent of the “new” moon is not visible to the naked eye immediately. It takes hours to be observable.

All this means that the first day of a new Hebrew month may be delayed.

So would the beginning of each major Jewish holiday, such as Passover.

We need one final data point before we can get to the dateline. The moon is “born” as an astronomical fact. The moon is aligned exactly between the earth and the sun at the same moment the world over. But depending where one stands on the globe, this moment is perceived at different times.

To qualify as the “new moon” under Jewish law, it must be able to be seen somewhere on the globe for a full 24-hour day.

Voila! This means we need to know when a day begins and when it ends.

We need to know where on the globe the suns sets at the very latest. We need an international dateline.

A Jewish international dateline!

This brings us to Jerusalem, not Greenwich.

In Judaism, Jerusalem is the center point of the globe.

As we move west from Jeru-salem, it is the same day — up to a point. If the sun sets at 6 p.m. in Jerusalem, it sets at 4 p.m. in London, the same day. If we keep going westward, we have to decide at which point the west ends — the one date ends — and the next date — the east — begins.

Rabbi Zerachya ha-Levi, a medieval halachic authority, articulated the concept of a Jewish international dateline, which divides one date from the next. He said the dateline is 90 degrees east of Jerusalem; put differently, 270 degrees west of Jerusalem.

How could this be if Jerusalem is the center of the world? Shouldn’t the Jewish dateline be the same number of degrees east and west of Jerusalem? Living when he did, R. ha-Levi considered the world to consist of the Eurasian landmass, at whose center, roughly, stands Jerusalem.

Take out a map.

R. ha-Levi places the Jewish international dateline — the transition point from one date to the next — along an imaginary line stretching roughly from Siberia (dividing it in two), down along the coast of China, Taiwan, the Phillipines, Indonesia, then cutting through Australia.

According to this, Shabbos and Yom Kippur in Japan are observed as in the western hemisphere (e.g., America), a day later than in Shanghai.

Also according to this, I can stand somewhere in Siberia or Australia and make Kiddush on Friday night and make Havdalah a minute later on Saturday night.

Which, of course, is an impossibility, since I would not have observed Shabbos at all. Which is why other halachic authorities reject or modify R. ha-Levi’s determination of the Jewish international dateline.

Those who modify it say that it cannot divide a landmass. If it did, this would lead to the absurdity of a virtually simultaneous Friday night Kiddush and Saturday night Havdalah. Rather, an entire landmass must be on one side of the dateline. Therefore, R. ha-Levi’s Jewish dateline must be modified, or “stretched,” to skirt the outer edge of Siberia and all of Australia, with the rest of the dateline placed along the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Either that, or R. ha-Levi’s entire calculation is wrong, and the international Jewish dateline is in a different place, further west of Jerusalem, bisecting only the Pacific Ocean, not a landmass.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Tzvi Steinberg points out that according to virtually all opinions as to the location of the Jewish dateline, it is east of Australia. Therefore, there are observant Australian Jews who are careful not to fly from Australia to the US on a Sunday, because they would be crossing the dateline and flying into Shabbos.

So, sorry to report: All of you forgetful Omer counters who live in the US and have access to a private jet, if you miss the Omer count one day, you cannot hop on your jet going west, zip over to the edge of China, go back a day, count the Omer with the blessing, then fly back to the US, on the logic that although you missed one’s days count, you made it up by “going back to the same day.” There is just not enough time to do this — unless the United States Air Force has lent you an F-15.

Drats. Not only can I not be in two places at the same time. I cannot even exist on two different dates at the same time.

Back to the drawing board.

P.S. But . . . one consolation: Those Jews fleeing Hitler fasted for only one Yom Kippur. They accepted the authority of R. ha-Levi and didn’t need to worry about his dateline’s division of a landmass, such as Siberia or Australia. They were headed for Japan or Shanghai. And although Yom Kippur in Shanghai is one day earlier than in Japan, they, like me, were not in two places at one time.

Sources: Rabbi Eliezer Zimble, “Time Travel and Sefirat ha-Omer,” Sha’alei Pesach (April, 2019). Rabbi Tzvi Steinberg, bulletin, “Riddle,” Zera Abraham, vo. 16, no. 21. Artscroll Talmud, Rosh ha-Shanah 20b, and appendix, which provides the data and some of the language on R. ha-Levi’s view of the Jewish international dateline.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com

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