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Darkness At Noon

Aryeh Deutsch

Towns north of the Arctic Circle have their own “plague of darkness” every year. As residents watch the final autumn sunset, they bid farewell to daylight and prepare for months of winter darkness, when morning and night are indistinguishable. What does a Shabbos observer do when there is no sunrise or sunset to guide him? As Jews find themselves in every corner of the world, some find themselves grappling with the unusual considerations of seasonal extremes.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

In equatorial countries, such as Brazil or Kenya, daytime and nighttime each last about twelve full hours. As you move further north, you find that daytime hours lengthen gradually over the summer and shorten moderately over the winter.

Until you hit the Arctic Circle.

Here, at the parallel of latitude that circles the globe 66.5º north of the equator, there is one day a year that is completely daylight, during which the sun doesn’t set at all. And in winter, one day is completely dark — not one ray of sunlight appears. The farther north one travels above this parallel, the more days like this there will be. (In the Southern Hemisphere, below the parallel of latitude of 53º south of the equator, there is no human habitation.) At the poles themselves, the most extreme phenomena occur: the sun shines for six continuous months, followed by a long night that only ends half a year later.

So, in Longyearbyen, residents experience four months without sunlight, followed by one long day that lasts for months.


The Jews of the North

While Svalbard doesn’t yet have a Jewish community, the Jews in the northern Scandinavian countries of Norway, Finland, and Sweden, and in Russia at St. Petersburg, grapple with the seasonal extremes of white nights and dark days.

“The earliest Shabbos in Oslo starts at 2:45 p.m. and ends at 4:30,” says Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm, director of Lubavitch of Norway. “That’s still relatively bearable. But in summer, there are about seven weeks when there isn’t any tzeis hakochavim, no appearance of three stars indicating nightfall. Only the sunset gives some indication of the end of the continual daytime. In such a case, as several rabbanim I consulted with have determined, the end of Shabbos should be reckoned as midnight.”

But at these extreme latitudes, while midnight is reckoned as the time of nightfall, it is also simultaneously the time of amud hashachar, dawn. Both take place at the same moment. Starting from midnight, it’s already a new day.

“The latest time Shabbos ends here is 1:40 a.m.,” Rabbi Wilhelm reports. In such a case, many rabbanim rule that Havdalah can be made, l’chatchilah, on Sunday morning. But Rabbi Wilhelm says, “I made myself a custom to make Havdalah specifically when Shabbos ends, even long after midnight, so that my children will not forget what Havdalah is. That is, they’ll wake up on Sunday morning and instead of their usual morning cocoa, they’ll start their day with a cup of grape juice from Havdalah. But they’ll always know that Abba made Havdalah late at night, at the time determined by halachah. It’s a chinuch issue.”

He then goes into a complex discussion regarding the blessing of me’orei ha’eish when dawn on Sunday coincides with the end of Shabbos, in which case the blessing isn’t recited over the flame.

Rabbi Binyamin Wolf of Helsinki talks about how his kehillah copes with the challenges of the sun, although he admits it’s not as severe as that of his colleague further west. He can end Shabbos twenty minutes earlier.

Nevertheless, around the summer solstice, Helsinki’s vasikin daveners can start Shemoneh Esrei at 3:53 a.m. — though it’s hard to know whether to call that very early or very late. Having to daven Maariv after tzeis hakochavim at 1:21 a.m. doesn’t leave them much time to sleep before amud hashachar — which the local calendar marks as 1:21 a.m., the same moment as tzeis hakochavim.


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