Ask the Expert: Shabbat in the Land of the Midnight Sun

How can I tell when Shabbat starts if it never gets dark?

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Question: My family and I are going on vacation to Iceland this summer, and we’re planning an excursion to the far north, where the sun does not set during the summer months. We are hoping to light Shabbat candles and have a Shabbat meal on Friday night, but I just realized I won’t know when Shabbat begins if the sun doesn’t set. What do we do?
–Joni, St. Paul

Answer: You know you’re going on a good vacation when it warrants some rabbinic research, Joni. A trip to see the midnight sun sounds fantastic!

This is one of those questions that would never have occurred to the rabbis who codified most Jewish laws–they didn’t know there were places where the sun doesn’t set for months at a time. So, this conundrum wasn’t addressed by rabbinic authorities until relatively recently.

Rabbi Israel Lipschutz, who lived in Danzig (now known as Gdansk) in Poland in the early 19th century distinguished between places like Copenhagen, where it may never get really dark out at night, but where the sun does actually set every day, and places further north where the sun stays above the horizon for months at a time. He ruled that in places where the sun does set, Shabbat begins when the sun sets, even if it never gets fully dark, and even if sunset is well after midnight. Shabbat ends 25 hours later regardless of whether it gets dark enough to count three stars.

But in places where the sun doesn’t set at all, Rabbi Lipschutz ruled that a traveler should adopt the clock of the place from which he departed. The obvious question, then, is from which he departed when, exactly? From his hometown? From the last village he was in before he entered the all daylight zone?

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In places where this ruling was relevant, it seems that communities had the custom not of holding Shabbat based on each individual’s port of embarkation, but based on the nearest significant Jewish community. At the time the practice was first instituted in the 19th century, that happened to be Hamburg, Germany (one rabbi has suggested that the first community that needed to do this adopted Hamburg time because their rabbi was from Hamburg, and all other communities just followed their lead).

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