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

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

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?

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).

Rabbi Lipschutz’s ruling aside, there are some different practices that you may find in these northernmost Jewish communities. I consulted with Daniel Reisel, a Jewish friend of mine in Norway to see what his community does. Apparently the Norwegian custom in the summer months (based on a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov that says we are all always walking towards Jerusalem) is to bring in Shabbat at the same time Shabbat begins in Jerusalem. So if candle-lighting time in Jerusalem is at 7:45pm, Shabbat in Oslo begins at 7:45pm local time. Shabbat ends the next day when the sun is at its lowest place on the horizon.

During the times of year when the sun does set, some people bring Shabbat in early. (According to Jewish law, you can’t begin Shabbat as early as you want. Typically, the limit is about 90 minutes before sunset.) Others wait to light candles on time, which may be after midnight. Regardless of when you light candles, Shabbat does not end until the sun has gone down the next day, which can sometimes be very early Sunday morning. Many people do Havdalah upon waking up on Sunday morning.

If you choose to go with Rabbi Lipschutz’s ruling of going by the nearest Jewish community, you may find that that candle-lighting time in that city is not until after midnight on Friday night, and Shabbat doesn’t end until a few hours into Sunday. So, waiting to have your Shabbat dinner until after candle-lighting time may be a challenge (especially if you have small children).

If you can’t or don’t want to wait up in order to begin Shabbat on time, you may want to consider having a festive meal with your family on Friday at dinnertime, and simply lighting candles without saying a blessing. Instead of the Shabbat Kiddush, just say the basic blessing over the wine. You can maintain your traditions, even without staying up until one in the morning. This “Shabbat” dinner is a great time to talk to your family about what it means to observe Shabbat. Do they think of Shabbat as strictly tied to a time period, an event, a ritual, a community, or do they think of Shabbat as something that is more spiritual and can happen anywhere at any time, even if it isn’t Friday, or doesn’t get dark?

Have fun in the land of the midnight sun!

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