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Interesting Problem of Jewish Samoa and the International Date Line

December 29, 2011

Samoa is moving its place on the dateline and the solution involves deleting a day, Friday December 30 and go straight to Saturday. But what does this mean for the observance of Shabbat? Well, the answer “depends.”

Our early ancestors must have thought the world was flat, after all we Jews were scattered to its four corners. Yet today we can travel back and forth over the dateline in a single day (or hour). How do Shabbat-observant Jews understand places that might be a day behind or ahead on ones own understanding of when Shabbat happens.

I own a number of iOS apps that use GPS to help users know when Shabbat and holy days will occur. But what rulings do they use to figure it out?

I uncovered several interesting articles addressing the issue. The first is from Rabbi Dovid Heber at Star-K Online, the Kashrut certification site.

Heber talks about the primary rabbinic interpretations of the dateline, each taking a different tack on the placement. Of course, the Jewish world centers around Jerusalem and that’s where the line is based. He points to rulings by The Chazon Ish, Rav Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky, and the Mid-Pacific Poskim, including Rav Dovid Shapiro.

Various countries and islands are on either side of the dateline. By one ruling, conceivably people living on one side of a street might observe Shabbat on different days or avoid Shabbat altogether by crossing the street at the right time (of course, this was discarded by the rabbis).

Here’s a taste of the discussion:

In Hawaii, “Saturday” is Shabbos according to the Chazon Ish and the Mid Pacific Poskim. Therefore, the local Saturday is fully observed as Shabbos. (This is the day the small Orthodox Jewish community in Hawaii observes as Shabbos.) The day known locally as “Friday” is Shabbos according to the Gesher Hachaim, and one should not perform melacha d’oraisa on that day. Cooking for Shabbos should be done on Thursday.

The article offers a number of interesting scenarios for travelers.

The second article is by Margie Pensak at the Yeshiva World News. She analyzes the specific problem of Samoa based on Heber’s article. So, what is the bottom line when it comes to keeping this Shabbos in Samoa?

Rabbi Heber advises, “This Shabbos, with the Dateline change, one would not perform melocho in Samoa for the 49 hours beginning at sunset on Thursday, December 29 and ending when it gets dark on Sunday, January 1st!”

Of course, one might want to follow the local minhag.

Rabbi Heber concluded by saying that the minority opinion of Rabbi Menachem Kasher was that one follows the local population. Although we do not hold like this opinion it is interesting to ponder what Rav Kasher would advise a Jew who is spending this Shabbos in Samoa, where this Friday night does not exist.

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