Where to Draw the Line[1]

Our God and God of our fathers,
reign thou in thy glory over the whole world,
and be exalted above all the earth in thine honour,
and shine forth in the splendour and excellence of thy might
upon all the inhabitants of thy world...

These stirring phrases from the New Years Musaf service illustrate aptly the universalistic tone of the High Holy Day season that sets it apart from all other periods in the Jewish calendar.

The resolve of Jews to observe their traditions in lands and climes far from Jerusalem presents some unique and intriguing challenges to the custodians of Jewish law.

This article will explore one such challenge that is of especial concern to Jews in Australia and the Orient.

Although the dates for all the Jewish holidays can now be conveniently ascertained, even years in advance, by consulting a calendar, this was not the case during Talmudic times.

According to the astronomical cycles, the appearance of the new moon could take place either twenty-nine or thirty days after the commencement of the preceding month. The precise date had to be determined on each occasion by a properly constituted court in Jerusalem, on the basis of testimony from witnesses who had actually observed the relevant astronomical phenomena. Only then could the start of the new month be officially declared. Messengers would then be dispatched to publicize that decision, and until the arrival of those messengers, distant Jewish communities could not be certain exactly when to observe any festivals that might occur during the month.

Although a perpetual computed calendar was introduced in the fourth century, traditional Jews outside the Holy Land have continued to add an extra day to most festivals, a vestige of those earlier times when the messengers would not have reached their localities in time to inform them of the correct date.

Rosh Hashanah remains the only festival for which the extra day is observed even in Israel. As the only holiday that falls on the first day of the month, the earliest possible date had to be observed in all years, as a precaution lest it be discovered at some point later in the day that the holiday had commenced at the preceding sundown, and that the day had become retroactively subject to Yom Tov restrictions.

The Talmud in the tractate Rosh Hashanah cites an obscure regulation concerning the determination of the new month; to the effect that it could be declared only if the first sighting of the new moon appeared before noon on the twenty-ninth day of the month. Even the great Babylonian sage Samuel (who was also renowned as an astronomer) was at a loss to explain this cryptic tradition.

Some of our medieval sages took up the challenge of explaining the Talmudic passage based on the advanced scientific knowledge of their age. The noted Spanish poet and philosopher Rabbi Judah Hallevi devoted a discussion to this topic in his famous theological treatise, the Kuzari.

Rabbi Judah begins from the premise that the court may decree a New Moon only if the day will last a full twenty-four hours. When the Talmud determines noon as the cut-off time, it is stating that until that hour it will be possible for somebody somewhere to the west of Jerusalem to fit in a full day of Rosh Hodesh.

Now let us try a few simple calculations. Keep in mind, that according to Jewish law the day begins with nightfall on the previous day. Hence, assuming that nightfall comes at approximately 6 p.m., eighteen hours will have elapsed by the noon deadline in Jerusalem itself.

The choice of noon as the determining point presupposes that there is a place in the world where the day of Rosh Hodesh (or, to be precise, its preceding evening) had not yet commenced when it was noon in Jerusalem. The farthest westward point at which this would be true would thus, according to the Talmud, be eighteen hours west of Jerusalem, which is the equivalent of being six hours to the east of it. At this point, we will have entered a new day.

Reprinted from Ha'Atid, a publication of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation

While conventional wisdom regarded such a location at the farthest extreme of Asia as the "land of the rising sun," whose clocks ran six hours earlier than Jerusalem, Rabbi Judah insisted that all sabbaths since the Creation had been set to commence in the Holy Land itself, and that the time in China is not six hours earlier than in Israel, but eighteen hours later:

...A place must exist which is at the same time extreme west and the beginning of east. This is, for the Land of Israel, the beginning of the inhabited world, not only from the point of view of the Torah, but also from that of natural science. For it would be impossible for the days of the week to have the same names all over the world unless we fix one place which marks the beginning, and another one not far off...that one should be east absolute, and the other west absolute.

What Rabbi Judah has established through this complex process of reasoning is the delineation of the Jewish version of the International Date Line! As noted, the location that is thereby designated is at a longitude six hours (or ninety degrees) east of Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem is situated at 35º longitude, this would place the halakhic Date Line at 125º.

Of course, throughout much of Jewish history these calculations were of no practical relevance. The line derived thereby runs through the farthest reaches of Siberia, China and Japan, lands in which few self-respecting Jews were likely to have wandered.

With the modern Age of Discovery, this situation changed drastically. Not only did Jewish feet come to tread on the soils of Japan and Australia, but the world at large had established its own International Date Line at a conveniently uninhabited region in the Pacific Ocean, opposite the Greenwich median at 180º longitude. In theory, and Jews who might find themselves dispersed to those far-off domains between the two lines should be following a different calendar from their gentile neighbours.

In spite of the gradual blossoming of Jewish life in the Far East, the issue did not come up for serious discussion until 1941.

The event that sparked the debate was the flight of several hundred Eastern European yeshivah students, fleeing the reign of Nazi terror, to the Far East. They were among several thousand desperate Jews whose lives were spared thanks to the heroism of Chiune Sugihara, the righteous Japanese consul in Kovno who disregarded the orders of his government, and fought the Soviet insistence on the immediate closure of his consulate, sot that he might issue as many visas as he physically could before the gates were fatally closed.

Following their arduous adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the meticulously observant students, mostly from the renowned Yeshivah of Mir, reached the Japanese town of Kobe prior to being settled in Shanghai.

Kobe was situated between the Jewish and International Date Lines. In order to avoid transgressing the sabbath, the yeshivah students initially kept it for two days each week, but eventually decided to resolve their doubts by telegraphing some of the foremost rabbinical authorities in Europe and Palestine.

The most prominent of the respondents was Rabbi Abraham Karelitz, the celebrated "Hazon Ish," who was firm in his commitment to Rabbi Judah Hallevi's version of the Date Line, insisting that the students observe their sabbath on the day that the rest of the Japanese regarded as Sunday.

The seriousness with which these students regarded the matter became apparent later in `1941, when a group of them were given an opportunity to sail from Shanghai to Canada. Upon realizing that their ship would be crossing through the doubtful zone on Yom Kippur, requiring them to fast for two consecutive days, they decided to forego this rare chance at freedom. Before they could find another ship, the intensification of the war halted all traffic, and they remained precariously stranded in China until 1946.

As you may already have realized, the 125º longitude cuts right through the deserts of Western Australia, putting most of the continent on the "wrong" side of the halakhic date line. It would indeed follow from this that Australian Jews should always be one day out of sync from the rest of their society, keeping their Shabbat on Sunday.

In truth, there are some other halakhic opinions on the matter.

The most convenient of these is based on the argument from silence: The bulk of medieval rabbinic opinion simply ignores the issue altogether, and should therefore be counted as an overwhelming indication that the halakhah has no fixed doctrine about the placement of the Date Line. Individual communities are should consequently be free to choose their own. This view found almost no support among the leading interpreters of Jewish religious law.

The Hazon Ish himself acknowledged, as had Rabbi Judah Hallevi, that the designated meridian need not be followed so precisely as to cut off small chunks of territory from the larger land masses. Accordingly, once we have established that the bulk of Asia lies to the east of the halakhic date line, those few extremities of Siberia or China that happen to cross the line can safely be treated as part of the larger land mass.

Unfortunately, this calculation would only serve to join the western third of Australia along with the rest of the country into the "wrong" side of the International Date Line.

A more effective halakhic solution is the alternative date line that has been posited by some rabbinic scholars at 145º west, which places Australia safely to its west. The defenders of this view point out that their line falls precisely half-way around the world from Jerusalem.

Though this option might elicit sighs of relief form the Jews of Sydney, Melbourne, or even Tokyo, it offers little solace to their unfortunate coreligionists in Hawaii, who have thereby been cut off from the familiar international calendar.

The stalwart Australian diaspora might yet have to ponder the possibilities of a two-day fast on Tom Kippur, or a third day of Rosh Hashanah.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca