From Iceland — Ask An Expert: How Does One Celebrate Shabbat In The Midnight Sun?

Ask An Expert: How Does One Celebrate Shabbat In The Midnight Sun?

Ask An Expert: How Does One Celebrate Shabbat In The Midnight Sun?

Published April 15, 2021

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Timothée Lambrecq

If you celebrate a weekly holiday that’s set to begin at sundown and end at nightfall, how do you do so when there is no nightfall? We sat down with Rabbi Avraham Feldman of Jewish Iceland to ask how one celebrates Shabbat in Iceland in such an extreme place.

Before we start, it’s important to first talk about what Shabbat is in general. Shabbat is a weekly celebration of the creation of the world. It’s a day of rest, a day for family, introspection and a time to focus on what’s important in life. It’s unplugging from the regular world, from social media, from phones, and being present for a day. It’s a personal time to zoom out from the urgent—due dates, bills, problems—to the things that are truly important to you. In fact, Shabbat was what later became the weekend.

But technically, how does it work? Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday and finishes at nightfall on Saturday. The highlight is the Friday night dinner. It starts with a blessing on a cup of wine—the Kiddish—then you have the Challah, the traditional Shabbat bread. Then you have a nice candlelit meal.

So that brings us to Iceland. In winter, sunset can be as early as 15:30 and, in summer, it can be as late as just after midnight. There’s a certain window of time you can start Shabbat early and in June in Iceland, that’s two hours. But that still means that in the summer, you might be sitting down for dinner at 22:00, which is very late, but it turns it into a really epic Shabbat experience. You can watch the midnight sun from the window while you’re having kiddish and the candles are burning. People from abroad get really excited about how different and unique our Shabbat is.

Shabbat is supposed to end on Saturday when it gets dark, but that doesn’t happen for about two months in the Icelandic summer. So the fun fact about the end of Shabbat in Iceland is that it ends on a Sunday morning because there is technically no Saturday night.

Once you hit the Arctic Circle, though, that raises some difficult questions as at certain times of the year, there is no sunrise or sunset. These are very new questions because in the times of the Talmud, when the code of Jewish law was written, there were no Jewish communities in these regions. It’s a different world today than it was because we can travel more than we ever did before. And there are many different opinions on how one should conduct themselves in such a situation—some say use the nearest timezone that works, the nearest timezone with a Jewish community, or even discourage people from visiting these places during the Shabbat. There are many opinions, but in our world today, people want to go on these new adventures, so these questions come up.

In fact, there was a Jewish astronaut who went to space recently who wanted to observe Shabbat up there, so there was a question of how best to do it when each revolution around Earth, which is a day, was 90 minutes! He wanted to have an authentic, real experience—to celebrate Shabbat in a way that was right—in space, and so it became a real question: How does one make that work?

Sometimes, people might wonder why these technicalities are important, but in Judaism, there’s always a balance between the technical and the spirit. They need to come together—like the body and the soul. But for Iceland, from a Jewish law point of view, the case is pretty straightforward. It’s just that it’s very extreme, very unique, and, I think, very cool.

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