- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

LONDON As if weightlessness, cramped conditions and the enormity of the galaxy were not worrying enough, a crew member of the next space shuttle mission is facing an additional problem: How do you observe the Sabbath while in orbit?
Col. Ilan Ramon, who will become the first Israeli to leave Earth's atmosphere as part of the NASA crew on the shuttle Columbia in July, has caused consternation among rabbis by asking how or more precisely, when to mark Judaism's day of rest.
The problem stems from the fact that Jews are required to observe the Sabbath "every seventh day," starting at sunset on Friday evening and ending the following day "when three stars are seen."
They must refrain from any "creative work" on the Sabbath and say three sets of prayers, ideally in a synagogue. Strict Jews mark the beginning of Sabbath by reciting a prayer over wine the Kiddush sanctifying the holy day.
Aboard the space shuttle, however, Col. Ramon will orbit the earth every 90 minutes, with each orbit counting technically as a "day" because from his perspective the sun has risen and set. The stars will be visible to him at all times.
While Col. Ramon is not the first Jew to become an astronaut, the 47-year-old pilot is the first to want to practice his faith in orbit, to the extent that NASA has already agreed to provide him with kosher space meals.
To settle the question of Sabbath observance, however, Col. Ramon has asked his local minister in Florida, Rabbi Zvi Konikov, for guidance. Rabbi Konikov has in turn consulted rabbinical scholars across the world.
"The rabbis I have written to are amazed the question has been asked," said Rabbi Konikov. "It has been a theoretical question for some time, but now, incredibly, we have to apply it to a real-life situation.
"We are told to observe Shabbat every seventh day, but if you are orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes, do you do it every seventh orbit?"
One of the scholars consulted, Rabbi Levy Yitzhak Halperin, has already ruled that the colonel should be relieved of his obligations because he will not be experiencing Earth time.
A British rabbi who has researched the subject disagrees. Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who heads the Maidenhead synagogue, said: "Some rabbis say that because he will be in space, Earth rules don't apply. But my view is that, as you can't exist in space without re-creating Earth like conditions using oxygen, for example you should observe the same routine as you would on Earth."
Rabbi Romain did, however, offer a different way out of Col. Ramon's difficulty. "His fellow crew members are unlikely to appreciate him taking time off during what is likely to be a very intense mission, especially as it might endanger their lives," the rabbi said. "There is a Jewish principle which says that saving life takes precedent over all religious rituals, so on those grounds he could be relieved of his obligations."
Col. Ramon says that he is not being particularly religious, but believes that, as Israel's first astronaut, he has a higher duty to consider. "I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis," he said.
The issue of the kosher food, which has to conform to strict Jewish dietary and religious laws, has been more easily resolved because a company in Illinois already produces it in self-heating, sealed pouches for the army.
The colonel, born in Tel Aviv and formerly the head of weapons-system development acquisition for the Israeli air force, will work as a payload specialist on the shuttle.
Other Jewish astronauts include David Wolf, who was on the shuttle Endeavour, and Judith Resnick, who died in the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986. No one has asked for kosher food before.


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