Many years ago, I was teaching a class about Shabbat when I asked them what would happen if, for whatever reason, the government decided to skip one of the days or add an extra day in a given week. What would happen to Shabbat that week? Would we observe it in accordance with the calendar, on the day that was called Saturday regardless of how many days it had been since the last Shabbat? Or, would we still observe Shabbat 7 days after the previous Shabbat even if it came out on Friday or Sunday? We had an interesting discussion about the entire issue. Is Shabbat a calendar issue or is it a reflection of the divine commandment to rest every 7 days.
The issue was always theoretical- until today. This morning, as has been widely reported, residents of the island of Samoa are waking up to Saturday after going to sleep on Thursday as the government in principle moved the island to the other side of the international date line in order to have a similar calendar as Asia.
When I read this in the paper this morning, my mind immediately flashed back to that discussion in the classroom many years before. What on earth do we do?
Before I say anything else, I must point out that several authorities have been dealing with this issue not only as a result of Samoa’s decision but in regards to the International Date Line in general which some see as arbitrary. Some authorities have said that there needs to always be a 48 hour observance of Shabbat in areas near the date line acknowledging the uncertainty of the calendar. You can do an internet search on this question and find many different halachic rulings on the issue.
But, assuming one doesn’t want to observe 48 hours of Shabbat every week, the choice between a humanly ordained calendar vs. the divine act of creation is a fascinating and complex choice to have to make. On the one hand, one could say that Shabbat is observed every 7 days and therefore Jewish residents of Samoa would observe Shabbat this week on Sunday (and of course every week thereafter). On the other hand, Jews have observed Shabbat on Saturday for however long it has been since the days of a week have been identified in this way and to do otherwise would cause confusion and the upsetting of long standing tradition.
There is a beautiful midrash in which the angels come to God and say: When is Yom HaDin (Rosh Hashana, the day of judgment)? God says: let’s ask the human beings, when they decide it is Yom HaDin, we’ll be there to judge. This is a reflection of the fact that God gave the calendar to human beings and the holidays are very much subject to human decisions relating to uncertainty about the timing of the New Moon or, in some case, relating to convenience (Yom Kippur can’t fall on Friday etc.) But, this did not reflect a teaching about Shabbat which was considered ordained as part of the cycle of creation from the beginning and, of course, the human beings who would set the calendar in the view of this midrash were prophets or Rabbis, leaders in the Jewish community, not in the secular world.
So, what to do? Should Jews in Samoa go along with the rest of the Samoans and observe Shabbat a day early or should they resign themselves to observing Shabbat on Sunday forever?And what would that do to distinctions between Jews and Christians- or if a day was added to the calendar and Shabbat fall on Friday, between Jews and Moslems- would we welcome that uniformity or would we reject it as a compromise of our well established differences?
My opinion? It would be far better to make a change in one week than to be out of step forever with the Jewish world and our teachings. Were I a Rabbi in Samoa, I would make the decision to observe two days of Shabbat this week: Saturday (which is really erev Shabbat) and Sunday (which is the 7th day) but for the sake of uniformity and tradition, I would argue that the following week, Shabbat should be observed on Saturday and continue to be observed that way from generation to generation. Somehow, I think God would understand. I hope so anyway.