Lighting Candles Where the Sun Doesn't Set
Fairbanks, Alaska, 1994 - On a summer afternoon, I received a call from a woman who spoke with an Eastern European accent. She identified herself as Yehudit Adler. She, her husband Moishe, and their two grown sons were vacationing in Alaska's grand Denali Park and would be stopping over in Fairbanks on Thursday night. Could I help her find accommodations? No problem. Her next question, however, made me laugh. Where could they purchase kosher challah for Shabbat? Absolutely nowhere. But, I told her, I plan to bake challahs Thursday, and I always made extra.
How exciting to have a religious family visit us! My husband Chayim and I were the only Torah-observant family in the city, and I felt isolated. I also felt homesick for Eretz Yisrael and the Holy City of Tzfat where we had been married the previous winter. We promised to return as soon as business matters in Alaska were wrapped up. I made my challas with extra care that Thursday.
The challas were still in the oven when Yehudit and her family arrived. We sat in our living room and got to know one another a little while waiting. I asked them why they were taking this big trip to Alaska. It was Moishe's dream to visit that part of the world, and especially to experience some time in a place where the sun does not set. Fairbanks is just below the Arctic Circle. The sun does set here, but that fact is barely noticeable in the summertime, because it doesn't get dark. At the time of the summer solstice around June 21, the sun sets around 12:54 a.m., and rises again about two hours later at 2:56 a.m. Dusk and dawn overlap, leaving it light outside 24 hours a day! Normal candle lighting time then would be 12:36 am Friday night, and, during most of the summer, havdallah couldn't be done before 2:00 am.
Yehudit and her family were headed far north of Fairbanks, to a place called Barrow, Alaska. It's on the Arctic Ocean, near Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the U.S. (Students of geography will be interested to know that Barrow's center is located at an awesome 71° 17' North and 156° 46' West. The sun doesn't set there from mid-May through July. Conversely, during winter months, the sun does not rise.)
We asked them, "How do you know when to light Shabbat candles if there is no sunset?" Shaya, one of the Adler sons, had consulted Lakewood's Rav Yitzchok Abadi, who referred him to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in Yerushalayim. He succeeded in reaching Rav Auerbach's son-in-law, Rav Z. N. Goldberg, who said that Shabbat would begin and end when the sun reached the lowest point in its dip. Having lived a dozen years in Fairbanks at that time and embarked on the path of a baal tshuva with much help from Rabbi Yossi Greenberg in Anchorage, Alaska, my husband had already predicted this answer.
To estimate when the sun would be at its lowest point in Barrow, my husband did some rough calculations based on his reading of Barrow's location on the map, and came up with 2:33 a.m. As it turned out, the two sons had visited Rabbi Mordechai Premock, author of well-known zmanim charts just before embarking on the trip, and after feeding what they had as Barrow's coordinates into his computer, had come up with 2:32 a.m. for that date, July 8, 1994-only a minute off!
Based on that, local midnight (Chatzot Lailah), the time when the sun was at its lowest point in the sky would be 2:32 a.m. Since the sun never set, that moment was also used simultaneously as sunset, time when the stars are out, dawn, and sunrise. Plag Hamincha is the earliest time to bring in Shabbat. Plag Hamincha is 1* variable hours before sunset. Without the sun ever setting, each variable hour was 24 hours divided by 12 equal parts, or 2 hours long, so earliest candle lighting was 2* hours before local midnight, or 12:02 a.m. late Friday night!
Based on that also, latest Shma was 8:32 a.m., and havdallah could not be recited before 2:33 a.m. early Sunday morning! The Adler sons also brought with them something in Hebrew to learn that Shabbat-a commentary which addressed how to determine when Shabbat will occur in a place where the sun does not set! (It was Tiferet Yisrael at the end of the first Perek of Brachot in the set of the Mishna containing the commentary of Rabbi Yisroel Lifshitz, known as the "Yuchin UBoaz" Mishnayot.) Who could imagine ever being faced with such a situation, and that it would be addressed by a commentary on the Mishna?
This family's enthusiasm for their special Shabbat on the Arctic Ocean rubbed off on us. My husband Chayim turned to me and asked, "Simcha Layah, how would you like to spend this Shabbat in Barrow?"
"Sure," I replied without hesitation as I was placing the challas on a wire rack to cool. Was he serious?
Our guests were tired from their travels and anxious to get to their hotel room to rest up for the next day's adventure. I wrapped up their slightly cooled challahs. They were very appreciative, we wished each other a good Shabbos, and they were on their way.
I asked my husband whether he was serious about our spending Shabbat with them in Barrow. He said that he would love to go, but didn't think I really wanted to. I told him I would jump at the chance to spend Shabbat with a religious family.
The next morning, Erev Shabbat, Chayim went to work as usual. He phoned me mid-morning, sounding full of excitement. On a bulletin board near his office, he had noticed a sign from a colleague offering two discounted airline tickets anywhere in Alaska! He made arrangements to pick up the tickets that afternoon, and reserved seats for us on a plane departing that evening after work. Divine Providence at work here!
Packing was not a simple affair. We needed a cooler packed with food, a hot water urn, our white Shabbat tablecloth, challah board and cover, and our travel brass candlesticks given to us by friends in Israel.
Sometime that Friday evening, our friends, now well-settled in their hotel in Barrow, the Top of the World Hotel, phoned us, asking when were we coming? We urged them not to worry. We still had plenty of time to get to our flight, which would take about 2* hours, and make it to the hotel and settle in long before our calculated earliest candle lighting time of 12:02 midnight.
Our flight was not direct-we had about an hour layover in Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska's North Slope. Not much there but oil fields. While hanging out at the small airport, we noticed a native Alaskan man and woman observing us with interest. Finally, the man approached my husband and asked him, "Are you Jewish?"
When Chayim answered yes, the man said, "We're Eskimo!" The man had a big smile on his face and pride in his voice after having discovered that we all had something in common-being different. Chayim certainly stood out as the only man wearing a black hat and tzitzit.
It was after 10:00 p.m., when our plane finally landed in Barrow. The place could have been called Barren, for there were no trees. This was the tundra, where trees cannot grow. There was short grass and dirt. It felt cool-we wore light jackets-but there was no snow left on the ground. Only the frigid Arctic Ocean was coated with huge hunks of ice. As our plane landed, I was surprised to see dozens of satellite dishes connecting Barrow with the rest of the world.
It didn't take us long to find a taxi to bring us to our hotel. It was a very unusual taxi. A lovely and eccentric petite blond woman in a mink coat drove us in her old black limousine! Originally from New York, she settled in Barrow many years earlier, worked as a tour guide, and claimed to be very happy there.
The first thing we noticed upon entering the hotel was a large sign, which prohibited bringing any kind of alcoholic beverage into the hotel. Chayim and I looked at each other and decided to smuggle in our bottle of sweet Kiddush wine.
While we were registering for our room, Yehudit met us at the hotel desk. She was concerned because it was getting late. Our room was just down the hall from theirs. We got everything ready. There was enough room for a table, chairs and another small table for the hot water urn. We still had almost two hours until candle lighting. Chayim was anxious to go out exploring, but I knew it would be a very late night, and it was important to get a little rest beforehand, as I was near the end of my first pregnancy.
From our room we had a clear view of the Arctic Ocean. It appeared so still and quiet-and of course cold! I had brought binoculars and looked for polar bears on the clusters of floating ice, but couldn't see anything moving. If there were polar bears, they blended in nicely with the white ice. After11:00 at night, the sun was still very high in the sky. We closed the heavy curtains that darkened the room. We sure didn't need any Shabbos clocks for lights!
At close to midnight we dressed in our fine Shabbat clothes. We all gathered for candle lighting. How wonderful to be joined with this special family on top of the world for Shabbat. We were all connected. I believe we all felt the Shechinah more powerfully than usual on this Shabbat night-while the sun was still very high in the sky!
Timeline Glossary Back to the Master List
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: audavstern("at" symbol)erols.com .
Last updated: 9 March 2003