As the plane touched down in Dallas I realized with some delight that I had arrived before I had departed. I was on my way from Japan to Brazil via Dallas and had left Narita airport in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon at 4:50 pm and arrived in Dallas on Thursday at 3.15 pm. The flight took 13½ hours but the time difference was 15 hours.
I had encountered the date line as a central theme in Umberto Eco’s book The Island of the Day Before, in which the main character finds himself on a becalmed ship, with an island close at hand on the other side of the International Date Line. Unable to swim, he indulges in increasingly confused speculation about the physical, metaphysical and religious importance of the date line.
My crossing of the date line was generating religious confusions of my own. Which prayers should I recite tonight and tomorrow morning – those for a weekday like any other Thursday-Friday, or the Sabbath prayers for Friday-Saturday, since I already said the prayers for Thursday while still in Asia?
My first journey across the date line was a few years earlier during a business trip from Israel to Japan. At that time there were no direct flights to the Far East, so my trip took me via Copenhagen to Tokyo over the North Pole. The SAS computerized map showing the flight path kept displaying the local time and I noticed the clock kept going back at regular intervals. We were a mere two to three hours away from landing and it was still Sunday afternoon. My travel agent had booked a hotel for Monday night.
Oh, my God, he booked the wrong date! What shall I do when I arrive? I had been told that very few people speak English in Japan, not even the taxi drivers so this wasn’t something to look forward to.
Suddenly, about an hour-and-a-half before landing, the date switched to Monday and I realized we had crossed the date line. The travel agent was right after all and I could relax. The same confusion arises in Jules Verne’s well-known book Around the World in Eighty Days where the main character, Phileas Fogg, mistakenly thinks he had arrived too late to win a wager on his entire fortune. He thought he had missed the deadline of 80 days but in the last minute discovers that he had gone around the world in eastern direction, crossed the date line without realizing it, and gained a day. I was in good company with Phileas.
After arriving back in Hong Kong, my expat home base for the last four years, I started to look into the time-zone and International Date Line (IDL) issues more seriously, with emphasis on the Jewish viewpoint. It was comforting doing this in a familiar time zone without the complications of travel.
The IDL was arbitrarily established by the British Admiralty when Britain was the ruler of the seas, since most practical implications of the IDL concerned travel on the high seas. The IDL roughly follows the 180 degree longitude (opposite the prime meridian in Greenwich, England), only deviating slightly to pass around some territories and island groups in the Pacific Ocean.
I discovered that Jewish religious authorities had only seriously discussed the subject in the last hundred years. I found an interesting book that described six or seven different Jewish views on where, according to halacha – Jewish religious law, the Jewish Date Line (JDL) should fall. The main premise was that Jerusalem was the origin of any time based calculation, not Greenwich. The views ranged from the JDL being 90 degrees east of Jerusalem, falling roughly in China, to views that were similar to the universally accepted one, the IDL. This had some wide-ranging ramifications.
During WWII a large group of Jewish rabbinical students from Eastern Europe, the entire Mir Yeshiva, managed to flee from Nazi persecution and were on their way to Shanghai – one of the few places they could get visas – by way of Japan. They ended up having to spend Yom Kippur in the port city of Kobe, Japan. From there they sent letters to two leading rabbinical authorities, the Chazon Ish and the Israeli Chief Rabbi, asking them on which day they should observe the Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish Fast day of the year. They got two answers with two different dates depending on which location of the JDL the halachic opinion, Jewish religious law, was based. Some of the students suggested they should follow both opinions, resulting in the unsustainable situation that they would have to fast for two days. In the end, the Chief Rabbi of Israel issued a decree that there could only be one halachic authority in such matters (his, of course) and the issue was resolved.
This interpretation led to some complications. For example, in New Zealand and Japan the local Saturday is according to the majority opinion Shabbat, and it should therefore be fully observed with Shabbat prayers and other positive commandments. However, since according to the Chazon Ish, Shabbat falls on the local Sunday, one should not perform any Sabbatical Torah prohibitions on that day. On the other side of the IDL such as in Hawaii, similar restrictions would apply to Friday.
Other complications arise during certain periods of the year, when observant Jews are supposed to recite certain prayers counting each day during the 50-day period between Passover and Shavuot/Pentecost, aka as the Omer period (similar to the Lent in the Catholic calendar). If you fly in the westerly direction, say from Asia to USA, you are going to pass the date-line and miss a day, therefore missing out on performing a positive commandment. Some Orthodox Jews therefore make it a point during this period to travel only in the easterly direction, e.g., from Asia to the US via Europe.
On another business trip, I was going from Hawaii to the Pacific Ocean island of Guam. Accompanying me was the sales manager for Guam who resided on Hawaii. ”I love going to Guam,” he confided in me.
“What’s so special about Guam, except for not having any birds?” I asked. “You live on the most beautiful island already.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Guam is eight hours by plane from Hawaii. Per our company’s travel policy I get to go Business class if the trip is longer than six hours. I leave on Monday morning and arrive eight hours later on Guam. But since we pass the date line, I actually arrive Tuesday evening. On Wednesday-Thursday I work but Friday morning I start going back – no business travel on my weekend is my iron rule. The flight back takes eight hours and I arrive in Honolulu on Thursday evening since this time we pass the dateline in the opposite direction. So I work for two days, get paid for five, fly like a king and have a long weekend. That’s why I l-o-v-e going to Guam!”
Nowadays, every time I travel across the date line or across multiple time zones I am reminded of the role it plays in different cultures. The times zones pass by but my Jewish faith stays with me. Regardless, the feeling of coming back home to your own familiar time zone is always comforting.
Shlomo (Salomon) LIberman is a graduate student of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. His publications have appeared among others in the Blue Lyra Review and The Jewish Daily Forward. He also holds a M.Sc. degree from the Lund Institute of Technology, Sweden and a Top Executives MBA from Tel Aviv University. He is a proofreader, editor and a freelance translator between English, Hebrew and Swedish and member of the freelance translator website ProZ.com.