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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 06:43 GMT
Celebrating the Sabbath - in space
Colonel Ilan Ramon
Ilan Ramon is set to become Israel's first astronaut

When Israel's national unity government collapsed on 4 November, officials began a mad scramble to prepare the nation for new elections in January.

Political parties have been organising primaries and drafting candidates for their lists in record time.

One logistical headache for some, however, is how to vote from space.

Israel's Science Ministry has said it is investigating ways to allow Colonel Ilan Ramon, the country's first astronaut, to cast his ballot aboard the space shuttle Columbia, scheduled to lift off on 16 January 2003.

Israel's first space traveller faces other difficulties: How does a Jew observe the Sabbath in space?

Space shuttle Columbia
While in space Colonel Ramon intends to observe the Sabbath

More precisely, if he or she is in a low-lying orbit where the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes, what constitutes the Biblical "seventh day of rest?"

Colonel Ramon is not particularly religious on the ground, but believes it is important to mark the Sabbath in space.

"My mother is a Holocaust survivor who was in Auschwitz and my father fought for the independence of Israel not so long ago," says the 48-year-old veteran fighter pilot from the Israel Air Force.

"I was born in Israel and I'm kind of the proof for my parents and their generation that whatever we've been fighting for in the last century is becoming true.

"I feel I'm representing the whole Jewish people," adds Colonel Ramon, who will be Columbia's payload specialist on its 16-day mission designed to study how the human body adapts to the zero gravity of space.

So how will Colonel Ramon celebrate the Sabbath?

"Basically, we've decided that he'll follow Cape Canaveral time," says Rabbi Zvi Konikov, a Florida-based orthodox rabbi to whom Colonel Ramon posed the question.

Kosher meals

Rabbi Konikov's ruling is based on a principle in Jewish law that if one lives in a remote place, he or she should celebrate the Sabbath according to the times of the nearest big city with a sizeable Jewish community.

I was surprised and overwhelmed by the effort Nasa made to accommodate my request

Colonel Ilan Ramon, astronaut

For example, Jews in Alaska celebrate the day according to Seattle time.

The most notable features of the Jewish Sabbath include the lighting of candles and the recitation of a blessing over wine - called Kiddush - which inaugurate the Day of Rest.

Strictly religious Jews also refrain from all forms of creative labour, such as using electricity and writing.

Since most prohibitions are not practical aboard a manned spacecraft - especially lighting a fire which could be downright dangerous - Colonel Ramon has chosen the Kiddush blessing as his way of celebrating the Sabbath.

"I was surprised and overwhelmed by the effort Nasa made to accommodate my request," says Colonel Ramon, who has also managed to get kosher meals provided during the mission.

"I'm impressed by Colonel Ramon," says Rabbi Zonikov, who will be attending the launch as a guest of the astronaut.

"Here is a successful, colourful scientist and Air Force pilot and what's on his mind - the Sabbath! That's incredible. In addition to fulfilling his mission for Nasa, it's clear Ilan also wants to represent Israel and the Jewish people with pride."

Remembering the Holocaust

Among the nine personal items Nasa will let Colonel Ramon take with him into space will be a small pencil drawing made over 60 years ago by a 14-year-old boy who was killed in Auschwitz.
Drawing by Petr Ginz
Ramon will take a 60-year-old picture drawn by a boy killed in Auschwitz

Petr Ginz's "Moon Landscape" is an emotional work created by the Czech boy during his imprisonment in the Theresienstadt ghetto.

It portrays the earth from a safe distance - revealing the young man's dream to escape his earthly ghetto walls.

Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust museum, chose the painting at the request of Colonel Ramon, who asked for a Holocaust-related item to be taken with him.

While his mother survived the Nazi horrors, Ramon's grandfather and many extended relatives perished in the death camps.

An official at Yad Vashem says: "'Moon Landscape' connects the dream of one Jewish boy who is a symbol of the talent lost in the Holocaust to the journey of a Jewish astronaut, who is a symbol of our national revival."

See also:

13 May 02 | Science/Nature
25 Jun 02 | Americas
19 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
07 Nov 01 | Americas
03 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
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