Last year, one motzei Shabbos, I boarded a non-stop flight from Eretz Yisroel to Los Angeles. I settled down, hoping to catch a nice amount of sleep during the 15 hours ahead of me. Generally, I have a hard time sleeping on flights – what with the uncomfortable seats and a variety of noises. However, there is also another reason – I don’t want to miss davening.
Many people are unaware that when flying to Eretz Yisroel it is quite easy to miss the zman krias shema and zman tefillah. Normally, one has approximately three halachic hours (sha’os z’manios) after sunrise to say krias shema and four to daven Shachris. Due to the fact that planes to Israel fly against the direction of the sun, time goes by much quicker. As a result, on many flights you may have less than two hours from when the sun rises to daven, and even less time to say Shema. (There are two excellent websites that can tell you how many hours after takeoff is time for davening on your flight: myzmanim.com and chaitables.com.)
Therefore, when flying from the United States to Eretz Yisrael I am always nervous that I will oversleep and miss that small window of opportunity. But on this flight, I had nothing to worry about. I had davened Ma’ariv in Kiryat Sefer, and we would be landing in Los Angles at 6:25 a.m., just as it would be getting light. This would give me plenty of time to daven Shachris once I landed.
A Surprise Appearance
As I was tossing and turning in my seat trying to find a comfortable position, I noticed that the sky was beginning to get light. Huh? I thought to myself. We have another ten hours ahead of us – why is it getting light already? As I watched, the horizon continued to brighten, until… up came the sun – shining in full glory upon a brand new day (or so I thought).
I jumped out of my seat and ran to the galley. “Excuse me,” I said to the flight attendant. “Will it get dark again before we land?”
“Definitely! It is always dark before we land,” she answered.
“So why is the sun shining now?” I asked.
“I have no idea – I never saw something like this before,” was her shocking answer.
Now I began to get nervous. This did not happen last time I took a non-stop flight to Los Angeles. “Perhaps we crossed the International Date Line and it is now Shabbos again and I am flying on Shabbos,” I thought. “No, that can’t be – we are not even close to that part of the world,” I realized. “So why is the sun shining now? Is it time to daven Shachris? When the sun sets again will I have to daven Ma’ariv again?
Some fellow passengers saw I was unsettled and asked what was wrong. After explaining my dilemma, they all began to offer solutions. The first fellow whipped out his iPhone and began searching Yalkut Yosef for an answer, to no avail. The flight attendant had her own “halachic” ruling. “If you ask me” (I had not), “I believe you must pray now, as it will get dark in a few hours.”
But the “best” answer came from a man without a kippah on his head. “Listen here. Every day you pray, correct? Today you deserve a vacation! What will happen if you skip one day?”
If I hadn’t been too nervous about Shachris I would have answered: “That sounds interesting. Tell me, I believe you breathe every day, right? I think you deserve a vacation. Today you don’t have to breathe! Nothing will happen if you take off one day!”
I went back to my seat and decided to use the phone in the armrest to call my Rosh Yeshiva. I knew it would cost an arm and a leg, but it was worth it. I did not want to miss even one Shachris! I swiped my credit card but it did not work. After a few attempts, I went to the flight attendant for assistance, but she told me that the phones weren’t working.
The Great Circle Route
In the meantime, the head flight attendant came by. I figured he had more experience so I asked him to explain why the sun was shining. “Oh, that is simple! In order to save time, most planes take the ‘Great Circle Route.’ That means that when we fly to Los Angeles, we fly extremely north, going above the Arctic Circle. Now, in those parts of the globe, during the summer, the sun never sets, and during the winter the sun never rises. Therefore, as soon as we reached the arctic zone the sun ‘rose’ again. In a few hours, when we start going south, it will get dark again.”
After hearing his explanation everything made sense. The reason this had not happened last time I took this flight was that it was winter, when the sun never rises in those zones.
Now I was relieved. I recalled reading in a sefer that, ideally, one should not live in such a place, as it is very difficult to know how to fulfill all time-related mitzvos. If a person does find himself in such a place he should consider himself to be at the point directly south of him where the sun rises and sets normally. Meaning, even though the sun is shining, it is really the middle of the night. Sure enough, a few hours later the sun disappeared and total darkness returned.
When I reached Los Angeles, I discussed my flight with rabbonim and they confirmed that one cannot daven at that time, as it is really nighttime. I was also told that for the same reason, on the way back from Los Angeles, it is common that during the summer months the sky never gets dark. (The same is true regarding many of the flights to TLV through Russia.) Please consult a competent halachic authority regarding when to daven Ma’ariv on such a flight.
Last month (March 31, 2017) we explained that when we left Egypt we became avdei Hashem – slaves of Hashem. A slave must fulfill his master’s command without cutting any corners. That means that we must always make sure to say Shema and daven Shachris before the zman is over. In our day and age, it is very easy to find out when that is. If we do not check before we go to sleep, we have put ourselves in danger of missing the time in the morning.
We must also make sure that when traveling or on vacation that we not miss even one tefillah! Rabbeinu Yonah writes (Sharei Teshuva 1:6), “If a slave tells his master, ‘I will do anything you request besides for one matter,’ he has thrown off of himself the yoke of his master, and will ultimately do whatever he desires!” If a person “takes off” even one time, he has shown that he is not an eved Hashem!
Now, during the days of sefira, we must get ready for Shavuos. On that day, our servitude to Hashem will be strengthened through receiving the Torah, as through it we are told exactly what our Master wants us to do. Accepting upon ourselves to always pray during the correct time is an excellent way to prepare!