Space Travel

Sponsored by Solly and Debbie Btesh in merit of their beloved parents, Farida bat Yitzchak and Meir Ben Baruch. May their merit protect us all.

Parsha Halacha – Parshat Vayigash

For a printable version click here
In the Torah portion of VaYigash, we read that Yosef gave his brothers instructions as to how to travel safely back to the land of Canaan. He said to them “Al Tirgezu Baderech (Don’t get angry on the way).”[1] This has been interpreted by the commentaries in many ways:
  • Do not quarrel on the way (about who was at fault in the sale of Yosef).[2]
    • Of course, Yosef did not want them to quarrel about this matter at home either, but since traveling is a time of danger, it might bring additional judgment (and thus harm) upon them if they quarreled.
  • Do not take large strides while traveling as this can be harmful to one’s health.[3]
  • Do not travel after sunset due to the dangers of nighttime travel.[4]
    • Although these two directives apply to any journey, Yosef was concerned that in their haste to inform Yaakov of his being alive, they might forget these rules and travel too quickly. He therefore instructed them not to do so.
  • Do not engage in a (intricate) halachic discussion as this may cause you to lose your way.[5]
    • This, too, is true of any journey one takes. But, since Yosef wanted Yaakov to find out about his being alive and wanted to be reunited with him as soon as possible, he wanted to make sure that they would not delay this by getting lost.[6]
    • Another reason that Yosef instructed them not to have intricate Halachic discussions when traveling is that it is difficult to concentrate while traveling, and they may therefore not reach the correct understanding of the halacha.[7]
  • Do not refrain from studying (straightforward aspects of) Torah while traveling as this study will provide Divine protection.[8]
  • Do not be afraid of bandits while traveling. Since Yosef’s reputation was well known in all the surrounding territories, no one would dare assault a group that was associated with him.[9]
  • Do not anger other people while traveling by walking through their fields. Although you may think that you may do so because you are the brother of the acting ruler of the land, this is not proper.[10]
Since this parsha discusses the journeys of the tribes and the entire family of Yaakov, I am going to discuss a different form of travel – space travel. I will try to clarify some of the various Halachic and philosophical issues that relate to space travel.
Against the Flat Earth Theory
In addition to the known fact that the earth is round, there are also early sources in the Torah that state this. The Jerusalem Talmud[11] says that Alexander the Great once ascended to heaven on an eagle and, seeing the earth from a great distance, he discovered that it had the shape of a ball. From then on, when making statues of their idols, the pagans would often make an idol holding a ball as if to say that their gods control the world (so to speak). The Midrash, too, says[12] that the world is like a ball that is thrown from hand to hand. The Zohar, too, says this.[13]
Are the Planets and Stars Sentient Beings?
The Rambam writes,[14] “All the stars and spheres possess a soul, knowledge, and intellect. They are alive and stand in recognition of the One who spoke and brought the world into being.
According to their size and level, each one praises and glorifies the Creator as the angels do. Just as they are aware of the Holy One, blessed be He, they are also aware of themselves and of the angels which surpass them. The knowledge of the stars and the spheres is less than the knowledge of the angels but greater than that of men.”[15]
There are, however, several early authorities who disagree with the Rambam’s perspective on the consciousness of the stars and planets.
  • Rav Sa’adiah Gaon writes[16] that the heavens cannot speak and that the verse, “The heavens speak about the greatness of G-d” is not to be taken literally. This implies that he is of the opinion that the heavenly bodies are not sentient beings.
  • The Maharal writes,[17] “Our sages, masters of the truth, say the opposite of this. Yehoshua was able to stop the sun because the sun is physical whereas Yehoshua, who had the wisdom of the Torah, was able to rule over it.”
Orbiting the Moon
On December 24, 1968, four NASA astronauts orbited the moon for the first time in history. The Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about this event at the Farbrengen that he held on the following Shabbat (Sichot Kodesh 5729, Parshat VaYigash).
  • Jumping to the Moon
The Rebbe said that he received a letter from someone who was very bothered since it seemed that human beings would be able to reach the moon and, yet we say in our prayers (during the blessing of the new moon) that “I am unable to touch you (i.e., the moon).” The writer of the letter even suggested that the text of that prayer be amended to reflect the new reality. He also added that if one prayer was incorrect, perhaps there were issues with other prayers as well (G-d forbid).
The Rebbe explained that the question is a non-sequitur as when reading the full text of the prayer, one realizes that it is not a question at all. The prayer says, “Just as I jump opposite you, and I cannot reach/touch you, so, too, may none of my enemies be able to reach and harm me.” This statement is still true. Despite all the advances of NASA, when a Jew jumps three times while blessing the new moon, he is certainly unable to reach the moon.
  • Lessons from the Space Journey
In the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov who said that one should take a lesson in serving G-d from everything that one sees, the Rebbe taught two lessons that can be gleaned from the space launch.
  • Lashes for a Big Mac
The Rebbe brought up a question that had been posed in a radio show on the previous day. Rabbi Zalman Posner (ob”m), then a Shaliach in Nashville, Tennessee, had been asked the following question by the host of the radio show. How can it be that, according to the Torah, if a person eats non-kosher meat, the court would give him 39 lashes.[18] After all, the person is not bothering anyone, he is making a private choice to eat something non-kosher, so why should he deserve such a severe punishment? This is the opposite of freedom and democracy.[19]
The Rebbe explained that every human being’s actions affect not just their own lives but the lives of their family, their community, their country and, indeed, the entire world. As the Mishnah[20] says, “A person is obligated to say that the entire world was created for me.” The person has the option to eat a kosher steak which will not damage anyone or to eat a non-kosher steak which will endanger his family, city, country and the entire world. If he is warned about the severity of his actions and he goes ahead and does it anyway, the question is not why he deserves 39 lashes but why he gets only 39 lashes?
The Rebbe said that a lesson in this regard can be learned from the space mission. Three adult men were trained for this mission. They were told exactly what and when they should eat, when they should sleep and what shoes they should wear. If even only one of them decides he wants to deviate from these orders, he is endangering himself, his crewmates, the future missions and the billion dollars that was invested in the project. This is true even though he doesn’t understand exactly why the orders are important though he received the instructions from a 60-year-old researcher who does know the reasons for it.
Certainly, if the astronaut says that it’s his own private matter and no one can tell him what to do, this is demonstrably false as his actions will have a direct catastrophic effect on many people.
The same is true of the observance of Torah and Mitzvot. One’s actions are not private but have a far-reaching, global effect.
  • Booster Rockets
The Rebbe learned another lesson from the concept of booster rockets. Originally, when people wanted to build spaceships that would reach outer space, they had a problem. They realized that the amount of fuel needed to propel a spaceship to outer space would need a huge container to hold that fuel and that they would then need more fuel for that container and so on. So, someone came up with the idea of a booster rocket which drops off of the body of the rocket when the fuel is burned up, thus allowing the rocket to continue its journey without this dead weight. This can be repeated with smaller and smaller booster rockets until the ship reaches outer space where it can travel without the constraints of gravity.
The Rebbe explained that the fuel can be compared to the Yetzer Hara (the evil impulse). The challenges and tests presented to us by our evil inclination are what enable us to reach spiritual heights that would otherwise be unattainable. Yet we should not remain burdened with those same challenges forever. Rather we should overcome those challenges, use them to rise to greater heights and then discard those negative urges and desires completely. We will then have to deal with other (more refined) urges and desires which we must overcome and grow from. We can then discard those challenges and move on once again.
Alien Beings
Shortly after the first moon landing, the Rebbe discussed the question of whether or not there is life on other planets.[21]
The Rebbe prefaced this by saying that the answer to this question is not really relevant to the observance of Torah and mitzvot. Nevertheless, he will address it in case someone asks a Lubavitcher Chossid this question and if the chossid knows the answer he may be able to persuade the questioner to put on Tefillin or keep Shabbat…
The Rebbe cited the verse in the song of Devorah which says, “Curse you Meroz… curse your inhabitants because they came not to the aid of the L-rd.”[22] According to one opinion in the Talmud,[23] Meroz is a kochav/star (the word kochav in Hebrew can also refer to heavenly bodies like planets). Thus, according to this opinion, the verse is referring to the inhabitants of a star or planet called Meroz who did not come to the aid of Devorah in her battle with the Canaanites.
The Rebbe continued and said that it is unlikely that these beings have free choice as we do, since they would then need G-dly instruction as to how to live. And there is only one Torah which was given to us and is relevant for our world.
May we merit to appreciate all of the wonders of G-d’s creation!

[1] Gen. 45:28
[2] Rashi, who says that this is the simple meaning of the verse
[3] Rashi, based on Ta’anit 10b. See Brachot 43b that taking large strides can diminish one’s eyesight but that it can be restored when saying kiddush on Friday nights. (A large stride is defined as longer than one ammah/ cubit (Rashi D.H. Mahu on Shabbat, 113b).) Rashi says that it is restored by drinking the Kiddush wine on Friday night. Tosfot says it is restored by placing some of the Kiddush wine on one’s eyelids. The Maharil (cited in the Rama, O.C. 271:10) says that it is referring to gazing at the Shabbat candles when saying Kiddush.
The Talmud (Brachot, ibid) instructs a Torah scholar to refrain from taking large strides. Perhaps an ordinary person need not refrain from this as his eyesight will be restored on Friday night in any case. But a Torah scholar needs to have good eyesight at all times in order to answer Halachic questions that necessitate good vision (e.g. questions about colors of blood in reference to a Niddah, questions whether letters of a Sefer Torah are shaped correctly and many more). See Ben Yehoyadah
[4] Rashi based on Ta’anit, ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Levush Ha’Orah on Rashi
[7] Kli Yakar
[8] Bereishit Rabbah, 92:4
[9] Ramban, Rabbeinu Bachaye, Rashbam and Da’at Zekeinim MiBa’alei HaTosfot
[10] Ba’al HaTurim
[11] Avodah Zara 3:1 cited in Tosfot D.H. KiKadur Avodah Zarah, 41a, Likutei Sichot vol. 3, page 998
The Talmud goes on to say that the seas are like a ka’arah (bowl or plate). I’m not sure how to interpret this.
[12] Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:14
[13] Vol. 3 (Parshat Vayikra), page 10a
[14] Laws of Yesodei HaTorah, 3:9
[15] See Darkei Moshe by Rav Tzvi Hirsh Chiyut, page 3 who brings several proofs to the Rambam’s viewpoint.
[16] Emunot VeDe’ot, Mamar 2
[17] Gevurot Hashem, second introduction (page 15 in the standard print).
[18] The radio host mistakenly said that it would be 38 lashes.
[19] I heard the background to this sicha from Rabbi Posner himself. Rabbi Posner was in New York for a Pegisha that weekend. He was invited to participate in a local radio show to answer questions from people who might call in to the show. When this question was asked, Rabbi Posner did not have an answer ready as he had never been asked the question before. So he said that it was actually very rare for a person to get lashes as it could only happen if he was warned by two kosher witnesses who then watched him eat the non-kosher meat. Even then he would only get lashes if he ate it within several seconds of the warning. Since it was so rare for the punishment to ever be meted out, it should be considered a deterrent rather than an actual punishment. In the rare case where the sinner actually ate it immediately in the presence of the witnesses, he was probably doing it just for spite and therefore deserved the lashes.
The radio host was not satisfied with the answer and he kept on repeating the question.
It seems that the Rebbe had been listening to that radio show as he addressed it during the farbrengen the very next day. Rabbi Posner related that when the Rebbe started talking about it, he wanted to disappear into the floor. But he was gratified when the Rebbe said that there was truth to the answer he had given.
The Rebbe then went ahead and gave the above answer which addresses the issue in a more fundamental way.
[20] Sanhedrin 37a
[21] Sicha of Parshat Devarim, 5729
[22] Judges 5:23
[23] Mo’ed Kattan 16a
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Aryeh Citron

Have your say