The longest day: June 20/21; the summer solstice. In Britain, the longest day is very long. That’s because Britain is just north of the 49th parallel; that is 49 degrees north of the Equator. At this latitude, the sun is above the horizon for 16 hours and 12 minutes on the summer solstice. By contrast, the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, where Israel is situated lies just north of the 30th parallel. So, while in the middle of Britain, the sun will set at 21:22; in Israel, the sun will set at 19:48. But the difference between the two locations is not confined to the actual moment of sunset. Anyone who has been in Israel in the summer, and has watched the sun sink into the Mediterranean, will have witnessed a very sudden change from day to night; at 49 degrees north, by contrast, the sky darkens much more slowly.
It’s interesting to note this distinction between Britain and Israel because while in Britain the flow of the year is very much taken up with the significant changes in the hours of light and darkness, the Jewish calendar is shaped by its formation in the Middle East, where the difference in the hours of daylight across the year is less evident. And of course, there is another significant distinction between the two locations that influences the place of the sun in the minds of those who live 49 degrees north compared with those who live 30 degrees north: the heat of the sun. Here in Britain, as soon as we reach the spring solstice, our longing for light is only equalled by our longing for warmth, and we can’t wait for the lengthening days with the promise of an increase in the sun’s intensity. In Israel, by contrast, as spring turns to summer, keeping out of the heat of the day is a major preoccupation. And so, while the changing seasons are important to the Jewish calendar, and the addition of an extra month to the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of a nineteen year cycle, ensures that the seasonal festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are celebrated in due season, the main focus of the calendar is on the journey of the moon as it waxes and wanes, and each month is aligned with the moon.
For those who live in Britain and who also live the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, life is a bit complicated! This year there are 13 months, which means all the festivals are being celebrated quite late in the sun year, including, Shavuot, which will begin on the evening of June 11 – just 10 days before the summer solstice. To take advantage of this fortuitous connection we are holding an all-night study marathon – a traditional way of celebrating Shavuot. After the evening service at 10 p.m., following sunset, the marathon will begin at 11 p.m. and conclude at 5 a.m., shortly after sunrise, with a morning service on the beach – weather (and sun) permitting! Participants, sponsored to study the first and last verses of all 54 portions of the Torah, will endeavour to last the night. Hopefully, plentiful quantities of coffee, water, cheesecake and sandwiches will aid our efforts. Sponsorship forms are available from the office, with proceeds going to Brighton Voices in Exile, the refugee charity we support with our weekly donations of toiletries and non-perishable foods. If you don’t think you will be able to manage a whole night, do come along for as long as you can and share the fun!