Friday, December 19, 2014

Was Hanukkah celebrated aboard the Enterprise?

Is there any reference to Hanukkah in Star Trek?  Christmas is mentioned a couple times ("Dagger of the Mind" in TOS and the movie Generations), but was Hanukkah ever celebrated aboard the Enterprise?

For years there was a persistent rumor that Hanukkah was mentioned on The Next Generation series.  I heard it myself back in the 1990s.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be an urban legend -- although one that is based on an understandable mis-hearing of the script.  There is a reference to a "Festival of Lights," but it wasn't Hanukkah.  In my book Jewish Themes in Star Trek, I wrote:

Candles lit for the Jewish
Festival of Lights
"On several occasions, while writing this book, I was told that a Hanukkah party had indeed been mentioned in The Next Generation series.  Unfortunately, the story turned out to be nothing more
than another urban legend.  Its source was apparently the same 1991 Hadassah magazine article [see below] that I mentioned in Chapter 1, which stated: 'In a recent show, the ship's log recorded the celebration of -- among other esoteric and arcane observances, including a sort of Klingon bar mitzvah -- Hanukkah.'

Candles lit for the Hindu
Festival of Lights
"The 'recent episode' referenced in Teitelbaum's article was 'Data's Day' (TNG), which aired that same year.  But the festival recorded by Data in the ship's log was not Hanukkah.  It was Divali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, which celebrates the god Rama's return to his kingdom. Teitelbaum had apparently heard the phrase 'Festival of Lights' (another name for Hanukkah), but missed the Hindu reference.  Still, if Divali is celebrated aboard the Enterprise-D, then it's reasonable to assume that Hanukkah is, too." (Jewish Themes in Star Trek, p. 30)

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Hadassah is a major Jewish women's magazine, read by Jews of all denominations or lack thereof.  Unfortunately, their online archives do not go back to 1991, but if you have access to old print copies, the article was called "Is Star Trek Jewish?" by Sheldon Teitelbaum, and appeared in the December 1991 issue.   At that time, the episode in question was not yet released on VHS or DVD, so it's easy to understand how this error happened.  Teitelbaum mis-heard the log and had no easy way to double check it.  Apparently so many people then read his article that the "fact" of a Hanukkah celebration aboard the Enterprise entered the popular culture.  A generation later, it's still circulating.

I must admit that I was disappointed to find out there is no such reference -- at least not in canonical Trek.  (Alan Dean Foster's novelization of "The Ambergris Element" features the animated character  M'ress playing dreidel with her Jewish roomate at Starfleet Academy, but this scene was not in the actual episode.)  Still, if Scotty can wear a kilt and Worf can wear a Klingon sash, then why can't a Jew wear a yarmulke and light a menorah?  For that matter, why couldn't Jews get together on the holodeck for a Hanukkah celebration?

That would raise an interesting question:  Can you fulfill the mitzvah with holographic candles?  Probably not.  But we have seen Spock light real candles in his quarters, so that should not be a problem.  As for availability of candles in space, they could be replicated.

In fact, the lights would not have to be candles at all.  Nor must the menorah be the usual semi-circular shape.  Originally, rows of oil lamps were used, and some people today still use olive oil.  You can use anything to light the menorah, as long as it uses real fire (not electric bulbs, although the can be used as decorations to proclaim the miracle.)  The lights must burn the requisite amount of time (minimum of half an hour after sunset) and must burn out on their own (not blown out or otherwise extinguished) before the next night.

Which brings up another problem.  When is sunset on a spaceship?  My guess would be for the crew to do what Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon did for calculating the Sabbath aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia:  use Jerusalem time!  Just sychronize a chronometer with Israel back on Earth.

A decorative Star Trek Menorah with LED 
lights mounted on Trek Pez dispensers!  
(Courtesy of "The Evil Mad Scientist" website)

2 comments:

  1. Re:
    "use Jerusalem time! Just sychronize a chronometer with Israel back on Earth." —

    But why wouldn't this chronometer be affected (like anything else on a warp-speed ship) by Einsteinian relativistic effects that — literally and physically — cause time to pass much faster on/in an object that is traveling at extremely high speeds? Please Google this character-string: "Einstein"+"twin paradox"+"speed of light"

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    1. I suppose they would have to synchronize chronometers periodically with a standard one on Earth.Perhaps when the ship drops out of warp? The stardates do seem to be standardized somehow. I was never clear how, though.

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