A minyan on Mount Everest: The highest Shabbat in the world

The majestic heights of the mountains brought us a spiritual high that we had never experienced.

March 4, 2017 14:46
Himalaya Israelis

The writer pauses by a waterfall. (photo credit: MICHEL KOGINSKY)

In late November, a group of Jerusalem trekkers, including myself, made history by bringing Shabbat to one of the highest places in the world – the frigid slopes of Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

Making this expedition unique was the group’s adherence to religious observance, including daily prayers, Torah learning, kosher food and celebration of divine majesty in the creation of the soaring snow-covered heights.

The trek drew climbers hailing from Tel Aviv, Ra’anana, Herzliya, Paris and London. A daughter of one of the climbers who was in charge of feeding the group was the only woman there. The climbers conversed mostly in French. The mountaineers consisted of six doctors (though no psychiatrist!), one dentist, some technologists and businessmen. We were 17 – tov (good) in gematria – a good number. The group’s mission was to reach the 6,200-meter Island Peak (the actual summit of Everest is 8,840 meters).

The group assembled in Kathmandu, capital city of Nepal.

We spent the first Shabbat, still in civilization, at the Beit Chabad led by Rabbi Hezki and Rabbanit Hanna, guardian angels for all trekkers.

Sunday morning, we boarded a small plane to Lukla (2,800 meters), the only Everest landing strip, known as the most dangerous airport in the world.

We reached Lukla after a 40-minute flight over the Himalayas. We recited tefilat haderech (the traveler’s prayer) faithfully! We carried a small Sefer Torah in one of our backpacks, kosher food brought from Israel, pots and dishes purchased in Kathmandu.

Accompanying us were 15 porters and mountain yaks that carried food supplies, luggage, bottles of oxygen and emergency medical equipment.

After the morning prayer facing the snowy summits, we started hiking and our adventure really began.

The weather was wonderful, the air was pure, grass was everywhere and the forests were huge. At this point, snow was nowhere to be seen. We followed a little path winding up and down through countless hills, majestic rivers and sparkling mountain streams. Local inhabitants loaded with heavy baskets, children in uniform on their way to school all greeted us. Mules carrying barrels and merchandise shared our path. Passersby gently smiled, saying “namaste” (shalom in Nepalese).

By day’s end, we reached the small village of Phakding. We stopped at a lodge whose living room was heated by a simple stove. The time had arrived to study the daily Daf Yomi. No doubt, this marked th e first time that the ancient words of the Babylonian Talmud were studied so high up in the world.

The sounds of the talmudic dispute in tractate Baba Metzia about fair business dealings echoed across the mountains in the land of the Sherpas.

The following morning, reading Parashat Vayera from our Sefer Torah in the snowcapped Himalayas filled us with emotions never experienced in the more familiar Jerusalem.

Continuing climbing, oxygen grew scarcer and our breathing heavier. Slowly the native rhododendron flowers disappeared from our path, which was growing steeper and steeper. We crossed several suspension bridges swaying above howling torrents.

To ease our fatigue, we sang the hopeful Hebrew song “Gesher Tzar Meod” (Very Narrow Bridge), containing the reassuring words, “Most important is not to be afraid.” Suddenly, we were facing the top of Everest, so close yet so inaccessible. With much emotion we blessed God for His creation.

Every step at this height was a struggle. Our mountain guide demonstrated survival techniques to husband our strength. We supported each other, aware of the perilous way ahead. Eventually, we reached Namche Bazaar, exhausted, though proud and happy. We were now at 3,500 meters above sea level in the land of the Sherpas, a large village facing high peaks, spread on the steep slopes of the valley.

As soon as the sun set, we were stricken by the cold. Each lodge contained one small stove burning dry yak dung, hardly warming up our quarters.

The nights were icy: temperatures dropped to minus 20 outside and minus 7 in our rooms. Our bottles of water turned into blocks of ice.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, we moved on, passing through the villages of Tengboche and Dingboche, surrounded by huge ice summits.

Rivers were totally frozen. We reached the 4,000-meter point with our will to continue constantly challenged. The beauty of the mountains dulled our physical pain. The magnificent scenery was breathtaking, while the high altitude squeezed our breath. These glorious mountains strengthened our connection to our Creator.

Our next stop was the courtyard of a Buddhist monastery at Tengboche. Unexpectedly, in the midst of the snowy mountains, actors wearing frightening masks appeared for the annual festival. The enthusiastic audience laughed like children.

We were approaching Shabbat, time of spiritual and physical recharging. Our destiny would soon be at hand. There, 4,800 meters high, removed from civilization at Chukhung, we observed our second Shabbat. Each mountain climber took part in the preparation of the food and the Shabbat table: wine from Mount Hermon served in a silver kiddush cup, mouthwatering hallot and festive dishes. A holy atmosphere emerged despite the freezing temperatures.

In honor of Shabbat, we exchanged our mountain climbing gear for the traditional Shabbat shirt attire. A holy atmosphere emerged despite the freezing temperature. For the first time in history, Shabbat was celebrated with a minyan at 4,730 meters on the snowy Mount Everest. Shabbat triumphed over the harsh environment.

Following the tradition of the 16th-century Isaac Luria (Arizal) of Safed, we went outside to usher in the holy day. Facing the glaciers, we sang “Lecha Dodi” fervently, dancing in the Himalayas but directing our prayers towards Jerusalem. The Sherpas who were told to desist from work while the climbers observed Shabbat, looked at us incredulously.

Fortified by the meal, wine, zmirot, good humor and divrei Torah, we created a Shabbat in this distant, forbidding part of this world. The warmth of the Shabbat melted the unforgiving cold. The emotion was palpable, reflected by the joyous expressions and sparkling eyes of my fellow mountaineers.

The majestic heights of the mountains brought us a spiritual high that we had never experienced.

We were reminded of the six days of creation by the physical splendor that enveloped us.

The moment had arrived for the final assault on the mountain. On Sunday, we divided into two groups: the most rugged among us made their way to the summit. For them, that night was especially torturous, the temperature dropped to minus 20.

The harsh cold denied them virtually any sleep. At midnight, these frozen mountaineers started their ultimate quest, the top of the Island Peak. After several hours of superhuman effort, the most resilient two in this group managed to reach the top, triumphantly displaying the flag of Israel for the first time ever on this torturous site.

Meanwhile, the second group of climbers, including me, trekked to the Imja Lake at 5,100 meters.

We were victorious in celebrating Shabbat at this rarefied horizon and waving the blue-and-white flag so high.

Mission accomplished for this mountaineering minyan – Am Yisrael hai!

The writer is a father of seven and a practicing pediatrician.

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