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(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Can you explain the recent controversy over the use of Shabbat elevators?
The written ban by four prominent haredi leaders, including Rabbi Y.S. Elyashiv, just as tourists flooded local hotels for Succot, created much media attention and confusion. Nothing has developed in elevator technology to warrant a new controversy, and it remains unclear what generated this pronouncement. The larger issues regarding elevators on Shabbat, however, remain worthy of review.
Operating elevators violates Shabbat by generating electricity and activating button and floor lights. While stairs represent the easiest (and healthiest) alternative, this remains unfeasible with the young or infirm and in tall apartment towers. This problem has been addressed by either asking non-Jews to operate the elevator or by altering the elevators to run automatically.
While the help of gentiles remains logistically simple, it remains legally problematic. Generally speaking, one may not request a non-Jew to perform any actions which remain prohibited for Jews to perform (amira le-akum), even if this is prearranged before Shabbat. While one midrash derives this proscription from the Torah itself (Mechilta Bo 9), most halachists believe the sages enacted it to protect the spirit of the day, prevent denigration of Shabbat restrictions or to forbid objectionable behavior by one's representative. The sages further forbid benefiting from gentile activity performed for the sake of a Jew, even if he acted on his own behest. Yet when a non-Jew acts for himself (to turn on the lights to enter a dark room, for example), a Jew may enjoy the consequences of this action (OC 276:1). Certain dispensations, however, were afforded in cases of need, such as to care for the sick or elderly (OC 328:17).
Decisors remain divided whether one may ask a non-Jew to operate an elevator to allow residents to attend synagogue services and Shabbat meals. The Talmud permitted asking a gentile to violate rabbinic prohibitions to facilitate circumcisions on Shabbat (Eruvin 67b). While some commentators limited this leniency to circumcisions alone, Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo employed it to assist fulfilling any commandment (OC 307:5). One decisor went further to allow even biblical prohibitions, a position cited by Rabbi Moshe Isserles. Some entirely dismiss this opinion (MB 276:24), thereby rendering it prohibited in our case (Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata 30:54). Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, however, reportedly permitted Manhattan apartment dwellers to use this dispensation, with others more hesitantly permitting it when done on an ad-hoc basis and arranged before Shabbat (Yalkut Yosef Shabbat II:279). There remains greater room for leniency on festivals, when the proscriptions against electricity are narrower and less severe (Yabia Omer OC 2:26).
As a better solution, Israeli engineers developed automated systems, colloquially known as "Shabbat elevators," which stop on desired floors at fixed intervals and times. These elevators have become so popular that Israeli law mandates all new buildings with multiple elevators to include at least one with this capability. Not all rabbinic decisors, however, have embraced this invention, with many claiming that each additional rider adds weight that increases the amount of electricity drawn (Minhat Yitzhak 3:60).
The most outspoken proponent of this view is Rabbi Mordechai Halperin, director of Jerusalem's Institute for Science and Halacha. After 17 years of painstaking research, he concluded that body weight contributes significantly to an elevator's descent, but not to its ascent. He further asserted that the increased weight during descents can actually transform the motor into a generator for electric company lines, especially on extremely high elevators. Most importantly, he claimed that one descending on an elevator incurs responsibility for the impact of his weight on the lamps and motor (Ma'aliyot Beshabbat). To obviate these problems, he developed an alternative mechanic system that avoids these problems. (Automated escalators do not possess any of these problems and are nearly universally deemed permissible.)
Rabbi Halperin's thesis, however, was criticized by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (SS"K 23:49) as well as two leading techno-halacha experts, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen and Prof. Zev Lev (Tehumin 5). They fundamentally contended that one's weight does not meet the required intent and causation necessary for violating proscriptive Shabbat behavior (melechet mahshevet). The passenger's impact remains at best indirect, rendering it negligible to the elevator's ultimate operation. Accordingly, when left with no choice, one could enter an elevator and simply "roam" to the floor to which one gets taken by non-Jewish passengers attending to their own needs. The Tzomet Institute, run by Rabbi Rozen, authorizes a more simplified (and cheaper) Shabbat elevator, safely neutralizing certain features like weighing mechanisms to remove some of the concerns posited by Rabbi Halperin.
Some rabbis never accepted the Shabbat elevator solutions proposed by these institutes, as reiterated in the recent pronouncement. I see no reason, however, why those who previously used these elevators should stop doing so, and humbly submit that the fundamentally lenient position taken by Rabbi Auerbach remains compelling.
The writer, editor of Tradition Online and its Text & Texture blog (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.