Ask the Rabbi: Groovy wheels

Is bike riding permissible on Shabbat?

biking image 88 224 (photo credit:)
biking image 88 224
(photo credit: )
I live in a culturally mixed neighborhood with lots of kids, many of whom - religious and not so religious, Sephardim and Ashkenazim - play together on Shabbat afternoons. I have discovered that some of the religious children ride their bikes while others won't ride their bicycles but will play on their scooters (korkinet). Why might that be? - Liat, Jerusalem Although the majority of poskim forbid bicycle riding on Shabbat, the variety of reasons to prohibit this practice reflect the complexity of this case. In general, we can categorize the potential problems into two different categories: (1) technical transgressions of the law and (2) violations of the spirit of Shabbat. One potential problem with bicycle riding stems from the grooves that the wheels create in dirt, a violation of plowing (harisha) on Shabbat. While Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (OC 49) forbade bike riding for this reason, most decisors negated this factor, contending that this unintentional and undesired consequence occurs too infrequently. They compared it to strollers and wheelchairs, whose wheels might occasionally create grooves but nonetheless remain permissible. To push these items, however, the city requires an eruv to transform the area into a private domain and avoid the problem of carrying (hotza'a). Most Israeli cities, and many Jewish communities around the world today, have built eruvim to overcome this problem. Many poskim, however, ruled stringently because bikes frequently break and require immediate fixing. Adding air to a tire or fixing a chain, however, violates Shabbat restrictions, and the frequency of these problems makes bike riding a legal hazard. Many rabbis compared this restriction to the talmudic decree prohibiting horse riding lest someone pull off a tree branch to strike the animal. Yet other rabbis, including Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, contended that we do not make new decrees today to prevent future mishaps, and therefore rejected this reasoning. A second line of argumentation forbade bike riding because it violates the spirit of Shabbat. While some sneer at the severity of this notion, colloquially known as "shabbosdik," its gravity is well grounded in talmudic sources. The rabbis, for example, declared that we properly honor Shabbat (kavod shabbat) not only by designating special clothing, but also by limiting our discussions to sacred matters and walking at a different pace (Shabbat 113a). Similarly, they forbade many actions because they constitute weekday-like activities (uvdin de-hol). This notion finds expression in the Torah itself, which demands that we designate Shabbat as a day of rest (shabbat shabbaton). In a celebrated passage, Nahmanides asserted that one who violates the spirit of Shabbat transgresses a biblical precept. He based himself on a number of talmudic-era passages which, as Prof. Yitzhak Gilat has documented, forbid many practices, including horse riding, simply because they are inappropriate behavior for Shabbat. While the concept of shabbosdik clearly plays a role in juridical reasoning, its definition remains elusive. Regarding bike riding, many rabbis contend that the strain of the activity as well as its recreational purpose make it unworthy for Shabbat. One notable dissenter was Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad (1832-1909), known as the Ben Ish Hai, who believed that bike riding did not detract from the spirit of Shabbat. His argument was buttressed by the absence of the factor of shabbosdik in numerous medieval discussions regarding riding animals led by non-Jews on Shabbat. Rabbi Yosef Haim further contended that rabbis should focus their energies on more clear-cut violations of the law within the community (Shut Rav Pe'alim 1:25). Yet the rabbinic majority rejected this position, and bike riding remains prohibited in the vast majority of communities. In a fascinating passage, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef firmly defends the logic of Rabbi Yosef Haim, yet ultimately concludes that since the majority of rabbis did not like the practice, we should forbid the practice (Leviat Chen 107). Clearly, however, the severity of bike riding does not approach that of driving on Shabbat or other similar activities. I suspect that in your community, the bike riders represent traditional, if not fully observant, Jews who desire to maintain some basic modicum of halachic Shabbat observance. This remains particularly true in elements of the Sephardic population, who might not use a car yet will ride a bike. For similar reasons, many non-observant Israelis refrain from using their cars on Yom Kippur, allowing bicycles to dominate the roads. Since they have minimal mechanical complexity, scooters present fewer threats of breaking on Shabbat and require less physical exertion than bicycles. In many ways, they are comparable to tricycles, which many rabbis permit children to ride on Shabbat. Nonetheless, scooters remain recreational vehicles that might detract from the spirit of Shabbat, and therefore many communities encourage their children above the age of bar/bat mitzva to refrain from riding them. The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University. JPostRabbi@yahoo.com