Thursday, October 1st, 2009

A group of haredi rabbis in Israe last week evidently ruled that the “Shabbat elevators” in use at many hotels and other public places in Israel and elsewhere actually violate Shabbat. The elevators are programmed to automatically stop either at every floor, or every other floor in larger buildings, to allow users to ascend or descend without pushing buttons. Because of all the stops, riding a Shabbat elevator doesn’t save much time, especially if you’re headed for a high floor, but it can be a great benefit to the elderly or infirm or those returning from long walks.

Muqata has a well-detailed post on the ban and the rabbis involved. It does seem to be consistent with conventional halacha since we are not allowed to hop on or off a bus or train on Shabbat, in spite of the fact that they, like the elevators, are continuing along a pre-set course regardless of our ridership.

On the other hand, the elevator is different because there is no driver or operator, and machines are not required to observe Shabbat (or else we couldn’t set our air conditioner timers or TIVO a Yankee game).

There will surely be rabbis who will disgree with this ban, which points to the fluidity of halacha and the importance of either self-study or reliance on a trustworthy, learned decisor. What’s strange about this ban is that Shabbos elevators are far from new on the scene. As they say in Israel, Mah Pitom?

This reminds me of the ever-increasing standards of kashrut among New York restaurants, where once kosher was enough, then glatt was required, followed by the emergence of terms like chalav Yisroel, pas Yisraol, kemach yoshon and bodek.

When we try to increase observance of halacha, particulalry Shabbat, care should be given to avoid forbidding that which has already taken hold in modern life, when there was ample opportunity to ban it at the outset. Adding new rigors only fuels cynicism.

For example, check out one of the commenters on Muqata’s post about the ban, who says, in part:

I’m guessing that in a few months someone will design a “new” Shabbat Elevator which is permissible by these Rabbis, and for a “moderate” fee will be prepared to install it (together with appropriate certification) in every Hotel in Israel.