Jews in Israel may now find themselves taking the stairs more often. Jewish settlers walk down stairs in a synagogue.
Jews in Israel may now find themselves taking the stairs more often. Jewish settlers walk down stairs in a synagogue. Nir Elias/Reuters
On my first Friday evening in Jerusalem, back in 2001, I left my fourth-floor apartment, got into the elevator, pushed the button — and nothing happened.
Eventually the doors closed, and the car began to descend with a mind of its own, stopping and waiting on each floor. I jumped out and took the stairs. Later my secular neighbor Yacov explained, with some irritation, that this was a "Shabbat elevator," which runs by itself with no action by the passenger. Shabbat elevators are now in use all over Israel, and in a good deal of the Jewish world.
For religious Jews, the Sabbath is really a day of rest. In many parts of Israel, cars sit idle, non-emergency phone calls are not made — no action should be taken that falls under the Torah's definition of work.
Over the years rabbis have approved various methods of automation, such as lights that run on timers, as permissible on the Sabbath.
But now some prominent rabbis have declared that Shabbat elevators must not be used. The rabbis say Shabbat elevators are a "severely prohibited" desecration of the Sabbath. Thus, the eternal debate about what an observant Jew may and may not do on the Sabbath has taken another turn.
Dameon Welch-Abernathy via Flickr
A sign points the way to a Sabbath elevator.
A sign points the way to a Sabbath elevator. Dameon Welch-Abernathy via Flickr
At the Crowne Plaza hotel, which claims to be the tallest building in Jerusalem, two of the hotel's four elevators become Shabbat elevators at sundown on Fridays. For the Sabbath, they rise all the way to the 21st floor without stopping. Then they descend automatically, one stopping at the odd-numbered floors and the other at the even floors.
It feels like it takes forever. Hotel worker Benni Aharon says it's actually 12-13 minutes; he's timed it. He says he'd be surprised if the rabbinical decrees prompt very many people to stop using elevators on the Sabbath.
"I don't think they will do it. It's very difficult. If you live on the 17th floor, you can't go down 17 floors. Last week it was a family, the father doesn't use the Shabbat elevator. So we gave them a room at 18 or whatever. He didn't want, he wanted to be on the fourth floor," Aharon says.
Yossi Horowitz, who ensures that all the food in the hotel is kosher, says personally he will use the stairs. But he says for the elderly or infirm, there has to be a solution.
"Well, I'm sure they're going to solve the problem. You're going to see, in a short time. They're going to find somehow what to do. It's very hard," he says.
One man who has devoted his life to studying questions of halacha, or Jewish law and tradition, is Rabbi Yitzhak Levy Halperin, founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha. His organization provides consulting services and guidance on the installation of elevators and other systems in hotels, hospitals and other buildings.
Contrary to what his critics say, Halperin insists he is not in the business of finding ways for Jews to duck their Sabbath obligations. But he firmly believes that the Torah's rules, as well as its lessons, can be applied in any age provided that Talmudic scholars take the trouble to delve deeply into the technological workings of each and every machine or gadget in question.
For instance, to many of its supporters the Shabbat elevator is a matter of simple logic. Not so, says the institute's educational director, Shmuel Strauss.
"Because of the automation of the elevator, everybody assumed that I'm not doing anything — I walk into the elevator, I stand there, I'm passive — not realizing that just being there is actually being active," Strauss says. "But because we understood, and if one understands, one sees questions others don't see, and that gave us the ability to find the solutions."
For those interested in what those solutions are — and they are numbingly complex — the institute has published an entire book on the subject, replete with engineering explanations and diagrams.
As ever with religious questions, however, there is ample — even vast — room for disagreement. This latest ruling, also relying on expert testimony, finds that the Shabbat elevator does violate the Sabbath.
As one observant Israeli Jew told me with a smile: Let the arguments begin.