Religion

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For the most observant Jews, the Sabbath is truly a day of rest. 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 one such convenience, the Shabbat elevator, must not be used.

NPR's Peter Kenyon sent us these thoughts from Jerusalem.

PETER KENYON: 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.

(Soundbite of elevator)

KENYON: Eventually the doors did close, 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(ph) explained, with some irritation, that this was a Shabbat elevator, one that 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. But now, a group of well-known rabbis has declared that Shabbat elevators are a severely prohibited desecration of the Sabbath. And the eternal debate about what an observant Jew may and may not do on the Sabbath has taken another turn.

(Soundbite of ring)

KENYON: At the Crowne Plaza hotel, which claims to be the tallest building in Jerusalem, each Sabbath, two of the four elevators rise from the lobby 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(ph) says it's actually 12 to 13 minutes; he timed it. He says he'd be surprised if very many people really stopped using elevators on the Sabbath.

Mr. BENNI AHARON (Hotel Worker): I don't think they will do it. It's very difficult. If you live on the 17th floor, you can't go 17 and go down 17 floors. Last week, it was a family that - the father don't use the Shabbat elevator. So we give them a room in - 18 or whatever. He didn't want; he want to be at the fourth floor.

KENYON: Yossi Horowitz(ph), who ensures that all the food in the hotel is kosher, says personally he'll use the stairs. But he says for the elderly or infirm, there has to be a solution.

Mr. YOSSI HOROWITZ: Well, I'm sure they're going to solve the problem, in a short time. They're going to find somehow what to do - and it's very hard.

KENYON: One man who's devoted his life to studying questions of Halacha, Jewish law and tradition, is Rabbi Yitzhak Levy Halperin, founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha. Contrary to what his critics say, Rabbi Halperin insists he's 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 the Talmudic scholar takes the trouble, as Halperin has, 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.

Rabbi SHMUEL STRAUSS (Educational Director, Institute for Science and Halacha): 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, and not realizing that just being there is actually being active. But because we understood and if one understands, then one sees questions that others don't see, and that gave us the ability to find the solutions.

KENYON: 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 the Shabbat elevator does violate the Sabbath. As one observant Israeli told me with a smile, let the arguments begin.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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