The Use of Elevators on Shabbat: Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Last article we surveyed the Halachic debate surrounding the use of elevators on Shabbat.  We discussed Rav Levi Yitzchak Halperin's breakthrough position that one may ride an ascending elevator but may not ride a descending elevator on Shabbat.  In the coming weeks we will focus on five core areas of dispute between Rav Halperin and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.  Rav Shlomo Zalman challenges Rav Halperin's approach and suggests that it may be permitted to ride on a descending elevator.  His opinion is recorded and discussed at length in Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata (23:49 especially note 140 - the longest footnote in the entire work).  We will cite a few of the proofs alluded to by the advocates of both sides of the issue to give the reader a richer appreciation of these interesting debates.


Dispute 1 - Performing a Melacha that Would Have Occurred Even Absent His Action

Rav Shlomo Zalman suggests that:

"Since the passengers did not cause any change in the pace of the elevator, either faster or slower, for even without the passengers everything would have occurred exactly the same, it is considered that the passengers actions are irrelevant and Halachically insignificant."

Rav Shlomo Zalman cites numerous proofs to this suggestion.  One source is the Mishnah (Shabbat 104b) which teaches that one who writes two letters in black ink upon two letters already written in black ink (K'tav Al Gabei K'tav) does not violate the prohibition to write on Shabbat.  The Ramban (ad. loc. s.v. Konketom) and Ritva (ad. loc. s.v. Katav) both explain that, theoretically, this act should have been defined as writing since the previously written letter was erased and a new letter created.  Nonetheless the Talmud does not regard the act to be defined as writing because the writer has not accomplished anything.  One violates Shabbat when he engages in "Melechet Machshevet," accomplishing a goal to produce something new.  When one does not add to what was previously in existence he has not engaged in "Melechet Machshevet" and has not violated Shabbat.

Rav Halperin, in chapter nine of Ma'aliot Bishabbat, vigorously disputes Rav Shlomo Zalman's proofs and cites proofs to prove the contrary.  One example is what the Gemara (Kritut 20a) which teaches (see Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershom) that one who had two candles before him, one which was lit and one which was not lit, and simultaneously extinguished one candle and lit the other, has violated Shabbat.  We see from here that even though by his actions he has not accomplished anything new he is considered to have performed Melacha on Shabbat.  Moreover, Rav Halperin points out that additional passengers' weight slightly increases the velocity of the elevator.


Dispute 2 -  Is a Person Responsible for the Actions of His Weight?

Rav Levi Yitzchak Halperin in chapter seven of Ma'aliot Bishabbat seeks to demonstrate that one is Halachically responsible for the effects of his weight, even if he is standing still.  One of Rav Halperin's proofs is a Mishnah (Kilayim 8:3) which states the following:

One who drives a team of Kilayim (mixed animals) is punished with Malkot (forty lashes) and he who rides in the wagon [which causes the mixed animals to plow] is also punished with Malkot.  Rav Meir excuses the person who sat in the wagon, from Malkot.

Both the Rambam (Hilchot Kilayim 9:9) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 297:12) rule in accordance with the first opinion in the Mishnah that the one who sits in the wagon violates a Torah prohibition.

Rav Halperin concludes from this Mishnah that even if one is sitting in the wagon absolutely motionless and it is merely his weight which causes the animals to plow, he is Halachically responsible for the actions caused by his weight.  Similarly, even though the rider in an elevator is motionless and only his weight causes the elevator to descend, the person is responsible for the actions of his weight.  Dayan Weisz (Minchat Yitzchak 3:60) seems to concur with this view.

Professor Zev Lev (Techumin 5:63) seeks to counter this argument.  Professor Lev (who served as the president of the prestigious Jerusalem College of Technology) argues that the act of sitting down in the wagon (rather than merely being seated) is what causes the animals to move, and not the weight of the passenger.  Professor Lev also mentions the fact that many great Halachic authorities and Chassidic masters traveled on steam powered ships on Shabbat even though they knew that the ship consumes more fuel if it carries more weight.  Professor Lev cites this "Maaseh Rav" (actions engaged in by eminent scholars) as proof that these authorities believed that the passengers are not Halachically responsible for the actions caused by their weight.

It should be noted that "Maaseh Rav" is a significant proof in Jewish law.  What great sages did is at least as important, if not more important than what they said.  The Talmud is replete with stories related about the actions of the various Talmudic figures.  Stories abound concerning the Halachic practices of the great sages until this very day, and are taken quite seriously by Halachic authorities (see, for example, Rav Moshe Shternbach's Teshuvot Vihanhagot where the author cites innumerable instances of the Halachic practices of the great sages of the past hundred years).

Professor Lev cites the celebrated responsum in which Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe O.C. I:132) permitted a relative or friend to accompany a woman about to give birth to the hospital on Shabbat.  Professor Lev notes that Rav Moshe did not make any mention of the effect the added weight of the individual accompanying the woman would have on the vehicle, thereby increasing fuel consumption.

Professor Lev explains that most people are unaware of the impact their weight has on the operation of the elevator.  They intend only to reach their destination and are not concerned with the impact their weight has on the motor's functioning.  He cites an important comment made by the Maggid Mishnah (commenting on Rambam Halachot Shabbat 12:2) that absent intention and awareness one cannot be considered to be engaged in "Melacha" (forbidden labor).  The Magen Avraham (318:36) approvingly cites this comment and the great Rav Meir Simchah of Dvinsk termed this comment of the Maggid Mishnah as a "beautiful jewel" (Ohr Sameach to Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 12:2).

Professor Levi compares riding in an elevator to the situation when one is sitting in at the Shabbat table on Friday night during the winter, when the window are shut closed.  In this situation, the inhaling of oxygen and exhaling of carbon dioxide impacts on the flames of the Shabbat candles.  No Halachic authority has written that this constitutes a Halachic problem.  This is because this phenomenon is beyond one's intention, concern, and awareness.  Similarly, the impact of one's weight on the operation of the elevator is beyond the intention, concern, and awareness of the rider and thus should not constitute a Halachic problem.

Next week, Im Yirtzeh Hashem and Bli Neder, we will continue our review of the debate between Rav Halperin and Rav Shlomo Zalman concerning riding on a descending automatic elevator on Shabbat.

The Use of Elevators on Shabbat: Part III by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

The Use of Elevators on Shabbat: Part I by Rabbi Chaim Jachter