Will Orthodox Jews say good-bye to Sabbath elevators?

October 1, 2009

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(Photo: Posters for protest in Jerusalem against parking lot open on Sabbath, 8 July 2009/Baz Ratner)

In a move that may literally take the breath away from many of the world’s Orthodox Jews, a group of Israel’s top rabbis recently ruled that riding in what for decades have been designated as “Shabbat (Sabbath) elevators,” is  against Jewish law. This decision — already been opposed by other leading rabbis – could force many Jews who live in apartment buildings to sweat their way up staircases once a week.

The Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, is meant to be a day of rest. Observant Jews refrain from working, traveling in vehicles, spending money and from using electricity.

Reuters photoIn modern times, it’s tough to imagine going 24 hours without using anything electric. So gadgets have been invented to allow the use of certain appliances without physically turning them on. Like timers for lights, called Shabbat clocks. Or special cookers for stove tops. Or elevators for Shabbat.

The Shabbat elevators, which are ubiquitous in Israel and fairly common in Jewish neighborhoods around the world, are designed to stop automatically at every floor, so passengers are guaranteed to (eventually) make it to their destination without having to activate anything electrical.

But in a surprise decision, a group of top rabbis ruled that riding these elevators was not kosher.

The decision, published as a  small notice (shown below) in a religious newspaper last week, decrees that due to changes in the technology of the elevators, based on information provided by elevator technicians and engineers, riding up or down in the elevator indeed breaks the laws of Shabbat. It was signed by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a top leader in the ultra-Orthodox community, and others.

It follows discussion over the direct impact on the elevator because the weight of passengers may determine the amount of electricty used.

Other senior rabbis have already come out against the ruling, and Israel’s Haaretz newspaper interviewed some unhappy and disagreeing citizens.

“This is an edict that will not work,” one resident of a Jerusalem retirement home was quoted as saying. “If we all adhere to it, not only will we not leave our rooms on Shabbat, but life in places like Manhattan will come to a standstill.”

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Since when has convenience or common sense been the touchstone to measure religious Faith? If it’s a choice between giving up elevators, or giving up Judaism, what will people choose? It’s not like giving up abortion, or giving up Catholicism, OR IS IT?

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