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The Use of Elevators on Shabbat - Part I

by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

A major Halachic issue in modern life is the use of elevators on Shabbat and Yom Tov. The question has been debated for decades, but there have been distinct periods of both Halachic and technological developments in this area. In this essay, we will attempt to summarize the different approaches taken by Poskim on the issue during the past number of decades.

The Earliest Responsa - The Strict Views of Minchat Yitzchak and Chelkat Yaakov

Both Dayan Weisz (Minchat Yitzchak (3:60) and Rav Yaakov Breisch (Chelkat Yaakov 3:137) forbade using even automatic elevators on Shabbat. Dayan Weisz's reasoning is that the rider's additional weight in the elevator cabin causes the elevator to work harder, thereby causing its motor to draw more current. Rav Breisch's argument is quite interesting. He cites Rav Yitzchak Schmelkes' ruling (Beit Yitzchak 2:30) forbidding one to ride on a train or trolley on Shabbat. The precedent cited by Rav Shmelkes is a Gemara (Beitzah 25b) which records the rabbinic prohibition to be transported in a sedan-like chair carried by others because this runs counter to the spirit of Shabbat (see Rashi s.v. Ein Hasuma). Rav Breisch proceeds to apply the Beit Yitzchak's ruling to an elevator. Rav Breisch argues: "What is the difference between riding horizontally or vertically?" Both activities should be forbidden even if the train or elevator is entirely automated. He notes the practice of scrupulously observant Jews to avoid riding on elevators.

The Earliest Responsa - The Lenient Views of Rav Henkin and Rav Unterman

Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (Kol Kitvei Harav Henkin 2:59) and Rav Yehudah Unterman (the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel during the 1960's, writing in the journal Torah Shebaal Peh 5727 p.13) felt that it is permissible to ride an elevator if one does not push any of the buttons. Rav Henkin points out that the Halacha (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 252:5) follows the opinion of Beit Hillel (Shabbat 17-18) that prior to Shabbat one may arrange for his utensils to perform work on Shabbat. Accordingly, since the rider performs no Melacha (forbidden act of labor), Rav Henkin permitted the use of an elevator or Shabbat if no buttons are pushed. Rav Unterman notes: "I have personally witnessed great Torah sages entering an elevator and travelling to the floor for which a non-Jewish passenger pushed the button; they never raised the possibility of their added weight posing a Halachic problem."

Rav Unterman relates that he was present one Shabbat when the Chafetz Chaim was meeting with other rabbinical figures discussing community matters. When the Chafetz Chaim needed something to be brought to him, one of the rabbis proceeded to ride the elevator along with a non-Jewish passenger to retrieve the item. None of the rabbis, including the Chafetz Chaim, objected to his riding the elevator.

It should be noted that it appears from Igrot Moshe 2:80, that Rav Moshe Feinstein agrees with Rav Henkin and Rav Unterman's ruling that if the elevator is not operated by a Jew, and a non-Jew has not been instructed to operate the elevator, one may ride the elevator.

Rav Halperin's Resolution

Based on the heretofore cited rulings it would appear that Rav Henkin and Rav Unterman's rulings should be considered normative Halacha. Rav Breisch's novel approach comparing elevators to trains received almost no support from other Halachic authorities (see chapter 17 of Maaliot Bishabbat; Rav Hershel Schachter told me that Professor Zev Lev told him that Rav Yaakov Kaminetzsky did not concur with the ruling of the Beit Yitzchak upon which the Chelkat Yaakov bases his ruling). Also, increasing current is permitted by most authorities in case of considerable need (see Minchat Shlomo p. 74 who notes the common practice to engage in conversation with individuals who wear hearing aids despite the fact that this causes increased current flow in the hearing aid). Moreover, the increased current flow is only caused indirectly (Grama) because when one enters the elevator, the motor is not operating. Only when the elevator begins to ascend does the current flow increase. Performing Melacha on Shabbat indirectly is permitted on Shabbat in case of exceptionally great need (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 334:22 and Biur Halacha ad. loc. s.v. Digram).

This would appear to be analogous to the case described by the Gemara on Sanhedrin 77a - the "Sof Chamah Lavo" scenario. This passage describes a case in which one ties someone up and leaves him in the desert at night and then the encroaching sun kills the victim the next day. Rashi (s.v. Sof Chama) explains that since the killing agent (i.e. the sun) was not present when the perpetrator tied up the victim, the murder was committed indirectly (Grama) and the crime will be punished by God, not by Beit Din. Similarly, when one enters the elevator, the motor is not operating; it is only when a passenger is standing still that his weight causes an increase in current. This argument appears to be made by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, as cited in the Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata (I:305 end of note 140). In addition, see Maaliot Bishabbat, pages 172-174, that the increased current is caused by the passenger so indirectly, that the passenger's actions are even beyond the pale of Grama (it is a situation of "Meniat Monea", preventing a preventaive act from occurring). Accordingly, the increased current appears not to be a serious problem and one may take an ascending elevator. Rav Hershel Schachter told this author, however, that this should be avoided if at all possible.

However, Rav Levi Yitzchak Halperin, director of the Institute for Science and Halacha in Jerusalem, published a work on elevators entitled "Maaliot Bishabbat" which revolutionized the way Halachic authorities view elevator usage on Shabbat. Rav Halperin notes in the introduction to the book that he invested no less than sixteen years into investigating the Halachic challenge posed by elevator usage on Shabbat prior to publishing Ma'aliot Bishabbat. Rav Halperin relates that he travelled many times to Europe and the United States to meet with leading elevators manufacturers in the world including Otis, Westinghouse, and the Schindler. His conclusion is that one may ascend on an automated elevator, but he may not descend on an elevator unless special modifications have been made to avoid Halachic pitfalls. Rav Halperin's conclusion is just the opposite of what had been asserted by earlier Poskim. It was previously assumed that taking an ascending elevator posed the most serious problems. Rav Halperin insists that riding an ascending elevator is permitted, but that riding a descending elevator is fraught with Halachic problems. "Maaliot Bishabbat" is a masterpiece and a classic of Halachic literature and we will discuss in the next weeks some of its main points and the criticism of its conclusions from other authorities.

Rav Halperin's Arguments

Rav Halperin points out that the weight of the passenger riding on the elevator assists the elevator's motor in the descent of the elevator. He writes: "If the passenger is responsible for the descent, he is responsible also for illuminating the various lamps, connecting the door motor, the brakes, and numerous other electric circuits which are activated during the descent (Maaliot Bishabbat p. 11 of the English section)."

Rav Halperin points out another problem associated with descending on an elevator. He writes: "When the car is descending with a heavy passenger load it may speed up to a point where the counter-force developed in the motor is greater than the force of the electric power station. When this condition occurs, the motor, rather than aiding the descent, is used to brake the car thus preventing dangerous overspeed. When the speed of a motor increases to a value above that for which it was designed, it automatically becomes a generator. Instead of consuming electrical energy it generates power which is fed into the electric company lines to be used by consumers in the immediate vicinity" (p. 19 of the English section of "Maaliot Bishabbat").

Mr. Y. Kornbluth of Brooklyn, New York (an engineer who advised Rav Halperin on this matter, see Maaliot Bishabbat p.16) told this author in January 1995 that one can perceive this phenomenon at the World Trade Center at times of peak usage of the descending elevators, (around five o'clock in the afternoon) namely, that the lights burn brighter than usual because of the power generated by the descending elevators. I have heard others respond, though, that this situation is unique to unusually tall buildings at high volume usage. Tragically, Poskim have been concerned with the elavator system at the World Trade Center in resolving the Agunah problems generated by the vicious terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Part II