Jerusalem – The Heights of Halacha On The Use Of Shabbos Elevators


    Jerusalem – The written ban by four prominent haredi leaders, including Rabbi Y.S. Elyashiv, just as tourists flooded local hotels for Succot, created much media attention and confusion. Nothing has developed in elevator technology to warrant a new controversy, and it remains unclear what generated this pronouncement. The larger issues regarding elevators on Shabbat, however, remain worthy of review.

    Operating elevators violates Shabbat by generating electricity and activating button and floor lights. While stairs represent the easiest (and healthiest) alternative, this remains unfeasible with the young or infirm and in tall apartment towers. This problem has been addressed by either asking non-Jews to operate the elevator or by altering the elevators to run automatically.

    While the help of gentiles remains logistically simple, it remains legally problematic. Generally speaking, one may not request a non-Jew to perform any actions which remain prohibited for Jews to perform (amira le-akum), even if this is prearranged before Shabbat. While one midrash derives this proscription from the Torah itself (Mechilta Bo 9), most halachists believe the sages enacted it to protect the spirit of the day, prevent denigration of Shabbat restrictions or to forbid objectionable behavior by one’s representative. The sages further forbid benefiting from gentile activity performed for the sake of a Jew, even if he acted on his own behest. Yet when a non-Jew acts for himself (to turn on the lights to enter a dark room, for example), a Jew may enjoy the consequences of this action (OC 276:1). Certain dispensations, however, were afforded in cases of need, such as to care for the sick or elderly (OC 328:17).

    Decisors remain divided whether one may ask a non-Jew to operate an elevator to allow residents to attend synagogue services and Shabbat meals. The Talmud permitted asking a gentile to violate rabbinic prohibitions to facilitate circumcisions on Shabbat (Eruvin 67b). While some commentators limited this leniency to circumcisions alone, Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo employed it to assist fulfilling any commandment (OC 307:5). One decisor went further to allow even biblical prohibitions, a position cited by Rabbi Moshe Isserles. Some entirely dismiss this opinion (MB 276:24), thereby rendering it prohibited in our case (Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata 30:54). Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, however, reportedly permitted Manhattan apartment dwellers to use this dispensation, with others more hesitantly permitting it when done on an ad-hoc basis and arranged before Shabbat (Yalkut Yosef Shabbat II:279). There remains greater room for leniency on festivals, when the proscriptions against electricity are narrower and less severe (Yabia Omer OC 2:26).

    As a better solution, Israeli engineers developed automated systems, colloquially known as “Shabbat elevators,” which stop on desired floors at fixed intervals and times. These elevators have become so popular that Israeli law mandates all new buildings with multiple elevators to include at least one with this capability. Not all rabbinic decisors, however, have embraced this invention, with many claiming that each additional rider adds weight that increases the amount of electricity drawn (Minhat Yitzhak 3:60).

    The most outspoken proponent of this view is Rabbi Mordechai Halperin, director of Jerusalem’s Institute for Science and Halacha. After 17 years of painstaking research, he concluded that body weight contributes significantly to an elevator’s descent, but not to its ascent. He further asserted that the increased weight during descents can actually transform the motor into a generator for electric company lines, especially on extremely high elevators. Most importantly, he claimed that one descending on an elevator incurs responsibility for the impact of his weight on the lamps and motor (Ma’aliyot Beshabbat). To obviate these problems, he developed an alternative mechanic system that avoids these problems. (Automated escalators do not possess any of these problems and are nearly universally deemed permissible.)

    Rabbi Halperin’s thesis, however, was criticized by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (SS”K 23:49) as well as two leading techno-halacha experts, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen and Prof. Zev Lev (Tehumin 5). They fundamentally contended that one’s weight does not meet the required intent and causation necessary for violating proscriptive Shabbat behavior (melechet mahshevet). The passenger’s impact remains at best indirect, rendering it negligible to the elevator’s ultimate operation. Accordingly, when left with no choice, one could enter an elevator and simply “roam” to the floor to which one gets taken by non-Jewish passengers attending to their own needs. The Tzomet Institute, run by Rabbi Rozen, authorizes a more simplified (and cheaper) Shabbat elevator, safely neutralizing certain features like weighing mechanisms to remove some of the concerns posited by Rabbi Halperin.

    Some rabbis never accepted the Shabbat elevator solutions proposed by these institutes, as reiterated in the recent pronouncement. I see no reason, however, why those who previously used these elevators should stop doing so, and humbly submit that the fundamentally lenient position taken by Rabbi Auerbach remains compelling.

    The writer, editor of Tradition Online and its Text & Texture blog (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.
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    1. This article restates what is already widely known amongst those who follow issues in technology and halacha, namely that BOTH certifying organizations require that the weighing mechanism be disabled.

      Since the mechanism is already disabled and is not functioning, it remains a mystery as to why these elevators are assur. The article in last week’s VIN said that it was because of the weighing mechanism. But this article and all others indicate that the mechanism is not even active.

      It seems to me that rather than hear news about a Kol Koreh, we should hear something about the halachic reasoning behind this. Why should the reasoning be a mystery?

    2. Puleeze: If there is no new real reason for this stringency, then why?
      It has gotten out of hand with all the chumras that’s going on. These new stringencies are really ‘sinful’ making life more difficult with really no halachic basis for them. There must be some underlying reasons for all this. Either something sinister – or just that there is a group of chareidim that have gone bezerk, like fundamentalists. This doesn’t help bringing Jews back to tshuva – it’s a turnoff! Do not add & do not diminish! Like to read if anyone has a normal, logical reason for all this!

    3. It was actually about 40 years ago (not 17) that Rav Halperin contacted me and another Shomer Shabbos electrical engineer working at Otis Elevator company to go through the fine details of Physics / Technology and Halachah involved in the process of developing a Shabbos elevator. We spent months defining and refining every single detail.

    4. Having carefully analysed the halachic issues concerning electricity per se, in spite of the number of gedolim who assur its use, I remain at a loss as to why it is actually assur. I have been unable to get any clear answer from the many dayanim on the issue and what makes it worse, is the number of devices that we use that generate currents (specifically magnetic divices that generate currents, albeit not used by us, as a matter of course – i.e. p’sik reishei).

      I appreciate that lights or other heating devices could prove problematic – but, whilst on the subject, what about lights that produce no or little heat? By way of example, a diving stick which produces light without any heat (even if some heat were produced, I think it would be difficult to equate with any form of fire/cooking).

      It is clear looking through the development of halachos on electricity, that what constitutes the malachah being infringed changes according to which posek is dealing with it plus the age in which the sha’alah is being dealt with – as the world is becoming ever more technical, old reasoning often fails falsing some new reason to put forward.

      I would hope that this comment might open some clear discussion on the subject and perhaps result in many old and current sha’alos being reassessed.

      • I totally agree with the spirit of your comments. It makes little sense that restrictions are being placed upon people with absolutely no reference to the original intent or spirit of halacha or to changes in technology.

        Furthermore, if right wing / charedi Rabbi’s continue on their current course of banning the use of just about any modern technology, it will only cause further assimilation and splintering among members of mainstream Orthodox Judaism.

        I would love to see a more thorough examination of not just the elevator issue, but of technology and electricity use in general on Shabbat and YT.

      • I too have researched the shaila of electricity. The conclusion one reaches is that for better or worse we are noheig to refrain from electricity use on Shabbos. That is the only intellectually honest position. Anyone who says otherwise either has not learned the sugya, or is not being intellectually honest, i.e. they have some sort of secondary gain from saying otherwise.

        Our gedolim do not permit electricity, for the most part, and I am not looking to start using it either. We don’t use electricity and that’s it. I think #6 agrees with that, however, the honest answer to why we don’t use electricity is because gedolim decided we shouldn’t period.

        You should know, R’ Heineman in Baltimore has raised some eyebrows with things he allows like using a shinui to shut off an alarm clock ect… But the emes is that he is right and he is a big mayven in these areas. That’s why he allows the shabbos mode appliances etc…

        #6 It sounds like you learned the sugya and already know the answer.

        • Correct – you will not find that I differ from anyone else in what I do halachically – even though, in some instances, the halacha may be in question.

          However, if there is an alternative view to follow – I will usually follow that one. Nothing to do with electricity – by way of example . . . the MB states that, based on the Eliah Rabah, one may not place a new lace in an old shoe on Shabbos – as all the other poskim disagree with the Eliah Rabah (Magan Avrohom, Aishel Avraham, Kitzur, Rav Shulchan Oruch, Misgeres HaShulchan – see Oruch HaShulchan), with the greatest respect to the MB, I will follow the others – in view of the many that pasken l’kulah, perhaps someone might explain how the MB came to his decision. This is not the only instance of such issues and not just with the MB.

          I would stress that I am meticulous in halachic practice though.

          • Feel free to follow whoever you want, but your comments sound like you have a beef with the chofetz chaim and are demanding he explain himself to you. Many people disagree with one psak of the m”b or another. The tone in which the disagreement is expressed is in my opinion as important, if not more important, than the disagreement itself.

      • The Rabbonim should also not partake of any kiddushes on Shabbos because they will be causing refridgerators to be opened and closed causing the compressors to go on and off, thus causing other Yidden to be Mechalal Shabbos.

    5. The reason for the tumult is the ongoing attempt by asskonim who are trying to earn olam habo by imposing stringencies on Klal Yisroel.
      This has been a problem for many years now.
      The only version of olam habo they will get is the other one. And it will be well deserved.

    6. See this week’s Jewish Press – Machberes article – on page 53 that comes to the same conclusion as this article does and he brings down all the mareh mekomos that discuss elevators on Shabbos. A very worthwhile red and limud.

    7. First, I believe that you are confusing Rav Levi Yitzchak Halperin with Rav Mordechai Halperin. Second, the real question is why kol koreis about Shabbos elevators? Anyone who has a personal sheilah is free to ask. The unfortunate answer is because there is a significant segment of the Charedei world that is obsessed with their own and other’s ben adom l’makom without the same regard to ben adom l’chaveiro. Its too bad the “gedolim” don’t on their own issue kol koreis about stealing, lying and ben adom l’chaveiro and allow others to manipulate them to issue kol koreis on matters such as these. In so doing,they make ktanim of themselves.

    8. It is my understanding that some poskim prohibit electricity on the theory that by completing an electric circuit one violates the issur of boneh (building). Since the weight added when an additional person enters the elevator does not cause a new electrical circuit to be completed, there would appear to be no problem with an automatic elevator according to this view.

      • To point #14 – I do not consider the person who gave the p’sak only the p’sak itself – most current halachic practices are usually based on a named gadol rather than a beis din who could well have invalidated the views of even the greatest gadol sheb’dor as the halocha is acharie rabim l’hatos! Hence, I stated, with the greatest respect to the Chafeitz Chayim, the majority view in the halacha quoted should be followed (and especially as the other poskim state that the Eliah Rabah did not interpret Tosfos quite correctly and, ko’ach d’hatira odif).

        As to the issue of boneh for electricity (Chazon Ish) – on the same lines opening and closing doors/windows would come under the same issur! In any event, most current (excuse the pun) electronic systems have electronic semiconductor type switches in which no physical opening and closing can be seen – it’s just too far removed from boneh on both issues to consider electricity under that category.

    9. We should all do our best to make the observance of shabbos as difficult as possible. If we make shabbos too easy and enjoyable more people may start to observe it and think how crowded olam habba will become.

    10. Based on previous “Chumras” (fish, zebus, sheitels) it’s fair to assume that now too, somebody is about to launch a new kashrus for elevators.

      But the tzibur gets suckered in every time.

    11. #18 and #19

      I find these comments of great interest – not for the tongue in cheek comments but for the general impression that has resulted from the dinim of Shabbos.

      The day of Shabbos was given as day of rest – with all the later opinions as to it being a day of rest from the mundane and set aside for the spiritual, the Torah clearly emphasises this meaning and makes no mention of any spiritual jobs to be done.

      In addition to this aspect (by the way, I do use the Shabbos for my spiritual needs but I believe this is something that cannot be imposed – it’s personal), the laws, and that one could be chayav skeela/korban for any infringement, does not make it a relaxing day but one of terror for many!!

      Whilst this is not the place to raise the issue, this is something that needs to be addressed by Rabbonim, who, in the latter times, seem to be making any form of enjoyment (especially for the younger of the communities) ossur.

    12. This article simply makes clear a point that many VIN readers observed in the past several weeks. The rabbonim today have failed to provided reasoned explainations of their psaks or kol korrehs. Just as a court must give deference to prior decisions and explain when they deviate from prior practice so too is a rav bound under halacha to provide such guidance. There has been an utter failure recently for rabbonim to provide reasoned decisions with proper citations to explain their proposed changes. Until they do, the percentage of frumme yiddin who will blindly follow their “chumrah of the day” is rapidly diminishing along with the traditional deference and respect for the rabbinate in general.

    13. Didn’t the article about this new psak to forbid the shabbos elevators refer to the fact that the newer elevators nowadays have a digital display. And it was due to this fact that the previous piskie halachos are no longer?

      If this is in fact true, then this current article, which does not address the digital display issue, has not addressed the current contrivercy.

      Also, I was told by a friend who had attended a OU convention years ago in Baltimore, that Rav Herschel Schechter publicly discussed shabbos elevators during his address and at that time concluded that they should not be used (unless on is old or sickly).

    14. I would just like for these poskim to explain to my 15 year old niece who has cerebral palsy and cannot climb stairs what she should do if the only apartment her parents can find in Eretz Yisroel is on a high floor and there is a Shabbos elevator in the building? Not leave the apartment? Don’t go to shul? Be a shut in? This is chesed?


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