Key rabbi prohibits elevator use on Sabbath

Monday, October 26, 2009
By Frank Lockwood

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Jewish day of rest has become a bit more labor-intensive for Yosef Ball.

The Orthodox Jew and his wife are no longer using elevators custom-built for the Jewish Sabbath, ever since a rabbinical ruling last month outlawed them. Instead, they have been hiking up seven flights of stairs to get home each Saturday, lugging with them their five young children and a double stroller.

“It’s been very hard, but we’re walking up the stairs slowly and with a lot of patience,” said Ball, 29, while pushing a baby carriage with two toddlers in tow on a recent day.

Jewish law, or halacha, forbids the use of electrical items on the Sabbath. But for decades rabbis have allowed special elevators that automatically stop at every floor without the riders pushing any buttons, permitting Orthodox Jews to ride them and live in high-rise buildings.

The ruling last month by one of Israel’s leading rabbis, calling the elevators a no-go, has reignited a vigorous debate over the lifts, forcing Orthodox Jews living on top floors to decide if they’re up for the steep hike home from synagogue on Saturdays.

The decision stretches far beyond Israel’s borders. Buildings with Shabbat (or Sabbath) elevators are common in Orthodox communities around the world, and residents in places as far away as New York are now struggling with how to interpret the ruling.

Jacob Goldman, a real estate agent in an Orthodox neighborhood in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said residents are not rushing to change their routines. Landlords and building managers have to think about the decree’s possible implications but aren’t likely to take any drastic measures.
“A landlord can’t take away people’s Sabbath elevators just because one person said they can’t be used,” Goldman said, adding that to do so could leave some people housebound on the day of rest.

No single authority interprets religious law for Orthodox Jews. But Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the revered 99-year-old scholar who signed the elevator ruling, is one of the most influential voices in the Jewish world, widely considered to be one of his generation’s greatest authorities on religious law.

Most members of the Reform and Conservative movements, the more liberal streams of Judaism to which most American Jews belong, do not strictly observe the Sabbath and would not be affected by the ruling.

But even the Orthodox community has long been divided over the elevators. Opponents say that while the riders push no button, the weight of the passengers still increases the amount of electricity required to power the lift, thus violating Jewish law.

Still, the elevators, in use for some four decades, have opened the door for large numbers of Orthodox Jews to dwell in modern skyscrapers.

“No young couple is going to move into a ninth or tenth floor building if it becomes a prison for them,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, an ultra-Orthodox commentator in Jerusalem.

Lila Lowell, a Bronx native now living in Jerusalem, installed a Sabbath elevator to access her second-floor apartment and won’t stop using it despite the decree.

“My elevator is kosher,” she said. And she added: “My husband and I have difficulty with the stairs, so we need the elevator.” Her young grandchildren also use the lift.

The ruling, decreed last month, is the latest in a series by Israeli rabbis on the minutiae of applying Jewish law to daily life. Top rabbis can count tens of thousands of followers who abide by their rulings.

Elyashiv has been behind other controversial decisions before. In September, he proclaimed Jews could not wear Crocs shoes on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, because they were deemed too comfortable for the somber fasting holiday.

In 2004, Elyashiv prohibited religious women from wearing Indian-made wigs because the hair may have been used in idol-worshipping ceremonies, which are forbidden under Jewish law. Some religious women cover their heads with wigs or cloth as a sign of modesty.

The elevators are just one of several electric devices that rabbis have found loopholes for, allowing their use. Religious families can use timers for their lights and special hot plates to warm food as long as those hot plates were not switched on or off during the Sabbath.

Hospitals and hotels catering to Orthodox Jews have also had to weigh how to address the elevator decree. The plush David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem said it will leave it up to visitors to decide whether to use one of the four Sabbath elevators, but expects religious guests to request rooms on the lower of its 10 floors.

Jerusalem’s 10-floor Shaare Zedek hospital said it has not received any directive on the matter and will continue operating its Sabbath elevators as usual.

Proponents of the lifts say followers need not change their habits.
“I think people understand nothing has changed technologically,” said Rabbi Israel Rozen, head of the Zomet Institute, which specializes in Sabbath-appropriate electrical equipment. He supports the use of Sabbath elevators.

“But if people decide they want to climb 10 floors because of this, that’s their choice.”

No Responses to “Key rabbi prohibits elevator use on Sabbath”

  1. Marc

    I belong to a reformed Jewish congregation and am by no means a Jewish scholar. But I do not understand how this prohibition complies with the dictates of the Torah that the Sabbath be a day of rest and that Jews not engage in work. How does straining oneself to walk up several flights of stairs qualify as “rest” rather than “work,” whereas allowing a electrical appliance to elevate one without human exertion, in a restful position on the elevator, “work” and not “rest”. The fact that additional electricity is required to enable the elevator to operate increases the work of the elevator, not the human passenger. Since when do elevators or other inanimate objects have to complyn with the Sabbath???

  2. Caleb Powers

    Marc, the article says: “Jewish law, or halacha, forbids the use of electrical items on the Sabbath. But for decades rabbis have allowed special elevators that automatically stop at every floor without the riders pushing any buttons, permitting Orthodox Jews to ride them and live in high-rise buildings.”

    So, it’s not the electrical device that must obey the Sabbath rules, it is the user of it. Apparently walking up five flights of stairs is not defined as “work” under Jewish law, while pushing an elevator button is. To me, this kind of thing is the ultimate manifestation of Jesus’ complaints about the Pharisees and Sadduccees, but then I’m not Jewish, so shouldn’t meddle.

  3. This is why the Jews lost their birthright as God’s “chosen” people. God blessed them with brains. He wants them to grow and use them! Someone who has to be controlled and told what to do all the time will never be ready for an inheritance in God’s Kingdom as one of His actual children.

    These orthodox Jews are obsessed with the law to the point of it becoming a liability rather than a help. It is occurring at the expense of the whole point of the law: Helping and loving one another like God does. The sabbath was meant as a rest from regular work so that we can turn our minds to spiritual enlightenment. I honestly wonder if God isn’t rolling His eyes at these, his gifted but idiotic children, when he sees them actually counting the steps they take on their day of rest. Of course this is exactly what Satan wants, if you believe in him. He wants us to miss the forest for the trees—to be caught up in the minutiae to the expense of seeing the grand vision God wants to share. Only if you can be kept from understanding the grand vision, you will be able to actually kill your God when He comes to explain it.

  4. cheese

    Thanks for enlightening us as to what God thinks, John. This is what I cannot stand about theists. They all think they know what God is thinking, why he did what he did, and what he wants other people to do. This is the height of arrogance. If there really is a god, you know NOTHING about him.

  5. Hey, Cheese, how do YOU know I know nothing about Him? God could have spoken to me directly! (Okay it might have happened just after I painted a whole room without proper ventilation, but hey, I’ll take what I can get!) However, I am basing my description of God here on the actual Hebrew scriptures and writings themselves. These are the same “laws” the orthodox Jews use to justify their ridiculous elevator and electrical use rules.

    Based on what is written, and on what is written about what Jesus said, these orthodox Jews are near the height of hypocrisy in light of what is plainly written. Whether you believe in the scriptures or not is an entirely different matter. If you don’t believe in God, then both sides are pointless. And that’s alright, but if you identify yourself as a follower of the Judeo-Christian religious heritage, you must bow in humble adoration to my superior and gloriously enlightened view. :) (BTW—the latex paints lend themselves particularly well to Other-worldly visions.)

  6. cheese

    He may have spoken to you, but you and I both know he hasn’t. God has never spoken to you directly, and even if he did, how do you know you weren’t hallucinating, it was really him, or it wasn’t something else? God may have been being sarcastic or even have been lying to you. The point is you don’t know, but don’t feel alone, nobody else knows either.

    Everything you’ve learned about God has been pieced together from what you’ve read in the Bible(whichever Bible you read), what you’ve heard in church, and what you’ve heard elsewhere. Caleb would call this all “hearsay” evidence. And that’s exactly what is it: hearsay evidence that’s been passed down for generations. I know you’ve played “telephone” in school before, where a message is passed around orally from one student to another and when it gets to the end, we find that the ending message shares little to no resemblance to the original message. The same phenomenon occurs in religion, especially those that are 2000 years old.

    So when you say things like “This is why the Jews lost their birthright as God’s “chosen” people.” I have to call bullsh*t here, because you are not a reliable source of information on this subject. You don’t know if God ever had chosen people, and even if he did, you don’t know motivated him to change his mind. You are overstepping your boundaries, and that is why I think people who claim to know what God thinks and feels are arrogant, intellectually dishonest pricks.

  7. The language isn’t necessary, Cheese, I get your point. I see you have some issues. The Jews in their scriptures refer to themselves as the “chosen” people and Jesus and His disciples said later that all are “chosen” now. The comments I made are in reference to that scriptural and oral tradition, whatever its source and however corrupt. If you don’t believe or accept that tradition, that is just fine, but it really doesn’t pertain to anything within the context of the Judeo-Christian ethic we’re discussing here.

    All religion, as Caleb has said recently, is illogical on some level or another. It attempts to answer the unanswerable, at least until we have discovered the answers through some other means. Meanwhile, it serves a need. The danger I perceive in the orthodox Jewish tradition—and this is just my opinion; I don’t know everything about their traditions—is that it seems to focus on obedience over judgement. These orthodox Jews are profoundly insecure, in my opinion. Just putting two and two together tells me that not pushing a button vs. climbing ten flights of stairs because they suppose God told them so manifests a level of something going wrong in the head. I’m sure they have reasonable and eloquent explanations (for them), put from my perspective they are almost insane. I don’t wish them ill, and I will fight to the death for their right to practice their religion however they want, but I’m just sharing my opinion and reasoning here. I thought that would be safe since this is a religious website. I am not angry with these Jews (I’m not going to call them “pricks”), I just disagree with them.

  8. Caleb Powers

    And yet, Cheese, I have never had a decent corned beef sandwich outside the island of Manhattan. Well, other than in Brooklyn.

  9. cheese

    I apologize for the language, John, and yes, I do have issues, especially with people who spout ignorance as absolute truth. I agree that religion attempts to answer the unanswerable, but since the answers we have fashioned are completely unverifiable and the methodology we use to find these answers is dubious at best, why do we pretend that these answers are worth more than a grain of salt? At most, you can say they’re guesses, and long-shot guesses at that. So why do people choose one guess to the exclusion of others? What makes one faith more valid than another? They cannot all be right. Some, maybe all, are wrong. You say religion serves a purpose, but what is it? To shield us from uncertainty? To make us feel as though we’re not ignorant? To provide an illusion that we have figured out all the answers? We live in an uncertain universe. Is there not some benefit to recognizing that?

  10. Marc

    Wow, I did not intend to incite such controversy when I posted my question earlier this week. I had simply Googled “Sabbath elevator” in order to find an explanation of a news report I had heard. When I posted the question, I thought I was at a website maintained by a Jewish organization and that I would receive a response from someone knowledgeable in the Talmud. Obviously, I did not examine the website’s name carefully enough.

    Regarding the phrase “the chosen people,” this is often misunderstood by the public (both Jewish and non-Jewish). The phrase appears offensive and suggests that Jews believe G-d “chose” them as some superior race. This is not the biblical interpretation. The phrase refers to G-d’s giving the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. He “chose” the Jews to disseminate the commandments around the world and to spread the belief in monotheism. This did not make Jews superior to others, it just meant they were to be G-d’s instrument in bringing a monotheistic moral code to the peoples of the world. The Jews were surrounded by pagan peoples who engaged in human sacrifice, idolatry, sexual orgies, etc. whatever you may think of Jews and Judaism, the moral code embodied in the Ten Commandments was a significant advance in human civilization.

    After reviewing your responses, I am troubled by the hostility to Orthodox Jews that is evidenced in the remarks. It was certainly not my intention to incite criticism of my own people. No mortal can claim to know the mind of G-d. Therefore, many religious people find solace and comfort by following religous routines in a methodical and repetitive manner. If the worst that Orthodox Jews do is to climb stairs rather than take an elevator, its fine with me. Moreover, the fact that one religious practice appears irrational does not entail that all of that religioun’s doctrines are irrational or lack merit. The fact that some Orthodox Jews may prefer to climb stairs rather than take an elevator does not mean, as John Hamilton suggests, that they are ignoring the dictates of a loving G-d and fail to help and assist one another – both Jewish and Gentile – in other aspects of their lives.

    Regarding the critcisms of Orthbodox Jews for what appears to be irrational behavior, however, one can find what appears to be irrational behavior in all religions. Many Christians believe that upon taking the Eucharist, the wafer becomes the body of Christ. I do not criticize that belief. It is none of my business; but I do find it hard to accept as valid. This belief harms no one; just as the belief that climbing stairs is preferable to taking an elevator harms no one.

    In terms of blind adherence to religious doctrine, Orthodox Jews are certainly not alone in such behavior. The religious wars that plagued Europe after the Reformation are a testament to how far people are willing to distort religious doctrine to prove they are the only true believers. As Johnathan Swift said, there is just enough religion to make us hate one another and not enough to bring us together.


  11. Caleb Powers

    Marc, buddy, I think you just learned that any question from any tradition other than either evangelical Christianity or Mormonism will incur the wrath of some on this board. I can only say that there is a tremendous amount of insensitivity among many conservative Christians as to just how insulting it is to the Jewish people to have their religion portrayed as nothing more than a prelude to Christianity, and to still tar the Jewish people with the death of Jesus, an idea that led to hundreds of years of anti-semitism. I kind of thought we’d gotten beyond that, but every time I think that about some topic, something happens to let me know that we haven’t.

  12. Marc


    Thank you for your insightful words of brotherhood and understanding.


  13. Mark and Caleb,

    Please don’t lump me into some sort of Neo-Nazi Jew hater. I am not! I am one-eighth Jewish myself. (Not that that means anything really. It obviously didn’t to Hitler, who was also part Jewish.) The Mormons don’t hate the Jews, in fact they embrace them. I think it is arrogant of you, Caleb, to insinuate that we do. The title page of the Book of Mormon, written by Mormon himself (the ancient prophet), addresses the book to the Jewish people specifically. I don’t think the Jewish people are deluded. Most of their religious practices are of great value, and all are of some value, I suppose, but some probably not as much as others.

    The point I’m making is about excess. The Orthodox Jews, in my opinion, are walking dangerous ground. If you take the New Testament at face value, and I’m not saying you have to, it clearly shows how taking the “law” to excess can lead to accusations and the death of an innocent Man (or God Himself if you choose to believe in Christianity). The extra effort expended on fanatically observing the rules saps energy that otherwise could have been put to better use. The calories burned by climbing stairs could have been used to hoe a garden to feed the poor. (Really lousy example, I know, but you get my drift.) Let us also not forget about the potential “mental blindness” incurred by dominating ones thoughts with the practicalities of observance to the expense of specifically caring and loving others. This could lead a Jewish priest not to touch someone in need of help on the Sabbath because it would make him “unclean.” I’m not saying this would happen with these particular Orthodox Jews, but without the constraining effects of the larger society, they could easily be on that path.

    Their is great spiritual value to ritual and observance, I don’t deny that, but at some point the trade off becomes too great. Like medieval monks who cloistered themselves up and merely chanted all day thinking that would bring them closer to God rather than helping the window with her garden down in the village, these Orthodox Jews may be going too far in the long run.

    I don’t think, and no reasonable person would, that the Jews today, or even the vast majority of the Jewish people in the New Testament, are in any way responsible for Christ’s death. This was merely a cadre of corrupt leaders that incited a small public into an irrational act that, unfortunately, had unbelievably global consequences. Every religion has them. Even us Mormons. We have a bunch of fanatic people who call themselves “Mormons” down in Texas who abuse and control young women in the name of religion. This is much, much worse than anything the Orthodox Jews are doing by not pushing an elevator button. I’m just pointing out what I perceive to be an imbalance between practices and what I believe to be true religion.

    BTW: You hit the nail on the head, Marc, with the true definition of being a “chosen” people. My statement, and the statement implicit throughout the Book of Mormon, is that the Jews could do a better job of it. They are extremely gifted—attributes they either earned in the pre-mortal existence (Mormon theology) or given them from God for an express purpose. However, like Spider-Man says, with great power (talent, intelligence, etc.) comes great responsibility, and if you fall from such heights, that much greater is the “splat.” I just wish the Orthodox Jews (or the “orthodox” of any faith for that matter) could see this instead of selfishly thinking they are getting the greatest spiritual benefit by huffing up ten flights of stairs every Sabbath.

  14. Cheese, you said “We live in an uncertain universe. Is there not some benefit to recognizing that?” Yes, I believe there is great benefit in that. It can lead us to try to figure things out. But, I would not discredit rain dances to bring on rain until I acquired an understanding of the earth’s water cycle. After I have that knowledge and continued to do rain dances (other than just ceremonially) I would consider myself delusional. In some respects this is what is happening with the Orthodox Jews. They were told by the Lord, or through simple observance over time, that swine meat was “unclean” and should not be eaten. With our understanding of bacterial processes, we now understand why, and like seeding clouds to make it rain, we can “cleanse” the swine so that it can be eaten safely. God could have told the ancient Israelites, “You see, there are these little organisms that live in the meat of particular animals that do such and such….” or He could have simply said (and possibly did), “Don’t touch! You’ll know why when you’re older.” In some ways, I can’t help feeling these Orthodox Jews are not crossing the street on their own when they are fully grown, simply because their mother told them not to. They are either looking for further explanation from their mothers or they fail or refuse to see the actual logic behind her original command. No harm in “ceremonially” not crossing the street, I suppose, to honer the memory of their mothers, but at some point they need to “grow up” and actually become like their mothers and even better. Really, do you think there are no swine in heaven or that pigs are the embodiment of evil? Does God have two sets of dishes in the eternities? This is what I mean by “missing the forest for the trees.” The trees have value, of course, but at some point you’ve got to take it all in perspective if you ever want to become “perfect” even as God is and has commanded us (in the Christian tradition, at least) to be.

  15. Caleb Powers

    John, I don’t think you hate the Jews. I don’t even think the Mormons as a whole are anti-semitic. I do think, though, that the tone of your post about the Jews might reasonably be found offensive, because of the points I mentioned.

    I realize that anti-semitism goes way back in Christianity; Elaine Pagels has written that much of the purpose of the writing of the New Testament was to show the Jews in a bad light, and that particularly the development of the concept of Satan was largely an attempt to identify the Jews with Satan.

    As I said, I would have thought that by today we’d have gotten beyond that kind of thing.

  16. Well, I guess we haven’t then, Caleb. Must be my heritage of hillbilly backwardness still shinning through. I don’t mean to be offensive. Making my points a little too strongly, I suppose, but at least I think I’m getting them across. Don’t we all at times?

    Like I said, I’ll fight to the death for the rights of Orthodox Jews to practice their religion however they choose. I just simply don’t accept their interpretation of beliefs for the reasons I stated above. We Christians owe the Jews a great debt. That said, I don’t think their religion is in any way “inferior” to mine. They have a much richer cultural and traditional heritage of which I am jealous at times. I simply believe differently, but welcome their insight always.

    I’ll work on being less forceful in my “rants.” I can see they may cause more trouble than they solve.


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