The Shabbos Elevator

Rabbi Gil Student writes: A ruling by leading authorities in Israel was recently published in a newspaper, prohibiting the use of so-called "Shabbos Elevators" (I, II). This has led to a big confusion, with people objecting and be unsure of how to act.

I’m not sure what the big suprise or confusion is all about. Shabbos Elevators have long been controversial, with authorities on both sides of the issue. See R. Chaim Jachter’s four-part essay on this subject (I, II, III, IV). Engineers have attempted to alleviate all possible problems with these elevators but I am not aware that their solutions have been universally accepted. As with most things, this is a matter of debate. I personally never use Shabbos Elevators but I also never really had a need to. The one time I was on a high floor in a hotel in Israel on Shabbos, I used the stairs. But I’m not saying that you have to do that. Ask your rabbi.

What concerned me, though, was that the newspaper ruling was blanket. It did not mention that people with extenuating circumstances should consult with their rabbi. There are leniencies, which understandably vary based on a rabbi’s views on the relevant subjects but there are nevertheless leniencies in some situations according to everyone. The last thing we need is someone old or sick having a heart attack because they read in the newspaper that leading Torah authorities say they have to take the stairs.

Similarly, there was a bit of a ruckus before Yom Kippur when a newspaper reported that R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv recommends against wearing Crocs on Yom Kippur (link). This is something that he has been saying for years and that the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 614:5) and R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 210) shared this view. It’s a disagreement, and an old one at that.

The bottom line is, as I’ve been saying for a long time, don’t decide halakhah based on what you read in newspapers. Ask your rabbi, just like you did in the past and will continue doing in the future.

MARK POSTS: I saw at least 10-15 people in my very Chareidi minyan on Yom Kippur wearing Crocs. The ones who weren’t were mostly older folks who still don’t know that they exist.

JOSEPH KAPLAN WRITES: There are two problems. First, instead of only telling people not to go by what they read in newspapers, perhaps we should also tell the "leading authorities" not to publish their dogmatic "piskei halacha," with no reasoning, discussion or support, in newspapers. The second problem was the arrogance of the language of the pronouncement. Ignore what anybody else says; we know better than everybody. We’re the only experts; everybody else is wrong. One of your points, Gil, as I understand it, is that this matter has authorities on both sides. Well, not according to the "leading authorities"; only what they say is meaningful.

So, there is much of an ado because the "leading authorities" made it a big deal with an arrogant edict from on high which they thought appropriate to publicize in newspapers. And it will also be much of an ado when elderly people miss shul for the first time in decades on shabbat or yom tov because of this or, God forbid, collapse from a heart attack when trudging up the stairs. If this is the care, thought and sensitivity that "leading authorities" put into their decision making, then I want no part of such authorities.

TZVEE WRITES: Joseph Kaplan is of course correct. But due to the complete lack of a hierarchy of authorities in Orthodoxy, don’t expect any resolution of this shortcoming. The explosion of reporting in new media most certainly will exacerbate this weakness.

DOV POSTS: The aspect of things that shocked me was that virtually all modern Orthodox blog readers and commenters couldn’t relate to either issue as a true halachic issue. Hundreds of responses on dozens of blogs were ranting and raving about poskim who pasken "without any basis in halacha" or "disconnected from reality" or "just for Chareidim who don’t think" or "trying to make life difficult." Very very few could even admit that there were halachic issues for either.

Now, I’m just about the most cynical person I know about pashkevilim. I know from discussions with the son of a J-lem Gadol that the situation is truly horrible. But that doesn’t mean that Torah Jews can stop thinking about Torah issues as Torah.

So now we add Rav Gil’s info that Nefesh HaRav was machmer on some form of comfortable shoes, and a commenters info that Rav Neventzal is machmer on crocs. Is that enough for everyone to realize that there may in fact be a halachic issue here?

Note that it’s perfectly possible to be meikil, yet to acknowledge the issue. I happen to have worn Crocs on Yom Kippur, based on most poskim I saw (including Rav Shternbuch) saying that they were mutar min ha’din (even Rav Elyashiv said that min ha’din they were probably mutar, even if he recommended otherwise).

Even more importantly, the elevator psak was written in a way that should make modern Orthodox Jews thrilled – the Rabbonim wrote that they reached their decision based on discussions with experts in technology. We should all be thrilled! Here’s a pashkevil saying that a psak on halacha requires discussion with technical experts, and that psak can change based on developments in technology. The fact that it’s a change to the stricter side (if it stands) shouldn’t change our principles.

MICHAEL SEDLEY WRITES: I’m convinced that the Elevator issue is a marketing scam. Within a few months someone will have "invented" a 100% kosher Shabbat Elevator with the stamp of all the gedolim, and provided he can convince enough people not to use a "regular" Shabbat elevator, hotels and hospitals will be lining up to buy his new product.

The fact that the Oneg Shabbat of hundreds (thousands?) of people, particularly the elderly and sick, may be ruined as they are unable to leave their homes is a small price to pay for the profit he stands to make at the expense of those least able to afford it.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Hirhurim and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.