Some say, “A Shabbat elevator is no way for a good Orthodox Jew to go down …”

It has been said that necessity is often the mother of invention. The Sabbath is only one good case in point.  Modern Orthodox engineers developed a special Sabbath elevator programmed to stop at designated floors so observant passengers never have to press buttons.  Similar machines have been developed by the Tsomot Institute for milking cows and operating electric-powered wheelchairs on the Sabbath.

The Ultra-Orthodox (a.k.a. Haredi = “Tremblers,” or “Quakers”) never cease to surprise—even when it comes to the religious sensibilities of their own following. A number of leading Haredi rabbis decided to ban the use of the famous “Shabbat elevator,” which has been used for several decades since 1964. In addition, many large families with small children living on the upper floors will also be affected, besides hospitals and hotels. Yet, the massive loss of money, inconvenience and hardship never seems to register on the Haredi hierarchy of values.

What makes this recent decree all the more interesting is the fact that even the ultra-Orthodox have expressed surprise and disdain at this latest attempt by the Haredi rabbis to micro-manage their lives. For older Haredi Jews living in penthouse apartments, the Shabbat elevator is the only way for them to get from their rooms on the upper floors to the dining hall and synagogue.

Like the innocent child from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, pious Jews who have long used the Shabbat elevator quipped, “What changed suddenly? What was kosher until now is suddenly treife?” Similar reactions can be heard throughout the elderly populated city of Tovei Ha’Ir in Israel and they are hardly alone. For the high-rising apartments of Manhattan, the rabbinic ruling has effectively kept many Jews confined to their home on the Sabbath.

Arguably, just because some rabbis frown upon the Shabbat elevator doesn’t mean that every person who identifies as Orthodox or Haredi has to abide by this ruling. The Halacha allows for a rich diversity of viewpoints. Perhaps more importantly, the Haredi Sabbath ruling ban is yet another example of how certain controversial rabbis continue to expand their sphere of influence regardless of the obvious hardships their decrees cause other people. If nothing else, it is an example of the type of rabbinical decree that should not be made because it imposes too much rigor on the local Jewish communities.

One of the underlying concepts in Halachic literature is the notion of “grama,” or “indirect causation.” The majority of Halachic scholars take a fairly liberal attitude toward indirect causation. Normally, a person flips a switch and directly completes an electrical circuit. In a grama system, the circuit is complete all the time, but on the Sabbath a blocking force is introduced to stop the current. When activated, the grama switch removes that block. The result: electricity by indirection, which the scholars say is permitted.

To an onlooker, this may sound like a silly semantic game and arguably, they would probably be correct. The simple truth is that the rabbis have never universally accepted the idea that electricity is akin to fire. One could make an interesting argument that electricity ought to be compared more to water vis-à-vis “fire.”

Electricians speak about electricity possessing a “flow,” or a “current,” which is the same exact phraseology found with respect to water. Hence, the turning on or off of an electrical switch is no different than turning off a common water faucet.  Halachic discourse is a type of language game and the end-results of a study will largely depend upon the rules that two people or more agree upon from the start. For the record, ask most electricians or architects, they will agree that shutting off a button or flipping a switch does not cause a fire of any kind;  quite the contrary: sparks are not supposed to be there and every effort is made to avoid them, because they cause fires in one’s walls.

Pushing a button or flipping the switch is no different in an electric circuit than it is in turning on the spigot of one’s sink or faucet – it simply allows the product that was already present to become accessible. The water is pumped to the house using powered pump stations which use electricity to function – so if using water taps is acceptable on Shabbat and Yom Tov, the same logic ought to dictate that using electric lights and appliances should also be. They both arrive and operate in exactly the same manner.

Contrary to what we have been told, not  all Halachic scholars agree that electricity is akin to lighting a fire.  One of the most widely respected Haredi rabbis of Israel, Rav S. Z. Auerbach, wrote a pamphlet in his youth why turning on an electric switch is NOT considered boneh “building.” Although he concluded that electricity should be forbidden for different reasons, he effectively demolished the belief that electricity was akin to lighting a fire. As a young man, he went a prominent Jerusalem scholar who conceded but remarked, “Why would anyone think it’s prohibited that you’re trying to prove it is permitted!”

Another one of the great Sephardic rabbis of the previous generations, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, once concluded that the question about electricity on Shabbat centers around the propriety of grama (cited in Hasmal B’Halacha, Vol 1). One early 20th century scholar, Baruch Halevi Epstein, author of the famous Aruch HaShulchan, ruled back in 1903 that electricity was not related to fire and the flicking of a switch was not prohibited on Shabbat. Nor was it, he argued, comparable to “building”  since the opening or closing an electrical circuit was temporary, and non-permanent boneh  and was like analogous to opening or closing a door.

In summary, some see turning on an electrical switch as a biblical prohibition, others as a rabbinic prohibition, while others still view it as a matter of causation; those authorities that prohibit indirect causation, will obviously prohibit turning on or off an electrical switch. On the other hand, those who permit all indirect causation, will have no theoretical problem whatsoever with electricity on Shabbat. Obviously, it may depend more on the kind of activity one is using the electrical device (power saw, boiling water, etc.), which determines the degree of culpability.

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