A Shabbat elevator is an elevator which works in a special mode, operating automatically, a way to circumvent the Jewish law requiring observers to abstain from operating electric switches on Shabbat. An elevator may be marked with a sign noting that it is specially configured for Shabbat observance. There are several ways the elevator works (going up and down); stopping at every floor, stopping at alternate floors, or rising to the top floor and stopping while going down.
Shabbat elevators can be found in areas of large Jewish population in Israel, the United States, Canada, Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk), Argentina and Brazil. They are typically found in big hotels, Israeli hospitals and other health institutions, apartment buildings, and in some synagogues.
The Israeli Knesset passed a special Shabbat elevator law in 2001 ordering the planning and building of all residential buildings, and public buildings which have more than one elevator, to install a control mechanism for Shabbat (Shabbat module) in one of the elevators.
In this mode, an elevator will stop automatically at every floor, allowing people to step in and out without having to press any buttons. Otherwise it is prohibited to use an elevator on Shabbat because pressing the button to operate the elevator closes a circuit, which violates the prohibition of building on Shabbat, and may also indirectly lead to "writing" of the new floor number in the display.
A non-Jew known as a Shabbos goy may be employed to press the buttons and hold the door for Jewish people, in buildings that do not have Shabbat elevators. As discussed in that article, a non-Jew is not expected to keep the Sabbath like a Jew. Hence a Jew may benefit from work performed by a goy if the goy performs this work for his own good and of his own free will. A borderline case is when a Jew hints to a non-Jew that he wants him to perform a certain service without explicitly asking him. These borderline cases are considered legitimate in most Jewish communities.
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There are three categories of criticism against using a Shabbat elevator. First, even in Shabbat mode the user is indirectly violating Shabbat. Second, even if it is altogether permitted, a healthy person should not resort to circumventing the laws of Shabbat by performing an otherwise prohibited activity in a technically permissible manner. Finally, they are inefficient due to their continuous energy usage.
Elevators may be prohibited anyway
Some halakhic authorities rule that this classic Shabbat elevator does not fully overcome the relevant halakhic issues. Among other things, a person's weight on a downward-traveling elevator can be considered to partly cause the elevator’s descent, and therefore the activation of all electric circuits which come into play as a result of it. Thus, when a person ascends in an elevator, the motor that moves the counterweight down and the elevator car up is operating to counteract the rider's weight, which is a hindrance to make operation of the elevator require more work-energy. However, when a person descends an elevator, the person's weight helps move the elevator in the downward direction, so the person is considered physically to cause the elevator to move down. Accordingly, some authorities permit ascending in an elevator but prohibit descending.
The movement of an elevator may also indirectly cause other forbidden actions to take place. For example, in many systems, one light turns off and another light turns on as the elevator passes from one floor to the next. Turning on incandescent floor lights represents a Biblical prohibition against kindling a fire on the Sabbath. The Zomet Institute and the Institute for Science and Halacha modify elevators to avoid these problematic issues.
Elevators are permitted but should not be used
The use of an elevator in a Shabbat mode is an example of a legal workaround, where seemingly "forbidden" acts can be performed by modifying the relevant technology to such an extent that no law is actually violated. Usage of a Shabbat elevator by those who are otherwise capable is considered by some rabbinical authorities as a "violation" of Shabbat, therefore many Orthodox Jews might prefer to walk up or down the stairs instead of taking an elevator.
Energy waste from continuous operation
In comparison to a normal elevator which remains stationary until needed, Shabbat mode has the side effect of wasting considerable amounts of energy, needlessly running the elevator car sequentially up and down every floor of a building, repeatedly servicing floors where it is not needed. For a tall building with many floors, the car must move on a frequent enough basis so as to not cause undue delay for potential users that will not touch the controls as it opens the doors on every floor up the building.
- Photo of an inscription outside a Sabbath elevator
- Israeli Planning and Building Law - 1965 Chapter 158A A1 (Hebrew)
- A new law: to establish Shabbat elevators in Story-Buildings Ynet, 25 July 2007 (Hebrew)
- Nahshoni, Kobi. Rabbi Elyashiv: Don't use Shabbat elevators, Ynet, (October 02, 2009)
- Exodus 35:3. Torah Exodus 35:3
- D.R. Bannett, The Sabbath Elevator Question, Elevators and Shabbat, The Institute for Science and Halacha.
- Rabbi L.Y. Halperin, Shabbat and Electricity, The Institute for Science and Halacha.
- Alan Dundes, Shabbat Elevator and Other Sabbath Subterfuges: An Unorthodox Essay on Circumventing Custom and Jewish Character, Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc., February 2002, ISDN:0742516717