Getting the shaft: Sabbath elevators a no-no after rabbinical ruling

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jerusalem  |  The Jewish day of rest has become a bit more labor-intensive for Yosef Ball.

Ball and his wife, who are Orthodox, are no longer using elevators custom-built for Shabbat, 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.

Halachah 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 of high-rises to decide if they’re up for the steep hike home from synagogue on Saturdays.

An Orthodox family waits for a Sabbath elevator in Jerusalem during Shabbat on Oct. 23. photo/ap/tara todras-whitehill

The decision stretches far beyond Israel’s borders. Buildings with Shabbat elevators are common in Orthodox communities around the world, and residents in places such 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.

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 proclaimed. And she added: “My husband and I have difficulty with the stairs, so we need the elevator.”

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 because they were deemed too comfortable for the somber fasting holiday.

And in 2004, he prohibited ultra-Orthodox women from wearing Indian-made wigs because the hair may have been used in idol-worshipping ceremonies, which are forbidden under Jewish law.

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 the Orthodox 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.”