The Shabbat Elevator

Transport, Religion

And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.

The Shabbat: a day meant for observance and remembrance, but better known for its strict rules. Observant Jews are banned from performing 39 manual labor tasks, including creating sparks and fires – and, by extension, electricity. So as the last rays of the sun disappear every Friday, elevators across Israel and the world's Jewish diaspora switch to Shabbat mode, automatically stopping at every floor to ensure a return home without a tedious trek up the stairs. Those with less-equipped buildings can hitch a ride with a neighbor or get help from a doorman, but it is strictly forbidden to ask anyone to press the button. If all else fails, there's always the stairs.

Since the 1960s, as highrise apartment buildings have grown, so has the need for Shabbat elevators. The Orthodox rabbinate made the devices one of the few exceptions to Talmudic rules and Israel's parliament passed a law requiring all buildings with more than one elevator to designate one a Shabbat elevator. Some popped up in apartment buildings of major cities, as well as in hotels and hospitals.

But not everyone thinks they're kosher. Three years ago, prominent Orthodox Rabbis in Israel spoke to elevator technicians and concluded that the devices may be a desecration of the Sabbath. The question revolved around whether the elevator was aware of how many people were in it, and if, by adjusting its power according to the weight, the simple act of entering it became equivalent to pressing a button.

The main criticism, though, might come from those outside the faith, who complain that the Shabbat elevators are too slow. Solutions like pre-programming the elevator to stop automatically only on specific floors have been put in place. In one New York luxury apartment building, the elevator shoots up to the penthouse first and then works its way down; those living on the highest floors, who have the most steps to climb or the longest time to wait, get priority. Not so coincidentally, they also occupy the most expensive apartments.


Blog courtesy of Pauline Eiferman

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