The Use of Elevators on Shabbat: Part III

by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


This week we shall continue our review of the debate between Rav Halperin and Rav Shlomo Zalman whether descending on an elevator constitutes a Halachic problem. Last week we focused on two periods of debate. This week, we will discuss two more areas of debate as well as some other important aspects of this issue.

Dispute #3 – “M’sayei’ah Ein Bo Mamash”

Rav Shlomo Zalman presents a reason why the passenger is not Halachically responsible for the effects of his weight on the operation of the elevator. His argument stems from important categories discussed in the Gemara (Shabbat 92-93). The Mishna (Shabbat 92b) teaches that if two people do a Melacha (forbidden act of labor) that could have been accomplished by one person, then both parties have not violated a biblical prohibition. The Gemara explains that one transgresses a Biblical violation of Shabbat only if he performs a complete Melacha and not merely a part of one. However, both parties have violated a rabbinic prohibition. This scenario is referred to as “Zeh Yachol V’zeh Eino Yachol.”

On the other hand, if both parties are required in order to successfully perform the Melacha, then both have violated a Biblical-level transgression. This category is called “Zeh Eino Yachol V’zeh Eino Yachol.”

A third situation is when one person is capable of performing the Melacha without assistance but performs the Melacha together with a weaker individual who is unable to perform the task alone. This scenario is called “Zeh Yachol V’zeh Eino Yachol.” The actions of the individual who is unable to perform the Melacha without the assistance of the other party is described by the Gemara as “Mesayei’ah Ein Bo Mamash.” “One who merely assists has no significance.”

The Achronim debate whether the one who assists violates a rabbinic prohibition (Taz, Yoreh Deah 198:21) or violates no prohibition altogether (Shach, Nekudat Ha-Kesef, Y.D. 198:21). The Mishna Brurah (328:11) and Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 328:20) rule in accordance with the lenient view of the Shach that one who merely assists has violated no prohibition.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach believes that the elevator passenger is “Mesayei’ah Ein Bo Mamash” – a mere “aide” to the elevator and thus the passenger is not responsible for the effect his weight has on the motor’s functioning. He reasons that:

“It is considered as if the elevator is capable of performing the task alone and the passenger merely assists the elevator, because the elevator is set to ascend and descend regardless of whether anyone enters it.”

Rav Halperin seeks to disprove this argument in chapter 10 of “Maaliot B’Shabbat.” Rav Halperin argues that for someone to be defined as “Eino Yachol” it does not require that the individual be incapable of performing the task alone. Rather, it means that only if in a particular situation the individual is incapable of performing the task alone is he defined as “Eino Yachol.” The source for this assertion is a Tosefta (Shabbat 12:10) which is cited by the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 11:14) which states that:

“If a minor holds a quill and an adult holds the minor’s hand and writes, the adult violates a Biblical prohibition. If the adult holds the quill and a minor holds the adult’s hand and writes the adult has not violated a Biblical prohibition.”

The Ohr Sameach (commenting on the aforementioned Rambam) explains that in the latter scenario the adult is defined as an “Eino Yachol” and thus has not transgressed a Torah level prohibition. Rav Halperin points out that even though an adult is normally capable of writing without assistance, he is nonetheless defined as an “Eino Yachol” in the scenario outlined by the Tosefta. Accordingly, Rav Halperin concludes:

“Therefore, if because of passenger’s weight in the elevator the current flow in the motor is reduced to the extent that with that amount of current flow it would not be capable of moving the elevator downward, the elevator is defined as an “Eino Yachol” and the passengers are responsible for the descent of the elevator. This applies whether the passenger weight suffices to move the elevator without the motor’s assistance (passengers = “yachol”; elevator = “eino yachol”) or whether the passenger weight works in combination with the motor to move the elevator downward (passenger = “eino yachol”; elevator = “eino yachol”).

Professor Lev’s and Rav Yisrael Rozen’s attempts to refute this argument of Rav Halperin appear in essays published in the fifth volume of Techumin on this topic (pp.70-72 and 86-93).

Dispute #4

A fourth argument is suggested by Rav Shlomo Zalman and further developed by Rav Yitzchak Rozen (Techumin 5:83-86). The source for this point is a Tosafot which appears in Pesachim 25b (s.v. Af) and Sanhedrin 74b (s.v. V’ha Ester). Tosafot elaborates on the Gemara’s rule that one must sacrifice his life rather than kill another (“Yeihareg V’al Yaavor”). The basis for this rule is in the celebrated phrase, “how do you know that the other person’s blood is not redder than yours?” (see Rashi’s ad.loc.)

Tosafot adds:

“In a situation where one is not actively killing such as if bandits threaten to push someone on a baby to kill it, it appears that one is not required to sacrifice his life instead of cooperating in this terrible deed. The reason for this is that he can claim, “how do I know that the baby’s blood is redder than my blood” since he is merely passively cooperating in the murderous act.

Rav Shlomo Zalman reasons that:

“If a Jew was coerced by a non-Jew to enter a descending elevator under which a baby was placed in order to be crushed, the Jew does not have to sacrifice his life rather than enter the elevator, even though he performs an action by entering the elevator. This is because entering the elevator is not contributing to the murder of the baby because the elevator would have killed the infant even if he didn’t enter the elevator. Similarly, as far as the laws of Shabbat are concerned, entering the elevator should not be considered as significantly contributing to the elevator’s descent.”

Rav Yisrael Rozen further elaborates on this point. He reasons that one is not using his weight to cause the elevator to descend. Rather, the elevator’s motor is utilizing the passenger’s weight to cause the elevator to descend. The person is not using his weight to effect a result, the elevator is using the passenger’s weight to effect a result. Thus, the passenger is not responsible for the effect his weight has on the elevator’s descent. Rav Shlomo Zalman also notes that one is only considered to be effecting the motor “indirectly” (“Grama”) as we explained in the first essay we wrote on this topic.

One may counter argue that when one willingly enters an elevator and stands passively while the elevator is using his weight is not analogous to the scenario described by Tosafot. Rav Hershel Schachter pointed out to this author that in Tosafot’s scenario there is coercion from beginning whereas the passenger willingly enters the elevator. Rav Halperin develops this point in chapter eight of “Maaliot B’Shabbat”. He points out that one is forbidden to willingly put himself into a situation in which he will later be forced to desecrate Shabbat. Rav Halperin’s source for this assertion is the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 266:4, Shach ad., and Biur Hagra (see, however, Mishna Brura 248:2) who cites opinions that permit one, for the sake of fulfilling a mitzvah, to willingly enter a situation on Shabbat in which he will likely be forced to desecrate Shabbat.