Many observant Jews in Israel don’t think twice about stepping into a Shabbat elevator. But should they?
“In several random tests we conducted in hotels, apartment buildings, and hospitals in Israel, there were serious problems with the mechanisms of Shabbat elevators,” Rabbi Menachem Perl, head of the Tzomet Institute in Israel, recently told The Jewish Press. “Unless I know a Shabbat elevator is being checked from time to time by one of our elevator kashrut teams, I prefer to climbs the stairs,” he said.
Founded by Rabbi Yisrael Rosen 35 years ago, Tzomet specializes in creating Shabbat elevators, electric wheelchairs, metal detectors, security jeeps, and coffee machines. Its Shabbat elevator mechanism – which takes over an elevator’s operational system on Shabbat – won the approval of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in Israel and Rabbi Yosef Eliahu Henkin in America several decades ago.
But many factors, Rabbi Perl warned, can knock a precisely-set Shabbat elevator system out of sync. “Like cars and electrical appliances, elevators need repair from time to time,” he said.
“During the week, when an elevator gets stuck on the 14th floor, the workers who repair it want to get the elevator running again safely,” he said. “[They don’t care about] the Shabbat operation of the system. And by banging away and resetting normal operational mechanisms, they can easily offset the Shabbat system, which [ordinarily] cancels the light sensors in the doors and the influence of passenger weight on the motor.”
How often must a Shabbat elevator be checked? “In the case of apartment buildings,” he said, “if a halachic supervisor isn’t called in at least once every three years to check out the Shabbat mechanism, Jews are riding at their own risk. For a busy hotel or hospital, we advise that a check be made once a year to determine if the original kosher certificate is still valid.”
How can a Jew in a hotel, or someone visiting a patient in a hospital, know if the Shabbat elevator is kosher? “The only way is by making sure the kosher certificate in the elevator is up to date. In cases where the elevator doesn’t display a certificate from some accredited halachic source, I’d advise a potential passenger not to step into it,” he said.
“Asking the hospital’s ‘mara d’atra’ won’t always help,” he added. “I personally encountered a case where a hospital rabbi insisted all the building’s Shabbat elevators were kosher l’mehadrin, until an inspection proved that four out of five of them had faulty Shabbat mechanisms simply because they hadn’t been checked and reset.”
Tzomet said it doesn’t have a list of the problematic hotels and hospitals in Israel – “the ones we did inspect corrected the problems quickly so as not to place a stumbling block before the blind” – but Rabbi Perl said, “I can reveal that out of 50 hotels in Eilat, only eight have Shabbat elevators that have been checked by a qualified halachic authority.”
What about Shabbat elevators in America? Rabbi Perl replied, “In Israel, there is a law that all buildings with more than one elevator must have a Shabbat elevator. That means that at least at the beginning of the Shabbat elevator’s operation, it must be checked to meet halachic standards. There is no such law in America. You don’t have to be an engineering genius to draw the necessary conclusion.”