Working Around God: Technology, the Pace of Life, and the Shabbos Elevator

Theology and technology in New York City's elevators

Today is Saturday. This is evident on the face of my sleep-deprived neighbor, here in the fluorescent hallway, shifting her whining toddler impatiently from one hip to the other, scowling at the elevator doors which refuse to open. It is also evident in my own frustration at being obliged to wait several minutes before embarking on errands—jingling the keys in my pocket and watching the painfully slow sequence of floor numbers on the elevator panel. I am caught in the human traffic jam that visits my 20-story building every weekend.

Why the hold up? I live in a historically Jewish building in New York City. On most days, its two elevators service each section of this rather monolithic structure—just enough to keep up with the flow of residents going up and down. But come Friday evening, one of the cars is switched into Shabbos mode, meaning that it stops at every single floor automatically, backing the tenants up like resentful clogs in beige-yellow arteries. It does so for religious reasons, since many observant Jews avoid pressing electric buttons on Shabbat.

When I first moved into this building, I found its “kosher elevator” bizarre, anachronistic, and amusing. Five years later, I still find it bizarre, but not nearly so quaint; especially when we consider the non-Jewish inhabitants of the building—mostly Asian-American urbanites and white middle-American immigrants to the city—who now outnumber the original Jewish inhabitants by a ratio of 5-to-1. After riding this specially-ordained conveyance once or twice for fun, the novelty soon wore off. My apartment may only be on the sixth floor, but it felt more like a cross-town subway journey than an elevator ride by the time I reached my destination.

Several codes of etiquette and patterns of behavior have emerged amongst the non-kosher-keeping inhabitants of the building. One option is simply to dissimulate one’s own solipsistic dimension, registering no emotion and making no eye contact: a New York default mode. Another is to read the fliers near the elevator in great detail: women’s book group meeting, yoga for seniors, don’t forget to vote. A third option arises once patience for the first two expires. A repressed sigh finally explodes into the thick and exasperated silence, provoking a shared eye-roll which then communicates itself to the group as a steady current of gestures spanning the resigned shrug to the hostile backhand-flick. Unable to petition to the God of the Old Testament, the group instead initiates a semi-conscious scapegoating of the man with the bicycle. This delay is not his fault, but he must account for it nevertheless. He and his cumbersome machine must wait till the next secular elevator arrives, which may be another five minutes (an eternity, of course, in New York time).

The anxious mass of tenants watch as the elevator door opens, yet they do not budge. The “HL” on the display panel, designating “holiday,” announces that this elevator is now a sacred space. The doors stay open, as if deliberately teasing the huddled masses in front with its welcoming maw and its promise of instant upward mobility. But the doors soon shut again, with not a soul aboard, moving at a snail’s pace, floor-by-floor, like some kind of urban Marie Celeste.

Ironically, I have never once seen anyone take the Shabbos Elevator. Most of the Orthodox tenants live on the lower five floors, precisely because their religious circumscriptions forbid using technology on holy days. Stairs are thus something of a godsend for the observant Jewish person living in a high-rise apartment, and so they tend to use them. Those who live higher tend to get into the ordinary elevator, hoping a non-Jewish person presses the button of their floor, or one within a few flights. If this doesn’t happen, then they may ask for a fellow passenger to press the number of their desired floor, even if this direct request may not keep with many interpretations of the special rules for the Sabbath. One can only surmise, then, that this workaround has more symbolic significance than actual utility—at least in my building.

Flickr/Stan Weichers

Shabbos (or Shabbat) Elevators are common in Israel and in other dense centers within Jewish communities. Indeed, even Israeli hospitals have them. The law that forbids using switches is one of many such provisions and prohibitions known as Halakha, a collection of Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinical thou-shalts and shalt-nots. The commandment that forbids using electricity strikes the non-Orthodox person as particularly strange, as if the Sabbath exists in a different temporal continuum than day-to-day life. Nevertheless, in 2001, Israel’s government decreed that all residential and public high-rise structures with more than one elevator must henceforth dedicate one of these to such holy duty. For those practicing Jews that don’t have a “kosher” elevator, a Shabbes Goy is the next best option, an obliging non-Jewish person who pushes buttons or flips switches on behalf of the observant one. The etiquette and ethics of asking is hotly debated: some would say that asking someone to carry out an act that you wouldn’t do for yourself violates Shabbat. Such innovations or contrivances to circumvent the law are often considered dubious loopholes by those outside the fold. Indeed, many of those within the Orthodox community express skepticism, interpreting merely being in an elevator on the Sabbath as cheating. For instance, in 2009 senior haredi rabbis, published a religious injunction forbidding their use, going so far as to describe them as a “desecration of the Sabbath.”

The theological debates around this new form of shinui (“change” or “modification”) are as detailed and pedantic as one would expect. One online text, including a section titled rather ominously “If a Man is Thrown on an Infant,” goes into great detail whether exerting the effort to move weight can be considered, in itself, an action. Here the issue is whether riding an elevator places one in a passive or active role, taking into account circuitry, energy, and gravity. Just to complicate things further, the light indicator moving from floor to floor is considered by some authorities to be a transgression of the “Biblical prohibition against kindling a fire on the Sabbath.” One recent court case in New York was initiated by a group of Jewish students who attend school in a building bereft of a Shabbos elevator. In the legal documents the un-kosher conveyances the students are obliged to contend with are described as “anti-Semitic.”

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Dominic Pettman is a professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College and the incoming chair of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research.

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