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.

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.”

Celebrated folklorist and secular Jew Alan Dundes did not mince words when he titled his own book on the topic Shabbat Elevator and Other Sabbath Subterfuges: An Unorthodox Essay on Circumventing Custom and Jewish Character. In this book-length study, Professor Dundes argues that the Jewish character is culturally and historically drawn to ingenuous workarounds. “What then are we to make of a society that insists, on the one hand, upon retaining a large set of admittedly very restrictive practices but on the other hand has skillfully devised a remarkably imaginative set of ways around these very same practices?” According to Dundes, Sabbath subterfuge is partly an inevitable response to the intensely patriarchal nature of the Judaic religion, and partly a historical record of thousands of years of oppression. Certainly we cannot pretend to know if God is angered by the conceit of the Shabbos elevator, or if He chuckles at the elaborate nature of the solution. But for the professor, any whiff of disrespect or sacrilege is quickly blown away by the sociological effects of their implementation. In other words, this behavior can be viewed precisely as a way of preserving the power of the prohibition, and everything it stands for. The “very existence and continuation” of what some consider cultural cheat-codes “constitute a kind of Sabbath glue that provides a critical adhesive basis for Jewish identity, at least among some elements of the Jewish community.” For just as Dundes insists there is an element of collective masochism in strictly observing all the laws of the Sabbath, there is also a second type of solidarity created by the communal ways that observant Jews cut corners or rationalize transgressions through “counter customs.”

Case in point, the Institute for Science and Halacha in Jerusalem, led by Rabbi Yitzhak Halperin, adopts the mission of rendering social situations Sabbath-friendly through new technologies.  These include the Shabbos elevator, telephone, and scooter, as well as “kosher steam” (which, thanks to a few judicious drops of pine oil, allows meat and dairy to coexist in the same public kitchen). Machines thus play the role of the Shabbes Goy, akin to the non-Jewish person asked to press buttons, but outsourced to nifty new contraptions and contrivances. While it is tempting for the secular mind to categorize such devices as merely amusing cases of religious chutzpah, they are in fact the result of a real and profound struggle to balance the need to obey one of the most sacred commandments (“observe the Sabbath”) on the one hand, and to swim with the practical current of modern life on the other. As one commentator notes, “The Jews are not the only people to claim to have talked to God but are, I think, the only people to have talked back to God, to have attempted to bargain and negotiate.” Indeed, for Dundes the neo-Freudian, the Jewish compulsion of talking back and skirting around is analogous to the thrill a child gets outwitting a parent. It is to have one’s kosher cake and eat it too.

When placed in Shabbat mode, the Shabbat scooter activates a separate circuit
board that responds to the throttle indirectly, an allowable action according to some
on the Sabbath day (The Zomet Institute/Amigo Mobility International)

Meanwhile, back at my building, it is still Saturday. While waiting for Otis’s contraption to arrive I have had plenty of time to ponder the socio-symbolic clash of worldviews crystallized in the so-called “kosher” elevator. Being forced to wait obliges us to reflect on the heedlessness of our daily activities. In an essay entitled “Celebration,” the Czech media philosopher Vilem Flusser emphasizes the specific elevation of the Sabbath, above the day-to-day fray. For him, as for observant Jews, “the Sabbath is a sector extracted from and raised above the flow of events. It is a temple made of time rather than marble.” In other words, the Shabbos is outside of the normal social flow because it refuses to think of Time as a mere accumulation of productive, profane enterprises. What I simply call Saturday is, for the spiritually-attuned, a precious opportunity to remind ourselves of the blessing and miracle of Being; and to leave more default ways of action for the rest of the week. For Flusser, we moderns have forgotten how to truly observe and celebrate the wonder of co-existence in its pure uselessness or inutility, since for most of us the “leisure time” of a normal weekend still involves different types of labor and/or consumption.

Thus, the Shabbos elevator at least has the potential to be the irritating grain of sand which, under the right circumstances, can become a pearl in the (non-observant) observer’s eye, whereby frustration flips into epiphany. Slow down! What’s the hurry? Turn off the autopilot. Reflect a little. Give pause and give thanks. A true and deep appreciation of human community doesn’t happen at a clip. It arrives slowly; drip-by-drip, floor-by-floor. The Jewish Sabbath affords a humble, pre-Christian rapture, delivered in installments. Or at least it would, if the temptation to circumvent the circumvention weren’t so expedient and tempting. Those Jewish tenants of my building, who would rather risk the lottery of the local Shabbes Goys than endure a ten-minute elevator ride, have further complicated the techno-theological issues at hand. In any case, this creeping elevator remains a fascinating test case for the co-existence of different temporalities, world-views, and ethical systems, in which “the pace of life” becomes the territory on which a struggle is waged.

Meanwhile, the “non-kosher” elevator has finally arrived, prompting an unholy battle between bicycle and stroller, mailman and pensioner, pizza guy and hipster, Jew and Jersey Shore transplant. When we are crushed together into the same elevator, religious freedoms, ethnic relativisms, Semitic expediencies, Gentile resentments, and dogmatic distinctions force our separate cultural bubbles into to the cramped, elbow-poked, smelly and held-breath captivity of the multitude.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things