This is a wonderful question and raises a whole host of issues; Shabbat practice, electronics, variety within the Jewish community and transportation. I am not a master of halahah but rather I am simply a practitioner.If you want more than one Jew’s opinion, I would encourage you to consult your personal rav.That being said, since you asked I am glad to give you my personal take.
A Shabbat elevator is a difficult dilemma for the halahic community and not all parties agree on its use.While the majority of observant Jews are comfortable using a shabbes elevator, Rabbi Elyashiv authored an opinion a few years ago outlawing their use.His argument, as I recall, was that while descending a person’s weight influenced how much the brakes were engaged.Others have argued that the weight of a person might also influence the motor and power needed for lift or that a person might inadvertently hit a button.Although shabbes elevators and other kinds of Shabbat-compliant electronics (lights witch timers, alarm clocks and lamps just to name a few) have been in use for decades there has always been some measure of conflict around them.
In my mind, a boat, trolley or automobile which was pre-programmed would hold any of the same problems as the elevators.Perhaps even more concerning to the observant community would be the use of a fire to spark the engine or the transition from one reshut to another. We might also have a concern about how folks would access these modes of transport (do you pay for the service, or pay someone to run them).
All that included, the primary concern for me is one of enjoyment and connection to Shabbat.Jews have always found a way to live in to the concept of oneg shabbat (enjoyment of Shabbat) and of truly resting.For many Jews, particularly older Jews or families with young children, walking up multiple flights of stairs may be difficult or even impossible.How could we ask them to be imprisoned in their homes when they should be celebrating with their community?
If Shabbat elevators, timers and lamps enable us to more fully celebrate Shabbat and can be developed within our framework of contemporary Jewish practice, then we should welcome them.It is unlikely that modes of transportation fit in to that category.
I wish you many sweet shabbatot of enjoyment and debate!
Now there is an interesting question. The whole topic of Shabbat elevators is actually one that is quite complicated, as there not only are issues that extend beyond whether or not the passenger (or operator) presses a button to activate the machinery, which go to the basic physics of how most elevators operate. That is to say, most elevators take advantage of the weight of the passengers to provide a counterweight that is important in getting the elevator to rise, and even more so, to descend. In fact, some elevators actually use the force generated by the weight of the passengers to generate electricity. See here for an extensive and clear discussion of the Halachic issues involved. A simpler summary of the issues can be seen here as well.
As a result, the practice of most Orthodox Jews that I am aware of is that healthy and physically fit people avoid using Shabbat elevators, reserving them only for the elderly and infirm for whom climbing steps is a real hardship. There is a leniency that many cite as well in regard to a high rise building, such as is common in Manhattan, according to which the Shabbat elevator may be used for anyone going over the 10th floor, although I have never seen the source. Even according to that leniency, one should avoid using the elevator to descend, which is, surprisingly, more problematic than ascending. See the quoted sources for further reading.
As to your question, obviously a boat, trolley, or automobile are far more complicated systems, and much less amenable to “programming” than an elevator, which goes straight up & down (except for one operated by Willy Wonka) and can be set to stop at regular intervals, with no other traffic and without any use of an operator. (The only devices even similar that I can think of are the trains monorails that run in airports and Disney which are completely automatic, which in fact are less problematic than elevators, because there is less of a weight issue.)
If, however, such a device could be designed, it would left for the foremost halachic decisors, who, upon painstaking analysis in consultation with technical experts, would be looked to for a ruling on these complicated matters.
May your Shabbat be sweet, restful, and full of spiritual adventure!
When it comes to the laws of Shabbat, one cannot analyze a question by looking only at one or two of the restrictions. There might be other questions you have to ask beyond "what about electricity" or "what if you don't have to drive yourself." For instance, what kind of spirit of Shabbat does the action create? Is it restful and reverent?
Some of the specific prohibitions that might be involved in such travel include: 1) the "techum" of Shabbat - the prohibition on travelling beyond 2,000 Amot (about a kilometer) beyond the edge of a city; and 2) not instructing a non-Jew to work for a Jew on Shabbat. So for example, if such a boat travelled more than a km from the shore, regardless of who drove it, this would be forbidden. And if a passenger had to signal a trolley to stop for pick up or alighting, this would constitute "instructing a non-Jew" to do your work, and would be forbidden. And then there is the more general question about Shabbat atmosphere: if the travel was highly demanding - such as riding in a speedboat which produced ... let's call it "intestinal drama" -- that would likely be forbidden as inappropriate for the day of rest.
When modern public transportation was first introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some rabbis ruled leniently about things like trolleys, which made only prearranged stops, and which permitted one to buy tickets in advance. Such a view would permit a Jew staying at the DisneyWorld complex, for instance, to ride the monorail, which runs pre-programmed whether there are 100 riders or none, does not stop at any individual's instruction or request, and does not require payment. But this would not permit you to stand at a bus stop and reach out your arm to get the driver to stop.
In a large city subway system, the 2,000-cubit limit would not be breached and the trains stop regardless of any passenger's request. This seems promising. But there are two additional considerations: 1) using your "metrocard" or other electronic pass is generally regarded as forbidden. The old token system would have presented fewer problems. And 2) there is a socially negative effect (also known as marit ayin) of seeing religious Jews entering the subway. This would likely erode people's reverence for Shabbat.
Finally, there is one more consideration: safety. It is a mitzvah to guard your own life and health. So to the questioner, let me ask: WHAT IS A PRE-PROGRAMMED AUTOMOBILE?! That sounds like a terrible idea. You could get killed!
As a Reform Rabbi, I am not going to get into the Halachic details of Shabbat observance, as I expect my esteemed Orthodox and Conservative colleagues will do so far more completely than I could.I expect that their conclusion will be along the lines of my same assumption, that while an Elevator moves you from one place to another in a single building, boats, trolleys and automobiles are modes of travel, which are traditionally prohibited on Shabbat as travel (even a sailboat and bicycle would be banned if either took you out of the Eruv – the defined area of the community).
On a more general note, from a Reform perspective, Shabbat is about having a day that is different from the other days.In an ideal world, Friday night would be focused on Family gatherings, Shabbat morning as a time for communal gathering for study and prayer and Shabbat afternoon as a time for personal reflection or personal/family fun time – things that one does not have time for during the week.
The value behind Shabbat is a day of rest, but not only rest, rest that is sanctified, holy and separate even from those moments of rest we give ourselves during the week.For some that is found through traditional observance of Shabbat, for others it is found in other ways that may or may not include traditional elements.
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