desh ([personal profile] desh) wrote2012-06-27 11:37 am
Entry tags:

horizontal Shabbat elevator

Another post in the series of exploring the less logical sides (at least as viewed by an outsider) of my Jewish practice:

So I don't usually travel on Shabbat, from Friday sundown to Saturday after dark. This is one of many Shabbat restrictions I observe. But it's not really just one restriction. There are a handful of more fundamental Shabbat restrictions that lead to reasons why one might not travel:
  • One may not kindle or extinguish a fire on Shabbat, which is perhaps part of what you're doing if you're operating a vehicle.
  • Even if you question the "fire" one as it applies to vehicles, operating a vehicle certainly involves manipulating current electricity, which is something else people (including me) avoid, even if its connection to pre-modern restrictions is tenuous. Does your car have spark plugs?
  • If someone else is driving you, they are probably doing some of the above things specifically for your benefit, which can be seen as comparable to doing them yourself. (Are they dropping you off somewhere other than where they're getting out? Do they idle the car longer for you to get in? And so on.)
  • If you are taking public transportation, you are typically engaging in a commercial transaction, exchanging money for a ticket and/or exchanging a ticket for access to a vehicle. In addition to the above problems. (Does the bus driver make a stop for you? Do you have to swipe your subway pass through an electric reader?)
  • Outside an eruv, one may not carry on Shabbat. Do you have keys with you? A bus ticket? Your bike? (Yes, riding a bike may be considered carrying; it tends to be defined a bit more broadly in this ritual context than in the common English usage of the word.)
  • There is the issue of "t'chum", that one may simply not travel beyond a certain distance on Shabbat. I think the limit is about 2 kilometers, or if you're in a city, then 2 kilometers beyond the edge of the city.


In addition to the negative ("don't do X") commandment to not work on Shabbat, there's also a positive ("do X") commandment to create a holy and restful atmosphere on Shabbat. Sitting in traffic to get to something on time probably does not qualify.

OK. So normally I don't travel on Shabbat, for all of the above reasons. But this Saturday afternoon, I have a wedding to attend in Wilmington. I tried and failed to find a reasonable and inexpensive place to stay nearby, and doing so would anyway possibly have meant spending the first 20 or so hours of Shabbat alone and bored. (Not exactly a holy atmosphere.) So attending the wedding means traveling.

And I think I figured out how. I'm taking a train there. Why is this OK with me? Well, with the caveat that this justification might not work for all Jews who observe similar Shabbat restrictions, here's my thought process:
  • I'm not driving, so there's no kindling anything for me.
  • For the same reason, no electricity either.
  • The way commuter trains operate, they don't do anything different for an extra passenger. They're still making the same stops, for the same length of time, whether I'm on there or not. So I'm not causing any train worker to do the above things for my benefit.
  • Before Shabbat, I am buying a monthly train pass from a friend. When using the pass, no value is deducted from the pass when one takes a train, so there is no real transaction happening. The pass is simply permission to enter the train. In addition, in Philadelphia, commuter rail passes are not swiped or scanned. One simply shows one's pass to a conductor, who then continues down the train without stopping to write you a receipt or anything.
  • I will enter the train inside an eruv, so carrying is not an issue at that point. When I exit the train, I'll just leave the pass there! (Good thing the wedding is June 30th; no one will have much use for a June monthly pass at that point.) I won't need to carry anything else (I can wear my keys), so I'm good on that count.
  • As far as t'chum goes, I'm fine with considering Wilmington part of the same city as Philadelphia. The U.S. Census Bureau does.


And as far as the Shabbat atmosphere goes, I think I'm good on that count too. I'm doing my usual Shabbat things with my usual community for most of Shabbat, before I go and get on a train Saturday mid-afternoon. One might argue that attending a wedding is not conducive to a Shabbat atmosphere, but that's a separate question. (I would be going anyway, even if I didn't travel; I'd just try harder to find somewhere to stay within walking distance.)

Anyway, a train is really a perfect solution to the traveling problem. I have heard it referred to as a "horizontal Shabbat elevator". Some buildings such as hotels operate a "Shabbat elevator" for observant Jewish guests. Such an elevator runs continuously and stops on every floor, enabling guests to ride it without operating electricity themselves. A commuter train is the same thing, just horizontally and over a greater distance.

And congrats to Jeff and Sarah!