In recent years, Shabbat elevators have become popular all over Israel, and in a good deal of the Jewish world in the wake of modern construction of high-rise buildings, which is becoming the norm in many observant Jewish communities. The need for a Shabbat elevator has become a necessity especially for the elderly or infirm, and Orthodox families living with young children on upper floors of high buildings.
With the operation of a Shabbat control mode, an elevator will stop automatically on a certain floor and its doors will open, hence allowing users to step in and out without having to press any buttons. Otherwise it would be prohibited to use an elevator on Shabbat because pressing the button to operate the elevator closes a circuit, which violates the prohibition of building on Shabbat, which is considered a form of labor.
There are several ways the Shabbat elevator can be operated going up and down. For example, either by stopping at every floor on the way up and then coming straight down to the bottom without making any stops, or by rising to the top floor and stopping on pre-selected floors while going down. Generally, Shabbat elevators are set to automatically stop on every floor for 20 to 30 seconds on ascent and descent.
The downside to this type of elevator is the time and valuable energy wasted by stopping on each floor, and the more frequent maintenance and servicing required due to the additional usage of the elevator.
Shabbat elevators are generally found in big hotels, Israeli hospitals and other health institutions, apartment buildings, and in some synagogues.
As a result of the growing trend in high-rise construction, the Israeli Knesset passed a special Shabbat elevator law in 2001 ordering the planning and building of all residential buildings, and public buildings which have more than one elevator, to install a control mechanism with a special mode for Shabbat in one of the elevators. With such mechanism the elevator can be set to “Shabbat mode” in which it will stop automatically on selected floors of the building from sundown on Friday evening, at Shabbat start, until nightfall on Saturday evening, when Shabbat ends, and similarly on Jewish holidays.
An amendment to the law was passed in 2011 stating that in buildings with two or more elevators that were constructed prior that year, if a resident (owner) requests a Shabbat elevator, the other residents of the building must allow him to install and operate the ” Shabbat mode” mechanism in one of the elevators. The cost for this installation (approximately 8,000 NIS), the expenses for operating the elevator in Shabbat mode, and the subsequent additional maintenance costs of the elevator are borne by the apartment owner/s who request the Shabbat elevator.
Throughout the years, some halachic opposition has been raised to the usage of Shabbat elevators. There are two main categories of criticism against using a Shabbat elevator. One criticism is that even in Shabbat mode the user is indirectly violating Shabbat. Opponents say that although the users push no button, the weight of the users still increases the amount of electricity required to power the lift, thus violating Jewish law. The other criticism is that, even if it is altogether permitted, a healthy person should in principle not resort to circumventing the laws of Shabbat by performing an otherwise prohibited activity in a technically permissible manner.
If a Shabbat elevator is important to you, when looking to buy property in Israel you must check whether in the building, in particular in a high-rise, a Shabbat elevator is being operated and under what conditions. In the case of new construction of private apartment buildings, it is necessary to check whether the mechanism for a Shabbat elevator will exist. Once the building is occupied, the decision over the relevant times, floors and intervals for the Shabbat mode is a matter of agreement between the residents of the building and is usually determined by the Vaad Bayit or building maintenance committee of the apartment building.