The Dutch Tram
When I was in my twenties, I served for a few years as a synagogue Rabbi in Amsterdam, Holland. It was a beautiful Shul in the center of town, built at the end of the 19th century and the members did everything to keep an active Minyan going week after week. It was according to strictly Orthodox traditions, but the one of the Gabbaim came to morning prayers every Shabbat by public transportation via the tram (trolley, streetcar).
This man was an elderly Jew in his 90’s who survived the Holocaust and lost his family in the camps. He was totally dedicated to the synagogue and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there might be a Halakhic problem with the tram. After all I was only there for a few short years and he had served the Shul for decades. There was no way he could walk all the way from his house and he definitely wouldn’t give up coming to Shul on Shabbat. It was his entire life and he served faithfully till passing a few years later, but it made me wonder. Was there any Halakhic support to use public transportation on Shabbat?
These memories flash back in my mind when I read the following article:
Jerusalem Gets Shabbat Bus Service
Non-religious residents of Jerusalem have for years been demanding some sort of public transportation on Shabbat, and now it would seem they have it. Sort of…A service called “Shabus” began operating this weekend to enable residents of more remote neighborhoods to reach Jerusalem’s city center on the weekly day of rest.
So as to not upset Jerusalem’s large religious population any more than necessary, all Shabus drivers will be non-Jews. So far, a reported 500 people have signed up for the service.
Its crystal clear to me that this “Shabus” bus-service isn’t religiously sanctioned, whether they use non-Jewish bus drivers or not. In fact the subscribers aren’t seeking a Halakhic solution but rather a practical method to drive on Shabbat by public transportation, bypass municipal laws and attempt not to antagonize the Orthodox community (too much) in the process.
Nevertheless my question still stands whether there is a way to use public transportation on Shabbat. Is there a difference between a bus who stops for you personally to get on and off or a train which stops automatically at every station? Maybe a train/subway is like a Shabbat elevator that stops at every floor?
Public Transportation on Shabbat
Lets break it down into Halakhic components:
- The driver desecrating the Shabbat by starting the vehicle, driving, opening doors, handling money and going out of the city limits (Tchum Shabbat) both for himself and for another Jew.
- Buying tickets, electronic cards or tokens.
- Putting in a token or scanning the electronic card in the machine to pay for the ride or to leave the station.
- Handling Mukzeh (money etc).
- Carrying money, credit card, token or ID outside of the Eruv.
- Ringing the bell to get the driver to stop.
- Pressing a button to open the doors of a train and subway.
- Going through an electronic turnstile at the entrance/exit of the station.
- Marit Ayin (rabbinic enactments that were put into place to prevent a third-party viewing one’s actions from arriving at the incorrect conclusion that a forbidden action is permitted. See also Halachipedia for a broader explanation of the topic).
- Desecrating the “Spirit of Shabbat”.
I heard a rumor that many years ago when everything was mechanical and people used a paper bus-pass, there were Rabbi’s who were lenient to use the trolley when the driver wasn’t Jewish and you had the pass sewn into your jacket (so you won’t have to carry it outside the Eruv). Even then one could do it only for extreme circumstances because of Marit Ayin.
Today when everything including your ticket is electronic, there really isn’t any Halakhic loophole to allow riding on public transportation, even when the driver isn’t Jewish.
So what do you do when the closest Shul is miles away and too far to walk? Maybe its time to find a different place to live…