Question: Is it permissible to ride up and down in a Shabbat elevator on Shabbat?
Answer: Clearly, using a regular elevator on Shabbat is absolutely forbidden, for operating the elevator entails transgressing several Torah prohibitions. All Poskim concur. Our question revolves around an elevator that was programmed to operate on Shabbat by stopping on every floor on its way up and the door remaining open for a certain amount of time so that whoever wishes may enter and exit. It then does the same thing on the way down. In this way, the occupant of the elevator need not do anything besides for entering it and waiting for it to go up or down. It seems that this should not pose any question as to whether or not this would be forbidden on Shabbat.
However, this is not as simple as it seems, for when weight is added to the elevator, the motor must exert more effort in order to pull it up (and down) and experts claim that due to the increased weight in the elevator, sparks are created from the motorized section of the elevator and we must therefore determine whether or not this constitutes the forbidden work of kindling on Shabbat. Thus, although the occupant of the elevator has not use for these sparks whatsoever and he does not care about them, nevertheless, since it is certain that these sparks will result, this is considered an “an indirect action causing a definite result” and should be forbidden.
Nonetheless, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that there is room for leniency in this regard according to the letter of the law since this prohibition of creating sparks is not a Torah prohibition because one does not benefit at all by igniting them. Thus, igniting such sparks constitutes only a rabbinic prohibition and according to many Poskim, an indirect action causing a definite result with regards to a rabbinic prohibition is permissible. Thus, there is room for leniency in our case according to the letter of the law and one may go either up or down in a Shabbat elevator. Hagaon Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l rules likewise. However, the occupant must make sure not to get too close to the elevator door when it is about to close, for this can cause the door to reopen.
On the other hand, several Poskim write that there is only room for leniency in this regard in a situation of a Mitzvah while others rule entirely stringently for several reasons. For this reason, Maran zt”l writes that whenever possible, it is preferable not to use a Shabbat elevator and one who acts stringently is especially praiseworthy. Maran zt”l himself customarily abstained from using Shabbat elevators in order to be concerned with the more stringent opinion; even when he was ill and it was difficult for Maran to walk up the stairs to his apartment, he nevertheless refused to use the Shabbat elevator and opted to take the stairs instead. After climbing the stairs and entering his apartment, Maran would need to have a seat as he breathed heavily for several minutes while catching his breath from the exertion of walking up the steps in his condition and yet, he never agreed to use a Shabbat elevator until a few months before he passed away.
Indeed, Maran zt”l wrote all of this decades ago, however, more recently we have been made aware that all of the above applied only to elevators from approximately twenty years ago. Nowadays though, elevators are built in ways that there is no permissible way of using them on Shabbat, for immediately when an occupant enters the elevator, a scale which weighs the contents of the elevator is activated and it then transmits this information to the elevator’s operating system such that using such elevators nowadays on Shabbat creates several concerns for halachic transgressions. On the other hand, there are certain elevator models built in certain ways that permit their usage on Shabbat in case of need. These elevators bear the certificate of the “Technological Institute of Halacha” under the leadership of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Halperin. It is possible that such elevators may be used on Shabbat if the leading Torah luminaries of the generation agree. Nevertheless, other elevators, even those which have the word “Shabbat” on them and are operated in a way which seems that the occupant is not doing anything, should not be used on Shabbat. We should also point out that some companies write the word “Shabbat” as if it is halachically justifiable for them to do so although the leading scholars of the generation did not rely on them. One should be wary of this fact as well.