Tangible things occupy the days of most building managers in New York City. Hot water, floods, bugs, rent checks and so on.
But last week, newly added to the tenant issues facing building managers like Harold M. Jacob, who runs a co-op on the Lower East Side where Orthodox Jews inhabit a substantial portion of the 2,500 apartments, was this almost ontological question:
Does that elevator “know” how many people are on it?
The question is at the core of a ruling issued by a group of prominent rabbis in Israel on Sept. 29 that seems to ban the use of many so-called Shabbos elevators: elevators fixed to stop on every floor from Friday evening until Saturday evening so that observant Jews do not have to press any buttons.
Since the 1960s, when high-rise apartment buildings became ubiquitous, the Orthodox rabbinate has made such elevators one of the few exceptions to Talmudic rules prohibiting 39 categories of activity on the Sabbath, including manual labor or the use of electrical devices. Like flipping a light switch, pressing an elevator button is considered the use of an electrical device.
“Are you sure that’s what it said?” Mr. Jacob asked a person on the other end of the phone line the other day, sitting at his cluttered desk in the management office of Cooperative Village, the co-op he is in charge of. “It can’t be used?”
He paused to listen.
“It can be used?” he asked.
While the other party continued talking, Mr. Jacob addressed a reporter. “This has been causing a certain amount of agita around here for the last few days,” he said. “I have to say, it is very interesting.”
Though many observant Jews have always considered Shabbos elevators illegitimate, a vast majority of them, especially the elderly or infirm, and large Orthodox families living with small children on upper floors of high-rise buildings, have used the elevators since about 1964, when prominent rabbinical scholars reached a consensus published in religious journals, according to Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the dean of the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future. Such elevators are common in residential buildings, hospitals and hotels worldwide, he said.
But the recent ruling, whose signers included Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv — at 99, widely considered the most influential Torah sage of his generation — introduced a caveat based on new technology in elevators. The rabbis wrote that this new technology, which was explained to them by elevator technicians and engineers in “a written and oral technical opinion,” made them aware for the first time that using Shabbos elevators may be a “desecration of the Sabbath.”
They did not name the offending technology. But for several years there has been debate among Orthodox rabbis in Israel over whether devices that measure the weight in an elevator car, and adjust power accordingly, effectively make entering a car the equivalent of pressing a button.
“What disturbs me about this is how ambiguous this ruling is,” Rabbi Brander said. “Normally, in an opinion of this kind, all the possible implications of a decision are weighed and discussed. This has none of that.”
The decision has been big news in Israel, where the Knesset passed a law eight years ago requiring all buildings with more than one elevator to designate one a Shabbos elevator.
On the Lower East Side, and in Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn, where the decision has been more like a rumor than a ruling, observant Jews on the street wearing skullcaps or wide-brimmed black hats said they were puzzled by it, although some had not heard about it.
At the very least, said a man in a long black coat, pushing a stroller on New Utrecht Avenue in Brooklyn, with three other small children in tow, “it’s not another water situation.” He referred to the commotion in 2004 when some Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn ordered people not to drink New York City tap water after learning it contained tiny harmless organisms called copepods, which are crustaceans, not considered kosher. Yeshivas, kosher restaurants and thousands of people bought water filters.
At Cooperative Village, each building has two elevators, one of them programmed for Shabbos. “Basically, we have not seen any change in behavior among the people here who use the Shabbos elevator,” Mr. Jacob said.
For some, the ambiguity of the decision left the deepest impression. “Look,” said Jacob Goldman, 38, walking on Friday morning on Grand Street. “Just because there is one opinion doesn’t mean that it is everyone’s opinion. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that there are competing opinions about everything.”
Most Jews would take the word of their own rabbi over any rabbinical ruling issued 6,000 miles away, he said.
For Mr. Jacob, the question seemed to require a more definitive answer.
“What I am told,” he said on Friday, “is that the decision was retracted.”
“Or it may be about to be retracted,” he said. “It was a really confusing opinion.”