by Rabbi Gil Student
In his recently published book Shabbat, the Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas, R. J. Simcha Cohen has a long discussion regarding a dilemma facing his own community. As the rabbi of a retirement community, he faces the difficulty of an aging membership that has trouble walking to shul. He analyzes whether he is allowed to hire a Gentile bus driver to take elderly members to and from shul on Shabbos.
The community is surrounded by an eruv and all transportation will be done with the permissible perimeter (i.e. within both the eruv and the techum). R. Cohen wrote an analysis and sent it to a number of prominent rabbis, receiving responses from R. Moshe D. Tendler, R. Norman Lamm and R. Yosef Carmel, all reproduced in the book. R. Cohen addresses the following issues:
I. Amirah Le-Nokhri
You are not allowed to ask a Gentile to do work for you on Shabbos that you are not allowed to do yourself. However, this rule has many conditions and loopholes that allow for various extenuating circumstances. R. Cohen works hard on this issue, harder than I think is necessary. He enters complex areas like having one Gentile ask another Gentile before Shabbos to do work for a Jew on Shabbos, which in the end is inapplicable to this case because the driver will know that he is picking up Jews.
However, very simply, the Mishnah Berurah (276:25) allows asking a Gentile on Shabbos to violate a biblical prohibition in order to fix an eruv because there is a great communal need. You don’t have to go beyond that because getting people to shul, particularly when you will not otherwise have a minyan, is a great communal need. Regardless, R. Cohen finds ways to avoid this problem.
Some object that the ways to avoid this prohibition only apply on one-off situations, not when used every week. R. Cohen dismisses this objection as incorrect. For example, the Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 276:2) objects to those who asks Gentiles to light candles for them on Shabbos but does not raise the objection that they did it every week. I find that to be a fairly weak response.
II. Maris Ayin
R. Cohen raises the issue that outsiders, unaware of the situation of this community’s needs, will misunderstand the riding of a bus to and from shul under specific conditions. They will think that these people are violating a prohibition. R. Cohen suggests placing signs on the bus explaining that these are special Shabbos buses, which should eliminate this problem.
R. Cohen raises the issue of whether sitting on a bus constitutes a violation of halakhah. If your weight causes the vehicle to do more work, then perhaps you are personally guilty of violating Shabbos. This is a serious concern that was debated in the context of Shabbos elevators, with great authorities on either side. However, R. Cohen cites R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin and R. Isser Yehuda Unterman as being lenient (I seem to recall that R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was as well but I don’t have a source handy to check it). In his response to R. Cohen, R. Moshe Tendler writes that those who permitted Shabbos elevators were unaware of the weight problem, but that is not entirely correct. Some (again, I believe R. Auerbach is among them but I have to look it up) explicitly permitted the weight issue.
IV. Weekday Activities
R. Cohen proceeds to the nebulous prohibition of uvda de-chol, performing weekday activities on Shabbos. I’m not sure how or if he resolves it, other than stating that the Shabbos bus is for those who are elderly and weak or ill.
R. Moshe D. Tendler responded that riding on a bus is tantamount to driving it, because of one’s weight adding to the work. He also added that this innovation will destroy the sanctity of Shabbos and runs the risk of being extended to other situations that do not have the same urgency.
R. Norman Lamm raised a historical precedent in India, that was only discontinued in the late 1950s or early 1960s. But he cautions that the risk of exiting the techum perimeter is too great to allow this innovation.
R. Yosef Carmel quotes responsa by R. Shaul Yisraeli that permit somewhat similar situations and concludes that he would permit a Shabbos bus under a number of detailed conditions, including that it run at most every other week and regularly monitoring public impression about whether this is perceived as a farce or a sweeping abrogation of the law.
VI. Rav Soloveitchik
One source that R. Cohen missed is R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s ruling on the matter. R. Hershel Schachter (Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon, pp. 34–35) quotes R. Soloveitchik as nixing a proposed Shabbos bus to bring people to shul because driving on Shabbos has become a symbol of anti-Orthodoxy. I suspect that the full force of this has passed with time but it still has sufficient force to prohibit. But I leave that determination to authorities greater than I.
The original text of the review may be found here.