Sabbath on-off elevator
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After All: Climb on board the self-operating ‘Shabbat elevator’!

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

Technology in general and transport in particular can act as trailblazers of peace and harmony.

One of the most disturbing sites I saw in South Korea was Dorasan train station on the Seoul-Pyongyang line, built during the temporary thaw in North-South relations - the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ - under North Korea’s previous leader Kim Jong Il, right on the troublesome border. The long-disused station had an eerie feel: it spelled the end of hope. Only platform tickets were on sale at the ticket office. On the wind-swept deserted platform, I had ample time to examine the solitary sign ‘Seoul – 56km; Pyongyang – 237km’ and empty tracks running into nowhere.

Several weeks after my return to the UK, I read in the papers that, in one of the first steps towards the normalisation of their relationships, North and South Korea had agreed to begin reconnecting the rail links, including the one on the Gyeongui Line from Seoul to Pyongyang. Hopefully, Dorasan, which impressed me as one of the world’s saddest places, will soon come alive with the cheerful hustle and bustle of a busy railway station and the one-time empty tracks running seemingly into nowhere will connect two major cities of the formerly divided nation.

Speaking of tracks and rails, I have always admired their symbolic ability to link together cities, peoples and countries. Unlike seas and rivers, which naturally tend to separate and divide, rails are all about connections.

Nothing makes that point more strongly than the relatively new (opened in 2011) Jerusalem tram, also known as Jerusalem Light Rail. I used it a lot when exploring the astounding, yet still divided, Sacred City and when commuting from the predominantly Arabic East Jerusalem, where I stayed with a Canadian diplomat friend, to the predominantly Jewish city’s western suburbs.  

Smooth, brightly lit and always punctual, the five-car trams routinely carried what could easily pass for the world’s most cosmopolitan and multilingual crowd. Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Greek, Armenian, English, French and many more tongues mingled into a linguistic cacophony inside those shiny carriages as they slid across the ancient Holy City, like moving wrinkles on an old man’s face that, surprisingly, make it look younger.

The mood inside those trams was almost always peaceful, for passengers anywhere in world, united in their determination to get from A to B, tend to throw away divisions, even if only for the duration of the ride.

Now it is hard to imagine Jerusalem without the electric trams, first conceived by a Greek Lebanese engineer George Franjieh in 1892 and still travelling along just one Red Line (with two more lines – Green and Blue – in project).

Even the Jerusalem Tram, like almost everything else in Israel, grinds to a halt on Saturdays and during numerous religious holidays. Members of some ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups now demand that all maintenance work on roads and railways should stop on Saturdays, too. In the ongoing dispute, the Tel Aviv district court recently ruled that essential work could take place on Shabbat only if not carrying it out might endanger life. It added, however, that any above-ground activity must be concealed from sight!

As you see, passions are running high in Israel as to what’s allowed and what’s not allowed on Saturdays. Here’s a wonderful example of how technology can play down and even defuse those age-old and seemingly irreconcilable tensions.  

While in Israel, I stayed for several days with friends who live in a high-rise apartment block in the town of Ramla (not to be confused with the Palestinian city of Ramallah), not far from Tel Aviv. As I was entering the building for the first time, my friends warned me not to use the lift on the right, but only stick to the one on the left. “Why so?” I asked. “Is the lift on the right out of order?”

“Not at all,” they replied. “It is just a ‘Shabbat lift’, or ‘Shabbat elevator’, specially designed for observant Jews who are not supposed to do any work on Saturdays.”

“Pressing a button doesn’t seem like a lot of work to me,” I insisted. “Well, it may appear like that to you, but Jewish law expressly forbids operating electrical switches - and that includes buttons - on Shabbat.”

I did have a ride in the Shabbat elevator the following day, which was Saturday, just out of curiosity. Its operating principle turned out to be quite simple. As you approach the lift, its doors automatically slide open. It then starts going up or down slowly while stopping and opening its doors at every floor. If nobody comes in or out within five seconds or so, the doors close and the lift moves on. You can therefore ride it up or down with your hands in your pockets!

Fascinated by that unsophisticated contraption, I did some research and discovered that the ‘Shabbat elevator’ was a fairly recent invention resulting from a special Elevator Law passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in 2001. This stipulated that all residential buildings with more than one lift should make provision for a special Shabbat control mechanism in one of them.

It has to be said that some ultra-Orthodox Jews try to avoid using even the automatic lift on Shabbat, considering the simple process of riding an elevator, even without pressing the buttons, a kind of ‘work’. Another source of criticism comes from environmentalists who lament the waste of energy due to the lift’s continuous operation.

Despite those objections, Shabbat elevators are still widely used in Israel, as well as in some residential buildings and hospitals in the USA, notably in Florida and Manhattan, whereas in Tel Aviv they now talk about fully automating the railways (driverless trains, sliding doors etc) to make them Shabbat-friendly, too.

According to Israel Railways CEO Shahar Ayalon, it would take at least five to six years to make all of the country’s trains completely autonomous so that they can be used on Saturdays without any physical effort (read ‘work’) involved and – just like the Shabbat lifts – become examples of how technology and ingenuity can help resolve certain age-old and seemingly unresolvable social controversies.

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