Riding to the Synagogue on Shabbat

(OH 305:18)

There is no Masorti synagogue in Petach Tikvah where we reside and my wife will not attend an Orthodox synagogue since it makes her feel inferior. Is it permissible for us to ride to a Masorti synagogue in Hod Hasharon or Ramat Aviv in order to participate in the mitzvah of public prayer on Shabbat?

This question was asked in the United States as far back as 1933. In 1950, two responsa were published by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement in North America (Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, Vol. 14 (1950), pp. 112-188). The majority ruled that a person who lives far away from a synagogue is allowed to ride to the synagogue and back on Shabbat on condition that he will make no stops on the way. The minority ruled that in general it is forbidden to ride to the synagogue on Shabbat except for emergency situations, in which the individual will have to decide for himself. The majority emphasized that ”the program that we propose, then, is not to be regarded as the full and complete regimen of Shabbat observance, valid for all Jews for all times and for all places. On the contrary, it is aimed to meet the particular situation that confronts us…” (ibid. p. 360). “It shall be understood that in their wisdom and in the light of the conditions prevailing in their respective communities, individual rabbis may find the easements here proposed unnecessary for the achievement of the larger goal herein envisaged” (ibid. p. 371).

Therefore we have come to re-examine the lenient decision from the United States of 1950 in light of the conditions in Israel forty years later. It is clear that the reasons for that leniency do not apply. In those days most Jews in the United States worked on Shabbat, did not pray in general, did not know how to pray alone at home and lived at great distances from the nearest synagogue. Thus, prayer at the synagogue on Shabbat was the only remnant of their Shabbat observance. This is not the case in Israel today where almost no one works on Shabbat, where every Jew can open a siddur and pray if he so desires and where there is a synagogue in every neighborhood. We therefore agree with the minority that it is forbidden to ride to the synagogue on Shabbat.

From a halakhic point of view, riding to the synagogue on Shabbat is forbidden for the following reasons:

1. Kindling a fire is a biblical prohibition (Exodus 35:3) and turning the key in the ignition creates sparks.

2. It is forbidden as a shevut or rabbinic prohibition lest the car break down and he be forced to fix it and then he may transgress both biblical and rabbinic prohibitions.

3. It is forbidden to go more than 2,000 cubits outside of your own city on Shabbat (Eruvin 49b). Therefore, in this specific case it is forbidden to travel from Petah Tikvah to Hod Hasharon or Ramat Aviv.

4. Any item, which may not be used on Shabbat is considered “muktzeh” and may therefore not be touched or carried. When one drives a car, one normally touches a wallet, money, a credit card and other forms of “muktzeh”. In addition, one frequently buys gas, which is also forbidden on Shabbat. It is therefore forbidden to drive on Shabbat, because it will lead to carrying and touching muktzeh.

5. Another type of “shevut” is “uvdin d’hol” or weekday activities. In other words, Shabbat should not look and feel like a weekday. There is nothing more weekday-like than driving a car. Shevut is also an activity, which may lead to biblically forbidden labors. Driving may lead to biblical prohibitions such as carrying outside of the eruv, commercial and agricultural transport, writing, building, fishing and more. Thus even if driving were biblically permitted it would be forbidden because of shevut.

6. Driving is also forbidden because of “lo pelug” which means that the rabbis do not usually decree partial prohibitions. This is because they were familiar with human nature. If we allow driving to the synagogue many people will think it is permissible to drive everywhere on Shabbat and indeed, that is what happened in the United States.

7. Rabbi Moshe Sofer forbade inter-city train travel on Shabbat because of physical and mental stress. There is no question that driving a car entails physical and mental stress, which are not in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat.

8. Public prayer is not a biblical requirement. It is either a rabbinic requirement or simply a recommended form of prayer and can therefore not push aside the biblical prohibition of starting a car on Shabbat.

Furthermore, many rabbis have ruled that public prayer on Shabbat does not even push aside a shevut or rabbinic prohibition, so even if driving is only a rabbinic prohibition it would not be set aside for the sake of public prayer.

9. The Masorti movement wishes to create kehillot (communities), not just synagogues. It is impossible to create a community when every family lives a great distance from every other family, and in order to create a community which observes the Shabbat together, its members must live in close proximity to each other.

10. In light of the above, driving to the synagogue on Shabbat is a “mitzvah achieved through transgression: which is forbidden (Berakhot 47b and more).

There are, however, three possible solutions to the question that was asked:

1. Efforts should be renewed to found a Masorti synagogue in Petah Tikvah.

2. Just because a mehitzah is not necessary does not mean that it is forbidden. We should not be as intolerant as those who refuse to pray in our synagogues. It is better to walk to an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat than to drive to A Masorti synagogue.

3. It is also possible to move near a Masorti synagogue. This may be an expensive or inconvenient solution, but Jews have traditionally made great sacrifices in order to observe mitzvot. If people move to another city for the sake of a good job or a good school, why shouldn’t they move for the sake of living near the kehillah of their choice?

The appendix discusses the use of public transportation and bicycles on Shabbat. It suggests that it is permissible to hire a non-Jew to drive a Shabbat bus or taxi which will transport the elderly or the handicapped to the synagogue providing that the bus does not leave the city limits.

Rabbi David Golinkin
In favor: Rabbi Tuvia Friedman
Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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