It is said that all real estate markets are local, and indeed the Sabbath-observant are a very important part of our area’s market.
There is an eruv in Riverdale; that said, we begin with proximity to shul as I always ask the observant how far they are willing to walk to their shul(s) of choice. This means that we are immediately limited to those apartment buildings within the parameters given to me by my customers, thereby reducing the number of acceptable buildings. The next step is to determine what is the highest floor on which the prospective residents are willing to live. Most of my younger customers ask me to stop at the sixth floor; older folks, people with many young children and those with physical limitations opt for even lower floors. However, even younger families who have older or infirm relatives and guests on Shabbat may prefer the lowest floors.
This aspect of our local market does have economic implications. First, an increasing number of observant Jews are coming to our area while the available number of acceptable apartments in affordable price ranges has not expanded commensurately. This creates a scarcity situation that enables prices to remain at levels that are bound to make landlords and sellers of co-ops and condos happy.
Second, it also means that, if observant Jews are restricted to lower floors, and if observant Jews constitute a growing percentage of our market, then the desirable apartments are on the lower floors; however, for the remainder of the market (non-Jews and Jews who do not require lower floors), traditionally it is the highest floors that have commanded the highest prices. Now, we have a situation where, in certain buildings near the shuls, all apartments have become desirable!
Consider, for example, a 25-story luxury apartment building with six apartments per floor; one is a studio, one is a one-bedroom, one is a Jr. 4, two have two bedrooms and one is a three-bedroom unit. Thus, 36 apartments would be acceptable to the observant population; for couples of child-bearing age, 50 percent, or 18 of these apartments, would be acceptable. For the 18 floors in the remainder of the building (there is no 13th floor), 108 apartments remain. This means that of the 144 apartments in the building, only one-quarter of the apartments are sought by observant Jews and only 12.5 percent of the apartments would be acceptable to child-bearing-age couples. Clearly, a solution to the problem of scarcity of lower-floor apartment units that would enable observant Jews to occupy higher floors yet still be observant on Shabbat is needed.
Enter the concept of the Shabbat elevator, a “smart” device that runs on its own, is devoid of passenger input and is far more reliable than the doorman who may not be present when you need him to push the elevator button, and is certainly an asset in buildings without doormen or with doormen who are only part-time. It’s also preferable to asking someone to push an elevator button for your floor, because some rabbis permit this and some do not. Another alternative is to wait in the lobby (to ascend) or hang around the elevator on your floor (to descend) until someone comes to call the elevator. Because some rabbis will not permit your asking someone else to do the work that you would have done by pushing the elevator button, you get in the elevator, look at the buttons pushed on the control panel by other riders who are pushing the buttons for their own benefit, and exit at the floor at or nearest to the one that you want.
In theory, a Shabbat elevator operates so that observant Jews can ride the elevator and still be observant without operating electrical switches (because this is a form of work and it may also create sparks or fires). Moreover, pushing an elevator button on an ordinary elevator closes a circuit and can, in most elevators, cause the desired floor number to be written on the control panel. Pushing an elevator button involves manual labor and using electrical devices. In an ordinary elevator, an electric eye in the door detects one’s presence as he or she enters or leaves the elevator; in the Shabbat elevator, this function is cut off and a pre-set amount of time is allowed for safe entry and exit; this eliminates the objection that one’s body has opened the door, which is akin to pushing an elevator button. Therefore, a pre-set program eliminates the operation of electric eyes, panel control buttons and touch-sensitive switches (except for the emergency button).
Shabbat elevators can be programmed in a variety of ways, such as stopping at every floor, or alternate floors, or going to the top floor and stopping at every floor on their way down. These elevators exist not only in apartment buildings but also in hospitals, hotels and in some synagogues.
The benefits of a Shabbat elevator are obvious. Without such a conveyance, observant Jews who live on higher floors, who are physically unable to walk up and down stairs, and families with very young children would be trapped in their apartments on the Sabbath. Yet not many buildings in our area have these elevators. Even when the elevators exist, their presence has been met with opposition from non-Jews, Jews who ride ordinary elevators on the Sabbath and rabbis within the Orthodox community. Some real estate agents won’t mention Shabbat elevators to their customers and clients because the agents fear running afoul of New York state and federal fair-housing laws that state that apartments must be offered to the general public. Residents of co-ops who oppose the establishment of Shabbat elevators must tread carefully: Check the corporation’s by-laws to make certain that the elevators are not mandated; be careful not to be sued for discrimination or housing-law violations, because if it’s been a longstanding policy to have Shabbat elevators, then residents may reasonably expect the policy to continue.
Objections from the general public commonly involve the time it takes to wait for elevators: If an elevator is removed from service and converted to a Shabbat elevator on the Sabbath, one fewer elevator is available and people have to wait too long for elevator service. Building managements have sought to improve the situation by speeding up the operation of the Shabbat elevator: by alternately operating the elevator as a Shabbat elevator for one trip and then converting it to a regular elevator for five minutes; by polling observant Jews who inform management of the floors on which they live so that the Shabbat elevator services only those floors; by programming one elevator to stop only at odd-numbered floors and the other elevator to stop at even-numbered floors. These strategies may improve the situation somewhat but they still do not remove the objection that observant Jews are receiving special treatment that inconveniences other residents. Other objections, especially in co-ops and condos, are that constantly operating elevators incur more wear and tear and therefore more expenditures on maintenance and that the cost of converting an elevator to a Shabbat elevator is an expense and is solely for the benefit of a subset of residents.
Objections by some rabbinical authorities, some emanating from Israel, are blunt: In 2009, it was ruled that use of Shabbat elevators is an active desecration of the Sabbath; other rabbis believe that use of the Shabbat elevator is a passive act. Rabbi Yitzhak Levy Halperin is founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha, which consults and guides on the installation of Shabbat elevators. The Institute has published a book containing engineering explanations and diagrams pertaining to these elevators and, based on its analysis, the Institute has concluded that Shabbat elevators violate the Sabbath.
Questions raised by Israeli rabbis are thought-provoking: For example, do devices that measure the weight in an elevator and adjust the power accordingly make entering the elevator tantamount to pressing a button? Nevertheless, in 2001, the Knesset passed a law requiring that all buildings with more than one elevator must designate one of the elevators a Shabbat elevator.
I have read some of the technical analyses that influence the rabbis’ opinions. They are complex and as nuanced. For example, consider the differences between power used for the elevators’ ascent and descent: No power is used while the elevator is ascending unless the cab load exceeds 40 percent of the car’s capacity, so some rabbis say that it’s okay to ascend in a Shabbat elevator but, because power is consumed during descent because it is required to raise the counterweight, it’s not okay to descend in an elevator on Shabbat.
Bottom line: There is no biblical injunction against Shabbat elevators, so consult your rabbi and your own personal needs and beliefs.
By Vivian J. Oleen, Associate Broker, Sopher Realty