Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Key Words

I was looking around my blog statistics.  One of the things one can learn is the key words used to locate a web site.  Apparently, someone looked up my name with 'bicycle' and 'Shabbat.'  I have not written on that topic on this blog.  Nonetheless, if someone wishes to use those words to find me, it seems rude not to have it available.

For those of you who do not already know, I like to ride my bicycle.  I ride for bike-a-thons.  I ride for exercise.  I ride to commute.  I ride for errands.  I ride for fun.  At the end of the day, I like it.  On more than one occasion, someone has asked whether it is permissible to ride on Shabbat.

The overwhelming majority of poskim (decisors) do not permit.  I believe them all to be in error.  Their reasons are as follows:

1.  There is a risk of going outside the eiruv
2.  You might get a flat or have a chain come off, and then come to fix it
3.  It is too much like a weekly activity

I will deal with each concern in turn.

1.  Risk of going outside the eiruv: It is forbidden to carry outside of a private area.  There is a leniency in Jewish law that allows us to designate a neighbourhood, town, or even a city as a private area.  The process is not crucial.  When such eiruvin might include the entire city of Los Angeles, or a rather substantial area in Toronto, one can comfortably stay within the eiruv and still have an enjoyable ride.  Those of us who are concerned about the eiruv know the boundaries.  This is not an issue.  Furthermore, if that is an issue, it is also an issue for those who are on foot.  That defeats the whole purpose of an eiruv.

2.  Lest you come to fix it: I have been cycling both for commuting and recreation for over 14 years.  In that time, my chain has come off once.  Outside of the aberrant occurrences at Guantanamo, I have had only five flat tires and no chain popping.  My bicycle goes for a tune-up once a year.  A minimum of maintenance is necessary to operate a bicycle.  Halakhah does not react to such rare occurrences.  Moreover, I have had more problems than that with my kitchen cabinets.  They have come off hinges many times, including on Shabbat.  Shall we forbid kitchen cabinets for the same reason?  Last, Rav Ovadiah tells us that we are not allowed to make new decrees from our own minds.  If the Sages did not forbid this activity, we are not allowed to do it either.  We are also not allowed to fit it neatly into a category that the Sages developed.

In short, the bicycle does not break easily or often.  We are not allowed to add on to what is already forbidden.  The 'lest you come to fix it' argument does not work.

3.  Too much like a weekly activity: that is saying that riding a bicycle is not in the spirit of Shabbat.  Really?  Says who?  The spirit of Shabbat is an important consideration.  That being said, it is also a fluid concept, varying by season, geography, community, and more.  It seems to me that cycling is a wonderful way to spend time with family, or to take some personal relaxation time.

In short, happy riding.  Stay inside the eiruv.  Think Shabbat-like thoughts while you ride.  If your chain pops, walk the bicycle home.

And now, it is time for a touch of theology.  I have no problem making a statement that something is prohibited, even if the Torah does not explicitly state so, and even if the Sages do not explicitly say so.  However, in this day and age, the burden of proof is on the Rabbi, and not on the Torah.  Furthermore, any rabbinic lightweight can say no.   I prefer not to be a lightweight.  For our second piece of theology, I will add that whatever the answer is, it is an answer that is acceptable.  I will not tell you something is forbidden, and then go off and do it.  I will also not tell you that something is permitted, but it is not good enough for me.  I do not like snobby Halakhah.

Have a good day everyone.  Ride carefully.


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