Take the Bike and Observe Shabbath!
The religious and traditional Israeli Jewish population is on the rise while the secular population is shrinking drastically. Studies show that the numbers of Israelis who do not observe religious traditions have decreased, especially over the past decade, making up just a fifth of the total Israeli population. This is in contrast to earlier days when 41% of Israelis declared themselves secular (1974). About a third of the general Israeli population considers itself fully observant and the number of “traditional” Israelis has grown as well, from 38% to about 50%. (Israel Democracy Institute, Guttman Center, Jerusalem Post, November 23, 07.) (1)
This should give us something to think about. While it is true that the increased observance amongst Israelis is not always for genuine reasons, it cannot be denied that, within the next fifty years, Israel will see an enormous growth in Jewish pride and commitment. This should be welcomed with open arms. As a matter of fact, it is well known that many more secular Israelis would like to become more observant – however, for various practical reasons or social pressures, find that they are unable to make this switch.
One of the major challenges, if not the greatest, is Shabbath, the only official rest day in Israeli society when people like to visit their parents and friends living far away or those who may be in hospital. Many would love to go to a restaurant and enjoy an afternoon ride through parts of Yerushalayim or Ramat Gan. But none of this would be possible without using cars or taxis and the availability of restaurants.
Here are some suggestions to overcome these obstacles:
According to one of the greatest halachic Sephardic authorities, the righteous Rabbi Yosef Hayim, (Baghdad, 1833 or 1835-1909 ) also known as the “Ben Ish Hai”, there is no prohibition to use a bicycle on Shabbath (but only when carrying is halachicaly permitted, as is the case in nearly all Israeli cities). In his opinion, all objections to riding a bicycle on Shabbath are highly questionable. The two most quoted reasons mentioned are (1) the possibility that a bicycle may break down and the owner will try to repair it and (2) that it is “uvda dechol”, a weekday activity. According to the Ben Ish Hai these objections have no halachic foundation. “There are numerous items which are vulnerable to breakage which we would have to prohibit” and “we should not make decrees that were not made by the Rabbis of the Talmud”. (Rav Peilim 1; 25, 1901)
Secondly, riding a bicycle is not considered a “weekday activity” (ibid). No doubt this may apply to the Dutch, who spend much of their lives on bicycles but definitely not to the Israeli population. Most of them have never used a bike even once in their lives!
This is why the Syrian orthodox Community in Brooklyn ride bicycles on Shabbath to the synagogue, to visit their parents or just to go around the neighborhood. (Hakham Ovadia Yosef agrees with the opinion of Rabbi Yosef Hayim but out of deference to those rabbis who were not comfortable with this ruling, suggested that one should refrain from doing so, see his Liviyat Hen, 107,1986. See also Kaf Hahayim, Orach Hayim: 404;8). (2)
In Israel, permitting the use of bicycles on Shabbath would immensely increase Shabbath observance among all those who now drive cars to visit their parents and friends. Once they know that they could take the “bike” many would be delighted to become “shomrei Shabbath”. Perhaps special paths for bike riders could be designated for Shabbath so as to prevent accidents. There is little doubt that this would result in there being fewer cars on the road and the wonderful atmosphere of nation-wide tranquility, which Israelis encounter on Yom Kippur, together with the ability to walk in the middle of the road on Shabbath would become a national joy. Our psychologists (and environmentalists!) and physicians will surely encourage such a novelty even though they may lose some patients!
Now that Yerushalayim is introducing a tram and many other cities may do likewise, it could also be possible to consider a “Shabbath tram” which will (only) have a special service to the different hospitals. No doubt this will need considerable technical, innovative and halachic thinking but in an age of unprecedented major scientific breakthrough, it should not be so hard to overcome all obstacles. Obviously these trams should only run infrequently in order not to spoil the Shabbath atmosphere in the streets. They should be specially decorated with Shabbath themes, run slower than on weekdays and be free of charge.
Finally we wonder whether it would be possible to open some restaurants on Shabbath, especially in the less religious neighborhoods. Such restaurants should be fully Shabbath observant where people could get a drink and a piece of cake free of charge and have the opportunity to meet their friends. Bnei Akiva and other religious youth organizations should take an active role in running such cafיs. They could become a place for communal Shabbath songs, lectures, debates and other religious-cultural activities. (Perhaps using a Shabbath clock would provide nice and relaxing Jewish music in the background?) Large American and Israeli companies should finance such initiatives and people could pop in afterwards to donate some money to the restaurant they visited.
It is, however, especially important that we do not lose sight of the spiritual side of Shabbath. Shabbath is a day which protests against all clattering commerce and profanity of our lives. It must save us from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal of our spiritual needs. Israel greatly needs traditional Shabbath observance before it falls even more victim to the idolization of ourselves and our physical needs. To quote the great American psychiatrist, Erich Fromm: “One might ask if it is not time to re-establish the Shabbath as a universal day of harmony and peace, as the human day that anticipates the human future.” (To be or to Have, Abacus, 1979, London, p. 58).
At the same time we should look for ways whereby the less observant can have a greater taste of this breathtaking day and offer them the opportunity to do so by making it easier to participate in its holiness.
1. See also Thoughts to Ponder 212 and 213.
2. With thanks to my dear friend Rabbi Moshe Shamah, Rabbi of the Syrian Community in Brooklyn who made me aware of these sources.