Traveling by Electric Scooter on Shabbat

QUESTION

Maryland

I have a congregant who can no longer walk to shul. I have discussed the option of using the Grama scooters approved by Zomet and the Star K, but they cost more than $4000. She is able to purchase a “regular” used scooter for only $400. Would the financial savings justify using a regular scooter on Shabbat (perhaps with using a shinuy)?

Do you have any advice for elderly individuals who require scooters to attend shul but are not financially prepared to invest in the approved Shabbos scooters?

ANSWER

I am so glad that you asked this question. I have dealt in the past with exactly the same question. The cost burden that this puts on some people who can ill-afford has to be taken seriously. I have long felt that we need to let those in our community know that there are alternatives, when necessary.

Generally, it is fine to use a regular scooter, with some conditions that I will outline.

In general, the uvda d’chol is relatively minimal, as the mode of transportation is not significantly different from that of a manual scooter. In order to deal with the uvda d’chol issue, I would remove the digital readout panel, if it has one. An even better option, if possible, is to cover up the digital read out with a piece of cardboard. That would create a nice visual heker/marker.

I would also say to use the scooter with a shinuy. Something is still considered a shinuy if it is not the normal way you would do it during the week or that the rest of the world does it (Shabbat 92a, Shulchan Aruch HaRav 301:2). Turning it on, I imagine, could be done with a knuckle or something similar. The challenge is the handlebars – breaking, changing speed, etc. The best I can think of is that the person should wear gloves (not driving gloves, but regular gloves) – that’s a shinuy for the warm months. For the winter, I’m open to suggestions.

If a shinuy is not possible, I think it is still permissible, as I will explain.

We are dealing with tzorkhei mitzvah (in this case, getting to shul – see Pri Megadim Eshel Avraham OH 307:8, Pri Megadim Eshel Avraham OH 613:8, Minchat Yitchak 2:104).

Additionally, we have the issues of isolation, loneliness, and depression that can come about from not getting out of the house and feeling immobile, are significant health issues. For choleh kol gufo we can do issurim d’rabanan on Shabbat (for mitzvah it has to be a shevut d’shevut), and certainly uvda d’chol, especially in this case where the u’vda d’chol is minimal. The concerns of isolation, etc., puts this person in the same category as choleh kol gufo, and applies to an otherwise healthy person – this is not to say that we have to be talking about someone who is otherwise ill.

Therefore, if no shinuy is possible, it is fine to use it without, but it would be good to do some heker on the scooter itself, as noted above.

It’s important to note that Rav Rabinovich (Siach Nachum 25) is prepared to dispense with any need for shinuy when the activity is the same as can be done on Shabbat without electricity – e.g., an electric eye for turning on the faucet – since you can turn on a faucet on Shabbat, activating it through an electric eye is not uvda d’chol. It is important to note that this is only when the way you activated it was not through the manipulation of electronics. So, for example, if you have to push in an electronic key code to unlock your door, that is a problem, since the usage of electronics is the uvda di’chol. Even when something satisfies both criteria (normal activity that can be done on Shabbat without electricity/electronics both in (a) the process and (b) the end result), I still require a shinuy whenever possible.

In our case, it is arguable whether it is totally shabbosdik. As I wrote, you can use a manual scooter on Shabbat. But, you can’t use a manual scooter when you are in a seated position, and also there might be some direct manipulation (on/off, speed, brakes) that feels more electronic than manual. So, it’s close to Rav Rabbinovitch’s case, but I don’t think it is completely analagous. So, I really would want a shinuy absent the tzorekh mitzvah/choleh factor.

One final comment regarding the use of electrical scooters on Shabbat.
Someone shared with me that in their yishuv in Israel, the shul has purchased a Tzomet Electric Scooter (a 2-seater, actually) to be used by whomever needs it, and that this came about because the shul has really owned the responsibility of accessibility. I think that owning that responsibility on a community-level is so important – both because it gives more access and enables more people to come to shul and also because it embodies and models these values and commitments for everyone. When you belong to a shul that is committed to inclusivity in very visible ways, that makes a difference in how you will act and behave in your own life as well.

As to the practicality of this particular solution, I think it is great for cases when someone is visiting the community and needs it, or has a temporary need (e.g., a broken leg). But if there are people who need it every Shabbat, one electric scooter is not going to do the trick, and a shul’s finances are also an important factor.

As to using a double seater, from what I understand, in the yishuv that this is done, there is one road, so no extra driving is involved. In our realities in North America, I would be against it. I feel that driving around to pick someone else up would be real uvda d’chol, It becomes a mode of transportation, not a person’s means of mobility. Even if they cost the same, I would sooner pick two individual normal electric scooters over a gramma two-seater to be used in a way that required driving around to pick someone up.

Regardless, the larger point is that we must own this as a communal responsibility. The psak must be shared proactively. Finally, if you have the finances for it, a shul should consider buying a gramma scooter for occasional use needs.

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