I'm not Jewish but do know that strict observance of religious laws is important in Judaism.

I recently visited one of our suppliers in Israel and the hotel and office block had sabbath elevators. The younger techies I was working with thought it was ridiculous but it seemed that pious/observant Jews used it. There was also a planning controversy here in London about making an area an Eruv so that religious restrictions could be avoided.

If these features are universal then I shouldn't think of these as a cynical way of avoiding the law which applied to everyone else - like medieval popes declaring Beaver to be a fish or that Geese grew from barnacles so they could eat meat in lent ?

Is there a particular reason that working around a holy law should apparently be considered pious?

edit: Thank you, the question was meant out of genuine interest, I didn't intend any offense with "loophole".

My question was really that in Christianity (or Islam) by not doing something enjoyable or which makes life easier on Sabbath, or by fasting - it is the sacrifice that is the offering/prayer.

So if you can't start a fire to keep warm then the discomfort is the sacrifice. But if it is ok to have a non-Jew make one for you, or today have the heating pre-programmed, it seems that the observance of the law is more important than the spirit.

Is the intention of the law in Judaism fundamentally different from the other two religions? Or is it just a tradition that has grown up over the generations?

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    Welcome to Mi Yodeya, 'Nobody', and thanks for the interesting and important question. I edited "Shabbat" into the title because you had tagged the question with the shabbat tag; if your intention was to be more general, please re-edit the question! In any event, I hope you stick around and enjoy the site. Please consider registering your account, which will give you access to more of the site's features.
    – msh210
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 5:44
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    Shabbat elevators are somewhat controversial and many people try to avoid them if possible, but eruv is actually a built-in part of the law so using an eruv can't really be called a loophole. When the law of carrying in a karmelit was created, eruv was created along with it.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 5:46
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    @Daniel shabbat elevators are not controversial on account of their attempt at avoiding shabbat violations while allowing one to use an elevators. The controversy surrounding them is based on whether they successfully avoid violation. In principle there would be no objection to a shabbat elevator that according to all halachik authorities avoided all shabbat violations
    – Jewels
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 8:57
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    Judaism is not generally an ascetic religion. We do not deprive ourselves of various modern contrivances on the sabbath for the sake of deprivation or suffering, we are refraining from work for spiritual and traditional reasons. In the modern era with technology so ubiquitous I know it seems like deliberate deprivation (and to be honest I sometimes have a hard time convincing my kids of this), but that's not its purpose. The sabbath is designed to be celebrated and enjoyed, and physical pleasures like a hot meal are a part of that. Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 14:10
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    I'd just like to point out that there were Jewish sects (no longer extant) that did subscribe to a hyper-literal interpretation of the laws and an ascetic attitude, and "suffered" in the cold and dark on Shabbat, as they believed having any fire\heat on Shabbat was a violation.
    – Shmuel
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 5:57

5 Answers 5


The "Letter of the Law" is binding. However, we do generally try to go beyond and satisfy a "Spirit of the Law" which is above the Letter of the Law. Therefore, loopholes which contravene the Spirit of the Law are not generally encouraged, and the topic of what is called הערמה, tricking your way around the law, is somewhat complex but generally discouraged.

However, this necessitates understanding what the "Spirit of the Law" is in a given situation. In your example, were the "Spirit" of Shabbos to make Shabbos a day of asceticism or suffering, you would be correct that we are circumventing the intention of the laws. However, the point of Shabbos is to not be an active participant in creative activity (as explained by R' S.R. Hirsch in Horeb). Therefore, riding a Shabbos elevator, which does not involve doing any creative activity on Shabbos, as it is pre-programmed, is completely removed from the spirit of the day.

Eruv was already discussed in other answers, but it is a built-in exception to a Rabbinically decreed prohibition, and therefore is hard to call a "loophole" - it is an exception to a stringency, not a loophole to the essential law.

  • As a non Jew (reading this site a lot though) I think this explain the answer far better than the other one, as it is the different interpretation of what the spirit of the law in this case is that causes the confusion. Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 11:20
  • I don't know if I;'m qualified to accept the answer ;-) But this seems to make sense. Sunday/Saturday isn't to suffer like Scots Presbyterians - it's to be a special and by thinking about the rules you show you are treating it specially?
    – Nobody
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 2:55
  • @Nobody It is to show that G-d is in control of the world by refraining from being active participants in Creation and showing that the world goes on without us. Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 2:57

What you are discussing are not loopholes.

If a person uses a wheelchair to get around, you don't say he's using a loophole. He's doing the best he can under the circumstances.

If a person uses a key to unlock his front door, he's not using a loophole, he's behaving as expected.

If a person heats his house, he's not using a loophole to deal with the cold.

The Torah gave us very precise laws - and they do not apply across the board. Actually, many laws are contradictory to others, of you take such an global approach.



The Torah forbids carrying in a Halachically-defined Public Domain on Shabbat. An Eruv turns the streets into a Private Domain - as they become enclosed with walls & doorways. This is not a loophole but is defined by the same Torah that forbids carrying in a Public Domain.

Shabbat Elevators

The Torah forbids closing/opening electrical circuits on Shabbat. This makes it impossible to use an elevator: Thus, you cannot press the buttons, you cannot cause the door to stay open and you cannot cause any other electric circuit to kick-in, like weight sensors.

A Shabbat elevator operates without having any of the above issues - so why should it be prohibited? It's not all that different from using a time clock to turn lights on and off; a very common thing to find in Shabbat-observant houses.

(And yes, I am aware of those who forbid using Shabbat elevators, time clocks and even the Eruv. But not because they argue with the above concept.)

Conclusion: We're not declaring a beaver to be a fish; we're discovering fish that taste like beavers.

  • 6
    An Eruv removes the rabbinic prohibition of Karmelit. You can't make an eruv in a Public Domain.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 13:10
  • @DoubleAA - that's already getting technical. The concept remains the same. But even for a Public Domain there are ways to destroy its status. E.g. they will put up [temporary/rarely used] gates/doors on major thoroughfares destroying its Mefulash status. Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 13:22
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    The point made by @DoubleAA is in fact crucial since it clarifies that an eruv is merely an example of the rabbis limiting a restriction that they themselves made. Further, the presence of an eruv itself serves as a reminder that the area is a karmelis rather than a "public domain", which obviates the need to prohibit carrying in that karmelis. Thus, this is not a loophole.
    – Fred
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 21:32
  • Who are those who forbid using the Eruv? I'm aware some have very high standards for eruv, but is there anyone who says there is no such thing as an eruv you can use? Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 21:49
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    This answer doesn't address the fact that in spirit, these are "loopholes." If one truly holds that "The Torah forbids" using electricity on Shabbat (which is a matter of dispute), and that one cannot carry in the city streets on Shabbat, then coming up with contrivances which effectively circumvent these laws, are indeed "loopholes." Extending the idea of a Karmalit to the main city streets is a loophole. Claiming that "you're not actually using electricity" in an elevator is a loophole. You're using technical interpretations to find ways to permit that which would appear to be prohibited.
    – Shmuel
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 6:03

Regarding Shabbat observance specifically, the idea is not to be a sacrifice, rather there is a specific concept of Oneg Shabbat, doing things which are pleasurable on Shabbat.

In terms of the general point, in traditional Judaism, the law is the point. The specific observance of Mitzvos as defined in the Halachic process is what connects us to Hashem and fulfills His will. Any underlying philosophical points, known as the Tamei HaMitzvos, the "philosophical reasons" for the laws are more speculative and less controlling.

One reason for this is that the commandments themselves are beyond human understanding, thus defining them through such understanding can only be done following the rules that the Commander dictates - the Halachic process.


Shabbat has a dual nature. It is a "holy day" and a "day of rest."

Because it is a day of rest one is forbidden to do creative work on Shabbat. According to Jewish Law, there are 39 Categories of "creative work." Actions which fall into any of these categories are forbidden; actions which do not are permitted.

Because it is a holy day, one should remember God on Shabbat, and even more so, the Prophets say one should "enjoy" the Shabbat.

Both of these ideas - of resting and refraining from work, and of enjoying the Shabbat because it is a holy day - became part of Jewish Law. In situations where there was tension between these two ideas, the rabbis utilized the intricacies of the law, by finding actions which weren't technically prohibited, to reconcile the ideas, and thereby allow Jews to fully experience both elements of Shabbat.

"Shabbat Elevators" are an example of this reconciliation. If one is wheelchair-bound, and requires an elevator to go down the stairs, which is (generally accepted as involving) "work," then they're not fully enjoying Shabbat or appreciating its holiness - they can't attend Synagogue, or visit friends, etc. But if an elevator can be created which technically doesn't violate any of the laws, then they can fully experience both aspects of Shabbat - enjoying it, and not doing "work." This is how a loophole can be pious, for it lets the Jews fulfill both the letter and the spirit of the law in the best way possible.

The point of Jewish Law and God's commandments aren't to make Jews suffer. Judaism isn't ascetic*, and it isn't founded on sacrifice (like Christianity). Therefore, the idea that one has to "suffer through it" is generally unacceptable, and the rabbis will try to find a way to make it bearable and fulfill the spirit of the law while still remaining within the letter of the law.

*Yom Kippur being a notable exception.

  • 2
    So - according to you - if you are fully capable of walking down the stairs, and you actually enjoy running down stairs, then you are not allowed to use the Shabbat elevator? Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 8:13
  • @DannySchoemann Might be a bittul of oneg to do something you don't like?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 16:51
  • Yom Kippur isn't really an exception. It's not about suffering; it's about "resting" (to quote the Rambam) from physical matters.
    – Ypnypn
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 19:04
  • @Danny - No, you could. Once the loophole has been exploited, anyone can use it, since technically it's not a violation. Whether you should is a different question. Also, we shouldn't go finding such loopholes in the first place without good reason.
    – Shmuel
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 21:27
  • @Ypnypn Yom Kippur is the most ascetic day in Judaism. We're supposed to be like angels. Also, ועניתם את נפשותיכם
    – Shmuel
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 21:30


A footnote: While I was at the conference, I stayed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where young rabbis ¬¬ I think they were Orthodox ¬¬ were studying. Since I have a Jewish background, I knew of some of the things they told me about the Talmud, but I had never seen the Talmud. It was very interesting. It's got big pages, and in a little square in the corner of the page is the original Talmud, and then in a sort of L¬shaped margin, all around this square, are commentaries written by different people. The Talmud has evolved, and everything has been discussed again and again, all very carefully, in a medieval kind of reasoning. I think the commentaries were shut down around the thirteen¬ or fourteen¬ or fifteen ¬hundreds ¬¬ there hasn't been any modern commentary. The Talmud is a wonderful book, a great, big potpourri of things: trivial questions, and difficult questions ¬¬ for example, problems of teachers, and how to teach ¬¬ and then some trivia again, and so on. The students told me that the Talmud was never translated, something I thought was curious, since the book is so valuable.

One day, two or three of the young rabbis came to me and said, "We realize that we can't study to be rabbis in the modern world without knowing something about science, so we'd like to ask you some questions." Of course there are thousands of places to find out about science, and Columbia University was right near there, but I wanted to know what kinds of questions they were interested in. They said, "Well, for instance, is electricity fire?" "No," I said, "but. . . what is the problem?" They said, "In the Talmud it says you're not supposed to make fire on a Saturday, so our question is, can we use electrical things on Saturdays?" I was shocked. They weren't interested in science at all! The only way science was influencing their lives was so they might be able to interpret better the Talmud! They weren't interested in the world outside, in natural phenomena; they were only interested in resolving some question brought up in the Talmud. And then one day ¬¬ I guess it was a Saturday ¬¬ I want to go up in the elevator, and there's a guy standing near the elevator.

The elevator comes, I go in, and he goes in with me. I say, "Which floor?" and my hand's ready to push one of the buttons. "No, no!" he says, "I'm supposed to push the buttons for you." "What?" "Yes! The boys here can't push the buttons on Saturday, so I have to do it for them. You see, I'm not Jewish, so it's all right for me to push the buttons. I stand near the elevator, and they tell me what floor, and I push the button for them." Well, this really bothered me, so I decided to trap the students in a logical discussion. I had been brought up in a Jewish home, so I knew the kind of nitpicking logic to use, and I thought, "Here's fun!" My plan went like this: I'd start off by asking, "Is the Jewish viewpoint a viewpoint that any man can have? Because if it is not, then it's certainly not something that is truly valuable for humanity. . . yak, yak, yak."

And then they would have to say, "Yes, the Jewish viewpoint is good for any man." Then I would steer them around a little more by asking, "Is it ethical for a man to hire another man to do something which is unethical for him to do? Would you hire a man to rob for you, for instance?" And I keep working them into the channel, very slowly, and very carefully, until I've got them ¬¬ trapped! And do you know what happened? They're rabbinical students, right? They were ten times better than I was! As soon as they saw I could put them in a hole, they went twist, turn, twist ¬¬ I can't remember how ¬¬ and they were free! I thought I had come up with an original idea ¬¬ phooey! It had been discussed in the Talmud for ages! So they cleaned me up just as easy as pie ¬¬ they got right out. Finally I tried to assure the rabbinical students that the electric spark that was bothering them when they pushed the elevator buttons was not fire. I said, "Electricity is not fire. It's not a chemical process, as fire is." "Oh?" they said. "Of course, there's electricity in amongst the atoms in a fire." "Aha!" they said. "And in every other phenomenon that occurs in the world." I even proposed a practical solution for eliminating the spark. "If that's what's bothering you, you can put a condenser across the switch, so the electricity will go on and off without any spark whatsoever ¬¬ anywhere."

But for some reason, they didn't like that idea either. It really was a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are studying to go into society and do something ¬¬ to be a rabbi ¬¬ and the only way they think that science might be interesting is because their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded slightly by some new phenomena.

Something else happened at that time which is worth mentioning here. One of the questions the rabbinical students and I discussed at some length was why it is that in academic things, such as theoretical physics, there is a higher proportion of Jewish kids than their proportion in the general population. The rabbinical students thought the reason was that the Jews have a history of respecting learning: They respect their rabbis, who are really teachers, and they respect education. The Jews pass on this tradition in their families all the time, so that if a boy is a good student, it's as good as, if not better than, being a good football player. It was the same afternoon that I was reminded how true it is.

I was invited to one of the rabbinical students' home, and he introduced me to his mother, who had just come back from Washington, D.C. She clapped her hands together, in ecstasy, and said, "Oh! My day is complete. Today I met a general, and a professor!" I realized that there are not many people who think it's just as important, and just as nice, to meet a professor as to meet a general. So I guess there's something in what they said.

from "Surely you're joking Mr Feynman"

I think Richard answers the question to some extent! I have boldened the parts I feel are relevant. I feel that the premise is wrong - i.e. it is not a loophole. A loophole implies that God is against carrying and elevators, and we are trying to figure out how to get those things back with clever rationalizations.

Nay, the law itself is the end in-and-of-itself. This is demonstrated in the above, by the fact that Richard was trying to show that electricity is not fire, which would be great, it would unlock a whole world of activities we could do on Sabbath, but we didn't accept it because we aren't interested in that. We are simply interested in understanding the law better. Whatever the conclusion we arrive at, we follow, whether it makes our lives easier or harder.

3335 years of rigorously studying God's laws, as honestly and seriously as you can imagine, with unrivalled scholarship. 4000 pages of Talmud, 2000 years of debates surrounding it. It's hard to get your head around the first time you hear it, quite unbelievable.


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