The primary reason bicycle riding is prohibited on Shabbat is because it enters the category of carrying, moving an item from one domain to another or from one place to another in the public domain. This discussion is limited to Yom Tob when it's permitted to carry.
Riding itself doesn't involve any melakha. Exerting force on a pedal and through a mechanical connection moving or stopping the wheels is not a melakha of Shabbat. halakha is full of examples of similar permitted devices. Consider exerting pressure on the lever of an aerosol container or a bathroom flush. Or winding a running watch. (We don't wind a stopped one because it might be considered "fixing" a "broken" item.)
The four usual halakhic issues raised regarding bicycle riding on Yom Tob follow. (Hakham Obadiah Yosef commented on them in Livyat Hen #107 (1986).)
The first issue:
Perhaps something on the bicycle will break and the rider will repair it. Repairing is surely prohibited.
Rabbi Yosef Hayim (The Ben Ish Hai) in Rab Pealim I;25 (1901), referring specifically to a bicycle, states:
We should not make new gezerot based on our own opinions; it's sufficient if the people of these generations are careful with the gezerot explicitly specified by the rabbis [of the Talmud]. Therefore it is permitted [to ride the bicycle] in the Erub on Shabbat or on Yom Tob even if only for recreation.
In the Addenda, at the beginning of Rab Pealim, also referring specifically to a bicycle, he elaborates further:
I have heard some say that we should forbid [the bicycle on Shabbat in the Erub] because it may break and the person may come to fix it. This is also a vain argument and unworthy of being stated. First of all, it is not so vulnerable to breaking. Furthermore, we should not make decrees that weren't made by the rabbis of the Talmud, for if we do there are numerous permitted items which are vulnerable to breakage which we would have to prohibit. We find in Shulhan Aruch Chapter 339 many things prohibited on Shabbat by the rabbis of the Talmud because one may come to write or fix and still we do not apply those gezerot from our own opinion to items not specifically mentioned by the rabbis. Thus, there are many cases where these gezerot that one may come to write or fix could pertain that are permitted because the rabbis didn't apply this gezera to those cases.
See Birce Yosef [Rab Hida] on O.H. 339: "....`It is permitted to compose a song orally with poetic metre on Shabbat and we don't make a gezera against it that the person may come to write, because we only have what was specified by the rabbis of the Talmud.' This is simple and clear. Tosafot also wrotesimilarly...`We are not to compare the decrees of the rabbis one to another except where the Talmud compares.' See Sifte Cohen... and Magen Abraham... [who also say this.]"
Hacham Obadia Yosef cites this view of Rab Pealim favorably.
If a bicycle does break while away from home on Yom Tob, it is permitted to walk it home. A flat tire or disconnected chain does not render the bicycle `mukseh' as it is fit for some use even while in its dysfunctional state, namely, sitting upon.
Of course it is inadvisable to ride on Yom Tob a bicycle whose chain comes off frequently.
The second issue:
Perhaps the rider will go beyond the tehum (2000 amot beyond the last house of the town) which is prohibited.
The same objection that we don't make our own gezerot these days applies here also. A further consideration is that the prohibition of tehumim, according to the accepted halacha, is rabbinic. The Talmudic rule that `a gezera is not made on something which itself is a gezera' applies. This latter objection is also cited favorably by Hacham Obadia Yosef.
Additionally, in a large metropolitan area such as Brooklyn is, it is hardly ever the case that someone rides beyond the tehum.
The third issue:
Riding over an earthen surface may make a furrow in the ground that is considered in the category of digging, a prohibited melacha.
This issue is based on a gezera not to drag very heavy items over our fields for fear that we might `dig' an agricultural furrow. However, a bicycle doesn't dig a furrow; the wheels press and pack the earth rather than dig into it. Furthermore, the rider has absolutely no intention to make a furrow in the ground. Even if a bicycle necessarily makes a furrow, thus cancelling out the lenient consideration of lack of intention, the rider doesn't care about it, especially as its not a field standing for his agricultural cultivation. Where `digging' is done in such an `abnormal' manner (without shovel or spade), absent any intention for the digging and lacking any benefit from it, there surely is no prohibition.
These concepts are developed at some length by Hacham Obadia Yosef.
The fourth issue:
Bicycle riding is a weekday activity.
Most people in our community don't ride their bicycles primarily to shop or to do other types of work. A bicycle is ridden for pleasure, recreation, to visit family and friends, etc. Indeed, for many it takes the place of the automobile and is specificallyused when the latter is prohibited.
Hacham Obadia Yosef didn't think this question has much merit either.
Summary of the Basic halakha
None of the questions against riding a bicycle on Yom Tob endure close scrutiny.
Caf Hahayim, Rabbi Sassoon and Rabbi Obadia Yosef
The Caf Hahayim O.H. 404;8 (c. 1906), upon citing the lenient opinion of Rab Pealim in some detail, tacitly indicating it as the standard accepted halacha, states that `some' poskim were strict on this matter even though they knew that technically it was permitted. They obviously were making a gezera for their own local situation which they understood better than anyone else. Clearly the Caf Hahayim is not citing `some poskim' to indicate a universal gezera.
I asked the son of Rabbi Sassoon a"h his father's view on this matter. Following is Haki Sassoon's response:
In Letchworth we had an Erub around our yard and we asked our teacher, Hacham Yoseph Doury a"h, a wise, learned and reliable person, if we could ride our bicycles within the Erub on Shabbat. He told us that it is permitted providing we removed the horn and the batteries for the light before Shabbat. My father, a"h, agreed with him but was concerned with the feelings of the Ashkenazic neighbors who might not understand. So we refrained from riding on Shabbat.
Hacham Obadia Yosef, after demonstrating that none of the reasons to prohibit are adequate, states that it is proper to be strict because of the many rabbis that were strict. As he doesn't find any prohibition, and makes it clear that he decided this matter out of deference to the judgment of the majority of recent authors who published on this topic, community rabbis are not bound to modify established community custom (even if they may be inclined to do so in matters which he decides upon the actual substantive merits of the case).
The Custom In Our Brooklyn Community
There are many areas in which it is advisable to be strict. Sometimes the rabbis will establish a takana or gezera; sometimes they will advise individuals that it is preferable to be strict privately. On the other hand, the Talmud and the great poskim throughout the centuries have pointed out that in many areas strictness may be counterproductive and have forcefully opposed strictness that is not clearly calculated to bring all-around benefit.
In our Brooklyn Syrian community the leading rabbis throughout the years have acknowledged that there is no prohibition riding abicycle on Yom Tob. Chief Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin and others publicly quoted Rab Pealim on this many times. It is well known that a number of learned men, very particular in fulfilling misvot, permitted, and when necessary, encouraged, grown members of their families to ride bicycles on Yom Tob. Never did our community rabbis declare a gezera on this matter and neither did a prohibitive minhag arise.
Particularly in a community such as ours, where the rabbis worked long and hard to maintain great unity between the extremely religious and the moderately religious, it is inconceivable that they would have prohibited what was basically permitted when it would undoubtedly cause numerous families to be considered outside the law.
Our rabbis also worked long and hard to prevent the Conservative Movement from making inroads in our community. A major aspect of their success these past two generations has been their policy of not indiscriminately prohibiting what is basically permitted in areas that would make our people vulnerable to non-Orthodox enticement. Bicycle riding on Yom Tob falls into this category.
In cities where the extremely religious are separated from the non-religious in their social lives and where the threat from Conservatives has not been a major fear as it has been in the United States, it is much more likely that rabbis might consider a prohibitive gezera. At any rate we never heard our community rabbis during the past decades pronounce a prohibition on bicycle riding on Yom Tob.
Additional considerations not to prohibit what is permitted in cases such as bicycle riding on Yom Tob include the following:
* People inevitably discover the true halacha. This cannot be prevented. Some people may then be prompted to wrongly suspect that in other areas, where there really is an issur, the rabbis are not permiting what really is permitted. Some members of the public may become disenchanted with the rabbis, complaining `why didn't you trust us?' etc. To create the facade of an issur when there isn't one is dishonest and sets a wrong example. If we want to make a gezera we should do so. There are rare cases when the situation requires that we not reveal the true halacha, but bicycle riding is not one of them.
* There are situations where bicycles on Yom Tob serve an important misvah purpose. Consider the case of an elderly couple I know, whose children, very religious, live a forty minute walk away and never used to visit on Yom Tob. When they found out a bicycle is permitted on Yom Tob they began to visit every Yom Tob.
* The many teenagers and young adults who inevitably will ride their bicycles on Yom Tob should not feel they are doing an issur when they are not. Some of them feel they cannot help but ride their bicycles on Yom Tob and, psychologically, thinking that they are doing an issur may prompt them to doing a true issur. `If I'm already doing a sin, what difference does it make if I commitanother one'?. It's a terrible way of looking at things, but unfortunately too common.
* As far as those who presently don't ride bicycles on Yom Tob, it's preferable they refrain from doing so knowing the halakha and choosing to be strict for their good reasons, rather than refraining out of a false concept of issur. In our society false concepts of halakha have fostered condescension and divisiveness, thus creating many problems. If, on the other hand, some of these people choose to ride bicycles on Yom Tob, we can assume they are doing so for good reason.
* As Rabbi Moshe Weinberger wrote in `Keeping Up With The Katz's - The Chumra (stringency) Syndrome - An Halachic Analysis' (Jewish Action, Rosh Hashana 5749):
In our generation we have witnessed a miraculous renewal of interest in Judaism....However, we often encounter a somewhat questionable by-product of this renewed vigor, namely, halachic enthusiasm which breeds halachic competitiveness. This frequently results in an overly restrictive, inaccurate version of Judaism replete with unfounded halachic stringencies which may ironically deter others from seeking entrance into the majestic world of Torah Judaism. Often the `pleasant ways of the Torah' seem to have become difficult to bear as a result of stringencies superimposed upon the truly pleasant ways of Torah Judaism.
Although permitted, there are several considerations associated with bicycle riding on Yom Tob that may make it advisable for certain individuals to be strict for themselves or their families. Also, as stated above, it is inadvisable to ride those bicycles whose chains come off frequently.
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