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June 2007
Rabbi Diana Villa


Dear Rabbi,

Is it true that the Ben Ish Chai authorized bicycle riding on Shabbat?


The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chayim of Bagdad, 1835-1909), in Rav Pealim responsa, vol. 1, responsum 25, allows riding a bicycle only if there is an eiruv [ a fence - can also be a wire or string - that surrounds an area, usually a community . The eiruv is a legal device that converts a public domain into a private domain, thus permitting carrying within its boundaries, which would otherwise be forbidden on Shabbat] around the city. If the city is considered carmelit (Rabbinic public domain), with no eiruv , a Jew can ride a bicycle within it only to fulfill an "important mitzvah " (i.e. the community requires his expertise).
However, according to Rabbi Isaac Hacohen Kook (1901-1959), in Simhat Cohen, Orah Hayim, the Ben Ish Chai didn't understand that since the need to fix a bicycle may arise [which is forbidden], riding a bicycle on Shabbat should not be allowed. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef claims that the Ben Ish Chai eventually changed his mind concerning riding a bicycle on Shabbat (Yehave Da'at, Vol. 2, responsum 48).

In the appendix of his teshuvah [responsum] on "Riding to the Synagogue on Shabbat" (Responsa of the Va'ad Hahalakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, Vol. 4, p. 25, available online at ), Rabbi David Golinkin explains that most poskim [decisors] do not allow riding a bicycle on Shabbat, because 1) one may go outside the tehum (2000 cubits beyond the last building, the furthest point one can go to on Shabbat), 2) one may have to fix the bicycle and 3) it is considered uvdin dehol , not an activity suitable to the spirit of Shabbat. In addition, if there is no eiruv , carrying from the private to the public domain, which is forbidden, will take place. The Ben Ish Chai was the only decisor who permitted bicycle riding on Shabbat. Rabbi Golinkin maintains that even if the Ben Ish Chai hadn't changed his mind (Rabbi Golinkin raises doubts about this), the Ben Ish Chai's  heter [lenient ruling] should be rejected today since he was referring to simple bicycles that were intended only for short distances, while today bicycles have complex gear systems, can be used for long distances and stand a greater chance of breaking down and requiring repair.
The Ben Ish Chai's lenient ruling was practiced in India . However, since it is not easy to abide by all the halakhic limitations ( eiruv,


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