Question: Is it permitted to ride on public transport on Shabbat, assuming that the transport workers are not Jewish and the trains are operating for the general public and not specifically for Jews?
Answer: The Mishnah rules that it is forbidden to ride on an animal on Shabbat. This is a rabbinic prohibition designed to prevent a person inadvertently cutting a branch from a tree in order to drive the animal forward. Furthermore, the Jerusalem Talmud states that the reason for not riding on animals on Shabbat is to enable animals to rest also. The Shulchan Aruch [OH 305:18] codifies this as law. Moses Isserlis [Poland, 17th century] adds that it is also forbidden to ride in a wagon on Shabbat, even if the driver is not Jewish. He says that the same considerations apply – i.e. that a person might cut a branch from a tree and that animals are also entitled to rest on Shabbat.
If the prohibition of riding in a wagon is specifically related to animals resting, it should be permitted to ride on public transport which is driven by electric or petrol motors. This is providing that the trains are not being operated by Jews and there are not any further Shabbat prohibitions related to this travel.
However, there are several other issues that should be taken into consideration. First, as we saw in my article on Cycling on Shabbat, there is a general prohibition of engaging in ‘Weekday activities’ on Shabbat, known as Uvdin D’Hol. The Hatam Sofer [Hungary, 18th century] rules that all forms of public transport are forbidden on Shabbat [Responsa: 6:93]. This is because the experience of being in a crowded car being tossed back and forth by the movement of the train is not in the spirit of Shabbat. Rabbi BZ Uziel [Israel, 20th century] rejects this ruling, for if this was the case, the Rema (Moses Isserlis) would have included this amongst his reasons prohibiting riding in a wagon.
However, Rabbi Uziel adds that the prohibition of Uvdin D’Hol would apply if one was going on a long journey, particularly if this journey was in preparation for business the following day. Also, it is forbidden to pay for travel, to carry outside of an Eruv or to travel beyond the Shabbat boundaries (see my article on cycling on Shabbat).
Following this reasoning, it would be permitted to travel on public transport on Shabbat for short trips within a city if the journey does not involve carrying, paying for travel or going outside the city limits. This is on condition that the transport is running anyway, and does not involve Jews desecrating the Sabbath.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Based on B. Z. Uziel, Piskei Uziel 13.
This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Tuscany (Rome, Pitigliano, Siena, Lucca and Livorno).