Question: Is riding a bicycle permitted on Shabbat?
Answer: It is obvious that there is nothing wrong with the act of cycling itself, which involves moving legs up and down on pedals, in a manner that is not unlike walking. However, cycling as an activity touches on several areas of the Laws of Shabbat and I will address each one separately. The first question is whether riding a bicycle is an ‘appropriate’ Shabbat activity in principle.
The Talmud [Beitza 25b] quotes a Braita which states: A blind man may not go out with his staff, nor a shepherd with his wallet, neither may a man or a woman go out in a chair. Rashi explains that these activities were forbidden because they are ‘weekday activities’ – Uvdin D’Hol. Any activity which belongs to the everyday work week, and not necessary or special for Shabbat, is proscribed under this regulation. As a form of transport, cycling may be prohibited under the category of Uvdin d’Hol.
The subsequent discussion in the Talmud concentrates on the Chair – which was a Roman sedan chair carried by two or more people – an early form of transport. The Talmud states that although going out in a Chair is usually considered Uvdin d’Hol – if one needs to go out for the benefit of the public, it is permitted. Based on this, the Shulchan Aruch rules: [OH 522:2] One may not go out in a chair on Yom Tov, man or woman, but if needed by the community it is permitted.
Examples of public benefit would include a Rabbi going to give a sermon, going to shul to read Torah, to make up the minyan or even just attending shul. The Talmud takes a lenient view and even one who rides in the chair to avoid walking on a crowded street or because he wishes to arrive relaxed is permitted. Thus Uvdin d’Hol does not apply where there is a public need.
Both Maimonides [MT Yom Tov 5:3] and Karo [ibid] include this ruling in the laws of Yom Tov, but not under the laws of Shabbat. They obviously think that although one may go out with a chair on Yom Tov, on Shabbat it is forbidden. This is because carrying is forbidden on Shabbat – so the chair could not be carried outside of an Eruv in any case.
To summarise, according to all commentators it is permitted to carry the chair on Yom Tov whenever there is public need. On Shabbat, most commentators agree that it is permitted to carry it inside the Eruv. Interestingly, the Tur does include this rule under the laws of Shabbat. He obviously felt that it is permitted to carry the chair on Shabbat, possibly even outside of an Eruv!
Back to the bicycle. Following this discussion in the Talmud, and strictly from the point of view of Udvin d’Hol, it is permitted to cycle on Shabbat inside an Eruv. However, once we go outside of the Eruv we encounter the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat.
But is cycling a form of carrying? And why does the Tur think one is allowed to carry the chair outside of the Eruv? To answer these questions we need to take a closer look at the laws of carrying on Shabbat. This is a subject I will deal with in part two of this response.
Based on R. Chaim of Baghdad, Rav Pa’alim, Part 1, OH 25.
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