Rabbi's Q & A Question of the Month - November, 2011

Dear Rebbe

Question:  I understand that Conservative halakhah allows driving from home to synagogue and back home. But what if I have to fly to get home from a business trip and I can't leave the place of business until 5:00? When I arrive at my home airport, I could either go straight to synagogue for a late service or go home and to services Shabbat morning. I have been unable to find an answer online for this situation. This question is for air travel within the same time zone. I would like to find out the Conservative perspective on this situation.

Answer:  The teshuvah you are referring to specifically addresses the permissibility of driving to the nearest synagogue on Shabbat.  It would not permit the more extensive travel involved in flying home if you were driving to the airport and boarding the plane on Shabbat.  However, let's assume that when you boarded the plane, it was not yet Shabbat but when you landed it was.  The Talmud speaks of the situation in which a ship arrives at its destination on Shabbat.  May a Jew disembark from a boat on Shabbat?  The answer turns out to be yes, although according to the mishnah (Eiruvin 4:2), that is predicated on the assumption that the ship was within the Sabbath boundary, no more than 1 km from the populated area of the city, before Shabbat began.  This is problematic in air travel, since unless you land within 10-15 minutes after Shabbat beginning, you are almost certainly outside the Shabbat boundary when Shabbat begins.  Halakha, however, very cleverly says that if you are more than 1 meter above the ground (as you would be when riding a ship or certainly an airplane!), then your personal Shabbat boundary is the ship itself, meaning that one could disembark on Shabbat and walk up to about 1 km.  So, when landing in a plane on Shabbat, you could leave the plane but without the "driving teshuvah," you would be stuck in the airport until the end of Shabbat.  If you were to take the "driving teshuvah" at face value, I suppose at this point it would allow you to drive to the synagogue and then back to the airport, which is your "home base" for Shabbat.  You could, of course, not return to the airport but stay near the synagogue or walk home.  It would not seem to permit driving from the airport to your house or from the airport to the synagogue to your house.

I will close with this note:  I do not believe that halakha permits driving on Shabbat.  As a matter of practical Halakha, if I could not get home before Shabbat, I would remain where I was over Shabbat (contacting the synagogue and hopefully arranging for some Shabbat hospitality), and fly home on Saturday night or Sunday.  The material in the Mishnah/Talmud speaking of ships and Shabbat was intended to address the question of long voyages which could not be completed without Shabbat travel, not relatively short flights by air.  In addition, using the driving teshuvah to justify flying home from a business trip on Shabbat is stretching it beyond the intent of the authors, who were simply trying to expand the Shabbat boundaries to a non-walkable suburban community.

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