In the previous Halacha we have discussed the prohibition to ride an inter-city train on Shabbat, for although the passenger may have boarded the train before the onset of Shabbat, nevertheless, since the train passes from one city to another on Shabbat, this constitutes the prohibition of leaving one’s boundaries on Shabbat.
We must now discuss the law regarding an inner-city train conducted by non-Jews and where most of the passengers are non-Jewish and does not pass between various boundaries on Shabbat, for the train remains in the same city for the duration of its route, such as with regards to the New York City subway system. Will it be forbidden to ride such a train on Shabbat?
It seems that this too should be completely forbidden if one is carrying one’s personal items on Shabbat, such as Metro-Cards and the like; however, if one is not carrying anything, for instance, if one has already paid the fee before Shabbat and the conductor does not ask for one’s ticket such that one can board the train without carrying anything, it seems that no prohibition should apply whatsoever, for no boundaries are being crossed as everything stays within the same city and there is no transgression of igniting the combustion in the engine, for the train is being conducted by a non-Jew on behalf of a majority of passengers who are non-Jewish.
Nevertheless, Hagaon Harav Yehuda Assad writes that there is another reason to forbid this which is that although the train is being conducted for a majority of the passengers who are non-Jewish, nevertheless, the Jewish passenger’s weight causes some additional combustion in the train’s engine; thus, it turns out that some of the forbidden work of igniting a flame is being performed for the Jewish passenger.
On the other hand, many great Acharonim disagree with the ruling of Rabbeinu Yehuda Assad, for what he has pointed out is correct regarding steam engines in his times or buses in our times when the exertion caused by the weight of the passengers causes a relative amount of combustion in the engine; however, nowadays, regarding electric trains which are very large and whose speed is consistent, this is a non-issue, for the minimal weight of the Jewish passenger causes no additional combustion. Thus, this cannot be a reason to prohibit such a train ride.
Nevertheless, Hagaon Harav Yitzchak Abulafia zt”l writes in his Responsa Penei Yitzchak that this is indeed forbidden, for riding a train on Shabbat is disrespectful and degrading to the Shabbat. He proceeds to support his view from the Gemara in Masechet Beitzah (25b) which states that one may not ride on a chair on Shabbat and Rashi (ibid.) explains that this refers to one riding while sitting in a chair being carried by others. The Gemara explains that the reason why this is forbidden is because this is disrespectful to Shabbat, for one is conducting one’s regular weekday affairs on Shabbat. Other great Acharonim concur as well.
Based on the words of the Penei Yitzchak that this constitutes a degradation of Shabbat, it would seem that one must abstain from boarding even an electric train on Shabbat. Indeed, the late Rishon Le’Tzion and Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Hagaon Harav Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel zt”l writes that anyone who adheres and fears the word of Hashem should not ride an electric train on Shabbat.
Nonetheless, when one is travelling in order to perform a Mitzvah, such as a doctor who is travelling to the hospital in order heal Jewish patients or a Mohel traveling to perform a Berit Milah, the letter of the law does indeed permit one to board an electric train as long as one does not carry along money or any other object, for in a situation where a Mitzvah is involved, one need not be concerned and act stringently. Hagaon Harav Uziel zt”l, quoted above, rules likewise. Nevertheless, Maran zt”l writes that one should do so as privately and unobtrusively as possible so that others do not see him and learn to treat Shabbat lightly by riding the train on Shabbat. (See Chazon Ovadia-Shabbat, Part 1, page 130)