The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909), in his work Rab Pe’alim, devotes a thorough responsum to the issue of riding bicycles on Shabbat in a place with an Erub. After a long, exhaustive analysis, the Ben Ish Hai concludes that bicycle riding is permitted on Shabbat, and he therefore allowed riding bicycles in his city, Baghdad, which had an Erub.
Several Aharonim, including the Kaf Ha’haim Sofer (1970-1939) and Hacham Ovadia Hedaya (1889-1969), in his work Yaskil Abdi, claimed that the Ben Ish Hai later retracted this ruling, and forbade bicycle riding on Shabbat. This assertion, however, was never proven, and some Poskim questioned the claim, noting that it seems unlikely that the Ben Ish Hai would change his mind without putting his new ruling into print.
There is some confusion among many people regarding the position of Hacham Ovadia Yosef on this subject, and this edition of Daily Halacha seeks to clarify his stance and dispel misconceptions. In a responsum in his work Yabia Omer (vol. 10, Orah Haim 54:12), the Hacham cites a Halachic authority who claimed that bicycle riding is forbidden on Shabbat because it makes furrows in the ground, violating the Shabbat prohibition of plowing. Hacham Ovadia dismisses this rationale, noting that making grooves would be, at most, a Rabbinic prohibition, and in a situation where one has no intention whatsoever to make these grooves, and has no interest at all in doing so, it would be permissible. Even in a situation where the grooves would inevitably result from riding, it would still be allowed. Hacham Ovadia then cites a different argument advanced to forbid bicycle riding on Shabbat, namely, the concern that something might break and one would then be tempted to fix the bicycle on Shabbat, in violation of Halacha. However, Hacham Ovadia dismisses this reason, as well, noting that we are not authorized to enact safeguards that were not established by Hazal. If this were a reason to forbid bicycle riding, then we would not stop there, and we would forbid wearing eyeglasses in case they break, and forbid wearing shoes in case the lace tears. He thus concludes that this concern is not grounds to forbid bicycle riding on Shabbat.
One who reads this responsum may, indeed, have the impression that Hacham Ovadia permits bicycle riding on Shabbat as a practical matter. However, before reaching this conclusion, we must consider his comments on the subject in other contexts. Some twenty-five pages later in that same work (in Siman 55), Hacham Ovadia returns to the question of bicycle riding on Shabbat, and he cites the Ben Ish Hai’s ruling on the topic. He proceeds to analyze all sides of the issue in great depth and detail, questioning the various arguments that have been advanced for why bicycle riding should be forbidden. At the very end, however, concluding his exhaustive treatment of the topic, Hacham Ovadia writes, "It is proper to be stringent not to ride a bicycle on Shabbat." He writes explicitly that despite his arguments against those who forbade bicycle riding, as a practical matter one should follow the stringent view and refrain from riding bicycles on Shabbat.
And lest one contend that the Hacham’s intent was merely to advise against bicycle riding on Shabbat as a measure of stringency, as opposed to strict Halacha, the question was posed to his son, Rabbi Abraham Yosef, as to what his father’s position is. Rabbi Abraham answered in no uncertain terms that Hacham Ovadia forbids bicycle riding on Shabbat, and he referred to the aforementioned responsum as the source. Furthermore, there is a website run by Hacham Ovadia’s grandsons that presents a daily halachic discussion from the Hacham (halachayomit.co.il), and the issue of bicycle riding on Shabbat is addressed in one such discussion http://www.halachayomit.co.il/EnglishDisplayRead.asp?readID=2426. There it is clearly stated that it is forbidden to ride a bicycle on Shabbat. Moreover, in Hacham Ovadia’s recent work on the laws of Shabbat (vol. 4, p. 43), he writes explicitly that this is forbidden. In Yalkut Yosef (vol. 3, p. 174), too, it is written, "One should rule as a practical matter not to ride a bicycle on Shabbat, and one should not make a breach in this regard." The Yalkut Yosef adds that one should not ride a bicycle on Shabbat even to go to perform a Misva, in accordance with the consensus among the Halachic authorities (listen to audio recording for precise citation).
It is thus clear that Hacham Ovadia forbids bicycle riding on Shabbat, and this is, indeed, the general consensus among the Poskim. Hacham Ben Sion Abba Shaul (Israel, 1923-1998) wrote that children may be allowed to ride tricycles on Shabbat, but regarding adults, bicycles should not be used.
It is worthwhile to mention that both Hacham Ovadia and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (1915-2006), in his Sitz Eliezer (vol. 7, Siman 30), cite a passage from the work She’elat Yaakob that establishes in the strongest of terms that bicycle riding is forbidden on Shabbat (listen to audio recording for precise citation). The author writes that no serious Halachic scholar would ever imagine permitting bicycle riding on Shabbat, adding a prayer that anyone who does so should perform Teshuba. Of course, the Ben Ish Hai was a towering Sage equal in stature to all other Rabbis combined, and certainly nobody would question his credentials as a Halachic authority. Clearly, however, the consensus of Halachic authorities does not follow his ruling on this subject.
We should also note that the Ben Ish Hai issued his ruling for the Jewish community of Baghdad, where it was customary to ride bicycles on Shabbat. It is questionable whether the Ben Ish Hai would apply his ruling in our circumstances nowadays, when we live among Ashkenazic Jews who does not allow bicycle riding on Shabbat. Riding bicycles in our neighborhood would likely offend the sensitivities of our Ashkenazic neighbors, and it is possible that even the Ben Ish Hai would not permit bicycle riding under such circumstances. Indeed, it is told that a Rabbi named Rabbi Sassoon, who lived in England, followed the Ben Ish Hai’s ruling, but he did not allow his children to ride their bicycles in the yard even though there was an Eruv, because their neighbors were Ashkenazim, and he did not wish to offend them.
Some people have tried to advance the claim that there is already an established custom in the community to ride bicycles on Shabbat, or at least on Yom Tob, and this should suffice to permit it. It should be noted, however, that there are certain parameters that determine when a widespread practice obtains the status of an actual "Minhag" (religious practice). Many people eat hotdogs on July 4th, for example, but this does not render this practice a formal "Minhag." Another claim that is advanced is the fact that the great community Rabbis did not publicly object to bicycle riding on Shabbat. But this argument, too, is not compelling, in light of the fact that Rabbis must carefully choose their battles, so-to-speak, and they cannot publicly condemn every improper practice that they observe in the community. Many factors are considered when determining which issues should be publicly addressed, and thus the Rabbis’ silence in this regard certainly does not mean that they approved of bicycle riding on Shabbat.
Case in point, many years ago I heard people saying that Hacham Yaakob Kassin ZT"L permitted bicycle riding on Shabbat even in places without an Erub, because the bicycle is considered an accessory, such that it is not being carried, just as one may wear a tie and other garments. This rumor sounded strange, so I phoned the Hacham and asked him to clarify his opinion. He assured me that he never issued such a ruling and would never permit bicycle riding on Shabbat.
It hopefully goes without saying that we in no way intend to insult or offend any individuals in the community. We do not judge and we respect each person’s individual decisions. Our intention here is to clarify the position of Hacham Ovadia Yosef on this matter, and to demonstrate that he unequivocally forbade bicycle riding on Shabbat.