Shabbat Parashat Beshalach| 5766
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Question: My son has a wooden train-track set [the questioner included a link to the product’s site]. Is it forbidden for me to help him put it together on Shabbat?
Answer: The gemara (Shabbat 122b) comes to the conclusion that there is not (usually?) a prohibition of boneh (building) in regard to keilim, which we will understand as not overly large objects that are not connected to the ground (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 314). However, the gemara adds in that if one is tokeia (which we will translate as firmly force one piece into another) then there is a Torah prohibition. Rashi posits that even in that case, the prohibition is not boneh but makeh b’patish (the final action to create a usable object); others say there is boneh by keilim when built strongly. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 313:6) indeed rules that one can put together (or at least return to one piece) utensils that are made of different parts when the connection is flimsy.
While even a moderately strong connection is forbidden (rabbinically) (Mishna Berura 313:43), there are different opinions as to where to draw the lines between the categories, which are anyway difficult to quantify (see Magen Avraham (313:11) and Biur Halacha (ad loc.)). There is also a question whether one is allowed to assemble an object that is usually connected firmly, if he does so in a flimsy manner. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) is lenient, whereas the Rama (whose opinion is most important for Ashkenazim) is stringent. Upon visiting the Internet site you supplied, it appears to us that the interlocking tracks are not strongly connected but may belong to the middle category, which could make it problematic. It also appears that the set can be used in two ways, with different halachic implications. One can set up the tracks so that the child will run the train along them without changing the tracks for days. Alternatively, the child may enjoy or the parents may require that the tracks be taken apart and reassembled daily. According to most poskim, the latter case is permitted, even if the connection is not flimsy. This is based on the Magen Avraham (ibid.:12) and Taz (ibid.7) that things whose use is by constantly opening and closing them are not bound by the usual parameters of building. Although there may still be a rabbinic prohibition despite one’s intention to undo the assembly, several poskim say that if we are talking about a child’s game which is regularly taken apart, it is permitted (Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 16:(53); see also Piskei Teshuvot 313:4). This is the main point behind the machloket regarding “Lego” on Shabbat (upon which there is a lack of consensus among poskim and practice), and our distinction is pertinent there, as well. Our case has elements of stringency and leniency compared to Lego. On one hand, not only is forming the track a game itself, but it also functions as a kli,a track and even a bridge for the train. Thus, putting it together may be significantly “building.” On the other hand, the connections appear to be significantly weaker than Lego. There is certainly room for leniency, especially for a child. However, if you want to be involved in making tracks that will last for an extended period of time, then it is both halachically prudent and practically logical to do so on a different day. Let us briefly address the matter of your son, generally. Has he reached the age when he can be educated in mitzvot?In regard to forbidden actions, this is from the time that he understands on a reasonable level what it means that something is forbidden for him. One should teach a child at that stage of development not to do that which is forbidden for adults. (In this and other cases, there is much more room for leniency, since the correct halachic ruling is unclear). It is also forbidden to give a child of any age something that is forbidden to eat or to play with. It is only that when a small child takes for himself we need not intervene (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 343).
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