Q 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?
A 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 TOKEI'A (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 Bi'ur 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 thechild 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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In his seminal work, Eim Habanim Semeicha (1943, Budapest), R' Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal deals with the unbelievable tragedy unfolding in Europe, but moves forward to a prophetic analysis of the Jewish people after the Holocaust, rebuilding their future in the Holy Land. On page 471 (of the English edition), he deals with the subject of "faith without action," and relates to the question posed above. He quotes the Rambam who states that, "every belief needs an action to strengthen it." Thus, he concludes, God was saying to Moshe, "Move onward toward the sea and show Me the unfailing belief in God Who will perform a miracle, as was done in previous trying moments."
Rav Teichtal continues
by applying this rule to the belief in the coming of the Mashiach.
"A person waiting for the Mashiach to come and transport him to
Eretz Yisrael indicates a lack of total faith in the Mashiach."
Rabbi Yaakov Zev,
"Rebbe, why did he give him money twice?", asked those who were close to him.
"When the poor man came to me and told me all his woes, I was very
moved and gave him money. That, however, was not charity. It only
helped alleviate my distress. I therefore called him back and the
second time gave him charity."
The Torah (in Parshat B'shalach) tells us that some people went out looking for MN on Shabbat, even though G-d (through Moshe) had told then that no MN would fall on Shabbat and that they were to stay put. We have a Tradition that the people were Datan and Aviram, and that they had scattered MN around the camp late Friday night and were planning to "make a liar" out of Moshe by "finding" the MN on Shabbat morning. Their plan was thwarted by birds that had eaten up the MN. This preserved the integrity of G-d's word and Moshe's. In grateful acknowledgment, the custom came about to feed birds (who food supply during the winter is skimpy, at best) on (Erev) Shabbat Shira.
A different reason - but one that also is based on HAKARAT HATOV, is that we "borrowed" Song from the birds in order to thank G-d and acknowledge Him for the miraculous events of the Exodus, which culminated with the Splitting of the Sea. Song is the bird's method (so to speak) of praising the Creator. Since we used that medium at the Sea, we feed birds on (Erev) Shabbat Shira.
One way or the other
(or another), we need to be sensitive to the needs of other
creatures, and to teach our children about HAKARAT HATOV.
A pivotal declaration
of the Song is the proclamation by the Jewish people that, "This is
my G-d and I shall glorify Him!" (ibid 19:2).
The opening words of
the Song are written in the future tense - "Then shall Moshe and all
the Children of Israel sing…" And indeed, thousand of years later,
we, the children of those children, still chant, "This is my G-d" in
our daily prayers. It seems to reinforce what our sages said in the
Haggada that each of us should see ourselves as having left Egypt.