Demolishing a structure to rebuild it is forbidden on Shabbat and constitutes the av melachah of sotair.1 There is a discussion amongst the halachic authorities2 whether this melachah is transgressed only when the subsequent rebuilding is superior to that which was destroyed. The Shulchan Aruch Harav rules3 that sotair includes destroying any structure, even if the new one will not be greater in size or quality. Although this distinction is mainly academic in nature (because destroying any structure, even without the intention to rebuild, is Rabbinically forbidden), the lenient opinion can be followed in a case of great need.4

Sotair in the Mishkan

The Jewish people made many stops throughout their sojourn in the desert. Each time they encamped, the Mishkan (Tabernacle) would be set up, and when it was time to move on, it would be disassembled. This dismantling of the Mishkan is the source for the melachah of sotair.

Sotair is essentially the reverse of boneh - building. Any structure that may not be built on Shabbat, may also not be destroyed or dismantled on Shabbat.

When it comes to keilim (movable vessels), however, it is not as clear cut. The Talmud5 clearly states that there is no prohibition against building (boneh) or destroying (sotair) movable vessels. Nevertheless, throughout the Talmud we do find prohibitions against assembling or fixing them.6 Various explanations are offered as to how to resolve this apparent contradiction. Some authorities7 say that dismantling or destroying vessels is not included in the Biblical prohibition, and any surrounding issues are merely Rabbinic safeguards. The accepted halacha does not follow this opinion, and in many cases disassembling a utensil or removing a loose part to reattach it properly will be a full fledged transgression of sotair.8

Large Appliances

For the purposes of our discussion, a structure that occupies some 26 cubic feet - e.g. a large appliance such as a refrigerator - is considered a full-fledged structure,9 and anything that is forbidden to be done with a structure would apply.

Partial Deconstruction

One need not demolish the whole structure or utensil to violate sotair; simply taking a door off its hinges or removing the legs of a table to fit it through a narrow doorway is enough.10

Temporary Shelters

The Sages extended the melachah of sotair to include destroying or dismantling temporary structures, out of concern that doing so may lead one to destroy a permanent structure. Practically, this means that even a flimsy and temporary shelter, especially if it is designed to shelter something beneath it, may not be taken down on Shabbat.11

Lego and Similar Toys

When something is assembled to use for such a short period of time that one intends to take it apart before Shabbat ends, there is room to say that taking it apart is not an issue at all.12 This is a useful argument to allow children to play with lego and building sets that are usually taken apart soon after they are built.13

Another reason to permit them is the fact that their regular mode of use is to be built and then undone. Whenever something functions as such, it is not considered a boneh/sotair. For example, closing or opening a door on Shabbat is not considered a transgression, even though closing the door effectively closes an opening (which would generally be a boneh-like activity). The same is true with children's toys.14

Folding Chairs

Folding chairs and the like are permitted for use on Shabbat being that no disassembling of parts is involved and the chair is fully built and just requires being folded back.15

Temporary, Partial Covers

Adding to a cover (that shelters the width of one square tefach [handbreadth]) already in place before Shabbat is not considered boneh, and removing it does not constitute sotair.16 Therefore, a tarp that was extended on Shabbat to provide shade or to shelter from the rain, may be rolled back to its original size when it is no longer needed.17

Pushing back the canopy of a baby stroller is also permitted on Shabbat,18 even though a temporary shelter is formed, because extending and shrinking the canopy of a stroller is its regular mode of use and can be compared to opening and closing a door as discussed earlier.

Arguably, the same logic should apply to an umbrella, but many great Halachic authorities19 strongly caution against the use of an umbrella on Shabbat, and that has become the accepted practice.20 Some say that a garden umbrella is different and may be opened and closed on Shabbat.21

Common Activities to Avoid

  • Removing a window screen
  • Unscrewing a mirror nailed into the wall.
  • Dismantling a tent.