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There are two situations in which a talit is held aloft in a possibly tent-like manner that make me wonder whether they present any danger of transgressing the prohibition of "Building" on Shabbat and Yom Tov:

  • During Birkat Kohanim, many men cover their faces with their talit, and some gather their children under the same talit. When there are multiple people under the talit, it can begin to resemble a tent over them, supported by their heads at the vertices.

  • For the special aliyot at the end of the Torah reading service on Simchat Torah, people tend to hold a talit up in the air, parallel to the floor like a chuppa, over the head of the honoree.

Do either of these situations have the potential to create a transgression of "Building"? If so, are there steps that should be taken to avoid transgression?

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The Gemara (Shabbos 138b) prohibits wearing a סיאנא (Rashi: a kind of felt hat) that has a brim a tefach or more wide, but says that it's not a problem for a person to let a tefach or more of his tallis protrude in front of his head.

R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi (in Orach Chaim 301:48) summarizes the three opinions on the subject.

  1. If the material is soft and bends down, then there is no problem no matter how wide a "tent" is made, because it can't really be called one. (Tosafos ibid. ד"ה הא דמהדק citing Rabbeinu Chananel)

  2. Even if it's stiff, it's fine as long as it's not hard to bend it, unlike an actual roof (Rambam, Hil. Shabbos 22:31)

  3. Even in that case it's not a problem unless it's flat, but not if it's angled (Hagahos Maimoniyos loc. cit.)

A tallis fits the first criterion, so it would seem that everyone agrees that it's not a problem provided that someone is actually wearing it on their head (which is certainly true in the case of birkas kohanim, and probably also true for Simchas Torah).

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why would it be "probably also true for Simchas Torah"? The tallis is not being worn, so wouldn't it enter into the catagory of a tent? Or does a tent also need to be stiff material in order to be a problem on shabbat? –  Menachem Oct 5 '11 at 4:24
    
@Menachem, you're right, it's not being worn in that case. But I see where Tzitz Eliezer (16:8) brings a couple of other reasons that it's fine, including that it's being done in honor of the Torah (or of the oleh) rather than for protection from the elements or whatnot, and that it's being held up by people rather than some kind of supports. –  Alex Oct 5 '11 at 5:02

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