Visiting Zoos in Halacha
By Eliezer Brodt
This article originally appeared in Ami Magazine (2012) Issue #88. This version has a few updates. I hope to return to this subject shortly. For a more expanded version of this article see my article in Yeshurun 26 (2012), pp. 853–874 (PDF available upon request).
Zoos are hotspots on Chol Hamoed. Standing together with the rest of Brooklyn or Yerushalayim, trying to give your children a glimpse of a penguin or seal or elephant, is always a pleasant way to spend a day. But what do the poskim have to say about visiting the zoo? 
The Gemara in Berachos (58b) notes that if one sees a monkey or an elephant he should make the brachah “M’shaneh habriyos.”This halachah is brought in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch.  There are a few questions to ask about this brachah. How often should the brachah be made? That is actually a machlokes Rishonim. The Ravi, known as the second Raavad, says that one makes this brachah of “M’shaneh habriyos” only once in 30 days on any specific animal, i.e., a particular elephant. However, if you see another animal, that is, a second elephant, you can make another M’shaneh Habriyos even within 30 days of the first brachah.  The Radvaz quotes this Ravi.  However, the Tur quotes a Raavad that one only makes such a brachah once in a lifetime, as the effect that seeing this animal has on a person is a onetime thing. The Tur himself argues and says that, as the Ravi said, after 30 days one can make a brachah on the same animal again. The Mechaber paskens like the Raavad, and the Rema paskens like the Tur. The Shulchan Aruch Harav says when we say that this brachah is made only once in a lifetime, that refers to each kind of animal.  This is the opinion in Rabbi Aaron Eichorn’s Mishnah Berurah  as well as that of Rav Elyashiv, among others. However, the Shulchan Shlomo  and Aruch Hashulchan argue and are of the opinion that one can make the brachah again on this same animal after 30 days.  This is also the opinion of the Chazon Ish. 
Is this brachah limited to the elephant and monkey, which are mentioned in the Gemara?
From many Rishonim, it would seem that there is something special about an elephant and a monkey, since that is all they list.  The Meiri writes that it’s because these animals are similar to humans. From the Preisha it appears that it is specifically a brachah on the monkey and elephant because they are very different from other animals.  Rabbi Aaron Eichorn also says this brachah is only on elephants and monkeys.  Rabbi Yaakov Emden writes that this brachah is specifically for the elephant and monkey, because the monkey has some features similar to man, and the elephant is very strong and smart as well as large. Maharash Serlio writes that he heard from Reb Meshulam that the reason why we only make a brachah of “M’shaneh habriyos” on monkeys and elephants is that after the mabul G-d punished mankind and turned many into elephants and monkeys. He says that is the reason monkeys look similar to humans and elephants understand humans.  The Chazon Tov, a work devoted to explaining all the dreams listed at the end of Maseches Berachos, notes that based on this Reb Meshulam, we can understand the Gemara in Berachos which says that if someone sees a monkey or elephant in a dream it’s not a good sign. That is because they were originally humans who were turned into animals. 
However, Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach says that someone brought to his town a strange-looking cow with two heads and he allowed people to make “M’shaneh habriyos” on this creature.  It would appear from him that this brachah is not limited to these specific animals, but he is unclear which others one can make a brachah on. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach also says that one can make a “M’shaneh Habriyos” on any peculiar animal, not only on an elephant or monkey, but he doesn’t specify which.
From what the Chida records in his travels (more on this shortly), it appears he held that this brachah is made only on an elephant, since he records that he saw many different animals at different times and yet he only made a “M’shaneh habriyos” on an elephant. He writes, for example, that he saw lions at least two different times but did not make a brachah on them. In the Leket Yosher, written by a student of the Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein, author of the Terumas Hadeshen, it is explained that Rav Isserlein once went on Shabbos to see two lions, because he had never seen a lion.  He did not make a brachah “M’shaneh Habriyos,” and it would appear that he too held that one only makes such a brachah on elephants and monkeys.
Are there any problems with going to a zoo? Is it important to go to the zoo to make a brachah “M’shaneh habriyos,” or even just to see animals?
Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, in Shut Arugos Habosem, writes very clearly that it is not permitted to go to the circus to view animals to make a brachah “M’shaneh habriyos.”  Rabbi Eliezer Deutsch writes the same in his Shut Prei Hasadeh.  According to these Acharonim, one can ask whether it would be permitted to go to a zoo.
Rabbi Avraham Lipshitz says that one may go to a zoo to make a brachah of “M’shaneh Habriyos.” He writes that if it was not permissible, how would one ever make such a brachah? However, he says one is not obligated to go to the zoo in order to do it.  According to this, would it be permissible to go to the zoo to see animals that one does not make a brachah “M’shaneh Habriyos” on?
One of the most fascinating figures of Jewish history in the past few hundred years was the Chida. He was born in 1724 in Jerusalem and died in 1807 in Livorno. One of the most prolific writers, he wrote on an extremely wide range of subjects, covering all areas of Jewish studies. He wrote on Chumash, Nach, Shas, halachah, derush, kabbalah, mussar, klalim, and bibliography. He authored over 60 works, but not all were printed in his lifetime and some still only exist unpublished in manuscript form. What is even more fascinating is that he did much of his writing while traveling. For a good part of his life, he traveled as a messenger, raising money for the community of Chevron. One work of the Chida that is less known is his travel diary, Maagel Tov. This work, which records his travels in Europe and elsewhere, was only published in full for the first time in 1934 by Aaron Freiman. Part of this work was printed in 1879, and another part was printed in 1910. In addition, some sections were published in journals, including a partial French translation. More recently it was translated into English. 
As you might expect, it is fascinating on many fronts. It provides numerous observations of many different Jewish communities of the time. In addition to being enlightening in the area of history, these documents are also very rich for those interested in the world of Jewish sefarim. To me it is clear that he never intended for this work to be printed, as it includes personal information about himself and the people he visited. In general, such works are very important because they give us a rare glimpse into the mind of the author, and this work certainly does that. 
The Chida records a few times that he visited a zoo (or other place with animals) during his travels.  In one place (mentioned earlier) the Chida, after describing at length the exact details of an elephant, writes that he made the brachah “M’shaneh habriyos.”  Various works on halachah quote this to point out that the Chida visited the zoo. But there are other important things to learn from his diaries. One is that it is completely permissible to go to a zoo, since he writes that he did so numerous times.  Two, I would say that from the fact that the Chida went to see animals numerous times during his travels, one must be obligated at least at some point in one’s lifetime to see animals to make a “M’shaneh habriyos”—not like Rabbi Avraham Lipshitz. Three, if one looks at the list of the animals that the Chida says he saw, there are many on which one does not make a brachah—and yet he went to see them. There must therefore be something significant about going to see animals besides the brachah. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef concludes, based on the Chida and Rabbi Isserlin, that it is certainly permissible to go to a zoo to see the animals.  Other gedolim who went to the zoo and made “M’shaneh habriyos” on these animals were the Divrei Chaim,  the Munkatcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Shalom Sofer  and the Steipler.
But the question remains: Why did the Chida go to see animals more than once? It was not to make a “M’shaneh habriyos,” since he records that he did so only on an elephant. Why did the Terumas Hadeshen go see a lion, on Shabbos, if he was not making a brachah?
Meir Benayhu merely says that the Chida was a curious person who wanted to investigate all sorts of phenomena. We find that he examined plants and other items during his travels. 
Rabbi Kinreti writes that the Terumas Hadeshen specifically went on Shabbos because on Shabbos a talmid chacham can be mevatel Torah for oneg Shabbos. 
However, I will demonstrate that there is much more involved in going to the zoo. A first point: In 1841, Yosef Schoenhack began printing his work Toldot Haaretz, which deals with natural sciences. One volume is all about zoology, dealing with the different animals mentioned in Chazal. He received a haskamah [approbation] from Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, author of Hakesav V’hakaballah. In this lengthy but beautiful haskamah, Rabbi Mecklenburg writes about the importance of such a work, explaining that listing all the animals helps one realize the greatness of G-d and the greatness of the creation of the World. He cites the statement in Chovos Halevavos, that when a person sees the wisdom of the world and its workings, a person will want to emulate the Creator. Further, by studying all the animals that exist, many areas of Chazal can be properly understood, especially in Aggadah. I would suggest that if this is what Rabbi Mecklenburg says about reading about animals, how much more does it apply to actually seeing them. We know the famous rule Eino domeh shemiah leriah: Seeing is much better than just hearing.
I would like to elaborate a bit more on both aspects mentioned by Rabbi Mecklenburg about the benefits of learning about animals. Similar to the Chovos Halevavos quoted by Rabbi Mecklenburg, the Rambam writes that the way to attain love for G-d is to analyze His actions and creations to see the great wisdom in how they work.
The Sefer Habris also mentions that this is the importance of studying animals.  Rabbi Hillel Posek actually permits one to go to a zoo for this reason. 
Another similar aspect of studying animals can be understood via a manuscript of Rabbeinu Yehudah Hachasid, printed for the first time a few years ago, which was based on the theme of zecher asah linifle’osov—He made a remembrance for His wonders.  This work uses various mysteries of creation and aspects of animal nature to show that G-d intentionally created the world in an amazing way that is beyond human comprehension and logic to clearly show that it was He who created it. Thus, going to a zoo to observe and study animals can help a person reach a better appreciation of G-d and His creations, by seeing that there are things beyond our comprehension. 
As an aside, it could be that this theme of Rabbeinu Yehudah Hachassid, of zecher asah linifle’osov, could explain why the brachah of “M’shaneh Habriyos” is said specifically on the elephant. In Perek Shirah, the elephant says, “How great are Your actions, G-d! Your thoughts are deep.” Rabbi Shmuel Kimchi writes in his commentary to explain this passage that an elephant is an incredible creation, and only G-d knows why it is made in that way; His exact intentions are beyond us.  This idea is very similar to the idea of Rabbeinu Yehudah Hachasid in his work.
Another similar concept is alluded to in the famous quote attributed to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch upon returning from a visit to the Swiss Alps. “Now I can answer properly when Hashem asks me in the world of truth, ‘Did you see my Alps?’”
Rav Hirsch also writes:
“I almost believe that all you homebodies will one day have to atone for having stayed indoors, and when you seek entrance to see the marvels of Heaven they will ask you, ‘Did you see the marvels of G-d on earth?’ Then, ashamed, you will mumble, ‘We missed that opportunity.’ “How different were our rabbis in this respect. How they breathed, felt, thought and lived in G-d’s marvelous nature. How they wanted to awaken our senses for all that is sublime and beautiful in Creation. How they wanted to teach us to fashion a wreath of adoration for G-d out of the morning’s rays and the evening blush, out of the daylight and the night shadows, out of the star’s glimmer and the flower’s scent, out of the roar of the sea and the rumble of the thunder, the flash of the lightning. How they wanted to demonstrate to us that every creature was a preacher of His power [emphasis added], a monitor of our duties; what a Divine revelation they made of the book of nature.”
Another great person who made similar observations was Rabbi Menachem Friedman. In 1929 Rabbi Friedman who was the Chassdic Rebbe of Itzkan, printed his work Al Yoffee which was incredible work all about the Torah’s attitude to beauty. The work concludes with an autobiographical chapter all about his visits to Switzerland and Italy and how he from time to time looking and observing everything around him the he would think how amazing and wonderful Gods creations are. 
The truth is that all this can possibly be tied to a Yerushalmi brought down by numerous Rishonim  and even brought down l’halachah by the Magen Avraham.  Reb Moshe Hakohen, a nephew of the Rosh, in his work Sefer Hamaskil, writes that every year a person should make sure to buy each kind of fruit so he can make a brachah on each of them, since the Yerushalmi says that everyone will have to give an account of what he saw and did not eat. One is supposed to enjoy the creations of G-d, and if he does not, he will have to give an account of why not. 
I think this explains why the Chida made the effort numerous times to see animals. This could also be the reason why the Terumos Hadeshen went to see the lions. It could also explain why the Chida visited many gardens during his travels. 
Rabbi Mecklenburg, in the abovementioned haskamah, points out that observing animals helps us understand many things. The truth is that this knowledge is also necessary in order to understand the many chapters in Chumash that list which animals are kosher and which are not. Rabbi Yosef Fried authored a work on hilchos shechitah and treifos that had illustrations of every part of the animal’s body. In his haskamah to this work, the Aderes wrote that such a volume is extremely beneficial for both student and teacher, in that it increases one’s understanding of the halachos.  The commentary of Rabbi Dovid Zvi Hoffman on Vayikra demonstrates how a proper understanding of animals helps us comprehend the Chumash.  It is also needed to help one understand Perek Shirah. Rabbi Hillel Posek writes a similar reason permitting one to visit a zoo,  as does Rabbi Nosson Gestetner. 
Interestingly, Rabbi Gedaliah Nadel traveled outside Eretz Yisrael in order to visit a large collection of birds and animals, which he studied in great detail to understand which are kosher and which are not. 
One can perhaps go even further and say that Chazal derived a real understanding of animals from actually seeing them, as is obvious from the lists compiled by Rabbi Yehoshua Heller  and Rabbi Yekusiel Kemelhar  and others. This, too, could perhaps explain the Chida’s visits, which were to enrich his understanding of the Torah.
There is another point that we can learn from the Chida: Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Koidenover writes in his work Kav Hayashar that although one is supposed to make a “M’shaneh habriyos” when seeing certain animals, one should not stare at them but rather just look at them quickly and make the brachah. He writes that looking at “impure” (i.e., not kosher) animals can cause spiritual problems. One could claim that both the Chida  and Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin did indeed see non-kosher animals—lions and elephants— but that they looked at them quickly just to make the brachah. But the Chida’s description of the elephant shows that he definitely did not just look at it for a second, make a brachah, and leave, but rather that he observed it for some time.
There is much to gain from going to the zoo.
1. For more on all this see my recent article in Yeshurun 26 (2012), pp. 853–874. See also: Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Chazon Ovadiah (Tu Beshevat),
Jerusalem 2007, pp. 453–456; Rabbi Betzalel Stern, Ohalecha B’amitecha, Jerusalem 2005, pp. 173–174; Rabbi Shlomo Schneider, Shut Divrei Shlomo 4, Brooklyn 2009, Siman 532; Rabbi Yitzchak Eshkoli, Tzaar Balei Chaim, Ofakyim 2002, pp. 211-216; Rabbi Dovid Yosef, Halacha Berurah, 11, Jerusalem 2010, Siman 225; Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky, “Praising God at the Zoo”, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, LXII, Fall 2011, pp. 43–53; Ten Da’at: A Journal of Jewish Education, Vol. XVI, Rabbi Moshe Bleich, “The Halakhah Corner: Visiting the Zoo,” pp. 10–22 [thanks to Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky for this source]; Rabbi Eliyahu Ariel, Sefer Shaar ha-Ayin (Modiin Illit, 2008; Hebrew), pp. 118–125, 350–356; Rabbi Shmuel Shtitzburg, Sharei Halacha, Beit Shemesh 2003, p. 471. Another other important source on this topic worth mentioning is the beautifully written chapter ‘Jews, Zoos and Teddy Bears’, in Rabbi Natan Slifkin, Man And Beast, Brooklyn 2006, pp. 13-38.
2. Aruch Chaim, siman 225. In general, any reference in this article to which I do not give a citation can be found in this siman.
3. Shut Ravi, siman 33. He only says Kushi, not elephant, but it would appear the same applies, because one makes the same brachah on both ”M’shaneh habriyos.”
4. Shut Radvaz, 1:296.
5. Seder Bircat Hanenin, 13:13.
6. Bircat Habayis, Munkacz 1893, Shaar 29:12.
7. Ibid., 29.
8. Shulchan Shlomo, ad loc.
9. Aruch Hashulchan, ad loc.
10. Rabbi Eliyahu Ariel, Sefer Shaar ha-Ayin, p. 417.
11. See my Yeshurun article (above note 1), pp. 861–864.
13. Bircat Habayis, Munkacz 1893, op. cit., Shaar 29:13.
14. Meor U’ketziah, ad loc.
15. Meleches Shlomo, Kelayim 8:6.This issue is not simple, because Chazal in Sanhedrin say that after the Dor Haflagah, not the Dor Hamabul, was when they became monkeys. There is also no mention of anyone becoming elephants. See Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky in his Emes Le-Yaakov on Shulchan Aruch, ad loc., p. 107. See also the important sources collected by Rabbi Dovid Weiss, Megadim Chadashim, Berchos, Jerusalem 2008, p. 502–504; idem, Megadim Chadashim, Bereishis, Jerusalem 2010, pp. 212–214. See also the Shevet Mussar, ch. 47; Rabbi Eliyahu Ariel, Sefer Shaar ha-Ayin (Modiin Illit, 2008; Hebrew), pp. 410–411. For more on all this see my recent article in Yeshurun 26 (2012), p. 863. Worth mentioning related to all this is the story I heard from Rabbi Nosson Kaminetsky about his father, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, who was flying business class from Israel to the States and was seated near Yerucham Meshel, chairman of the Histadrut at the time. The two were shmoozing. Meshel saw that Rav Yaakov’s son and granddaughter kept coming in from the economy section to check if they could be helpful to him. He marveled that there was such kibbud av, and compared it to his own situation where his children and granchildren hardly visited him. Rav Yaakov answered that since he, Meshel, believes in Darwin, that man evolved from the monkey, there is no reason for them to respect him. They are another generation farther from the monkey; he should be respecting them. He, Rav Yaakov, believed that Adam was G-d’s handiwork and our children are another generation removed from that glory. They therefore respect someone closer to Creation.
16. Chazon Tov, Jerusalem 1998, pp. 173–175.
17. Mekor Chaim, ad loc.
18. Yalkut Avraham, ad loc., writes that his father made such a brachah on a twoheaded human being that he saw in Vienna.
19. Halichos Shlomo, Tefilah, p. 290.
20. Leket Yosher, Jerusalem 1964, p. 66.
21. O. C. siman 39.
22. Volume 3, siman 173.
23 Yalkut Avraham, New York 2002, pp. 64–67.
24. Benjamin Cymerman, The Diaries of Rabbi Ha’im Yosef David Azulai, Jerusalem 1997. 25 This work has been explored very carefully in a few recent works, most notably in Meir Benayahu’s masterpiece on the Chida entitled Ha-Chida, first printed in 1959. This work was also used in the articles of various scholars in the important work Sefer Ha-Chida, which Meir Benayahu edited that same year. In 2006 a collection of Letters and history about the Chida was printed by Shlomo Vankin called Igrot V’haskomot Rabbenu HaChida. This work contains lots of useful information about the Chida and makes use of these travels in his work. More recent work on these travels was done in an article by Matthias B. Lehmann, “Levantinos and Other Jews: Reading H. Y. D. Azulai’s Travel Diary,” Jewish Social Studies [n.s.] 13:3 (Spring/Summer 2007): 1-34. In 2010, a very good M.A. was written about these travels by Oded Cohen: Ma’agel Tov of R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (HIDA)—Meeting Between Tradition and Modernity, MA, Tel-Aviv University, 2010, Hebrew. More recently, my articles in Yeshurun 26 (2012), pp. 853-874; Yeshurun 26 (2012), pp. 907–939; Hapamon 4 (2012), pp. 81–86. See also Yaacob Dweck, 'A Jew from the east meets books from the west', Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe, Essays in honor of David B. Ruderman, Edited by Richard Cohen and others, Pittsburg 2014, pp. 239-249.
26. Ma’agel Tov, [will be quoted as M.T.], Jerusalem 1934, p. 5, 68, 32, 68, 69. For fish, see p. 82. For a peacock, see p. 92, 93. He also visited many different gardens; see p. 5, 81-82, 91-92, 98, 105, 150–151, 154, 155–156. See also his Midbor Kademos, beis: 22.
27. M.T. pp. 69-70.
28. M.T., p. 5, 32, 68, 69.
29. Yabiah Omer, 4, O.C. 20. See also his Chazon Ovadiah (Tu B’Shvat), pp. 453–455.
30. Tehillat Chaim, 2, Bnei Brak 1995, pp. 183–184.
31. Nimikei Aruch Chaim, 225; Rabbi Shabtzvi Liphshitz, Sefer Ha-Eshel, erech Baalei Chaim, 24.
32. Toras Chaim, 225:16.
33. Orchos Rabbeinu, 1. p. 94
34. Ha-Chida, Jerusalem 1959, p. 88, 161.
35. Leket Yosher, Jerusalem 2010, p. 142. I will hopefully return to this topic in a future article.
36. Yesodei Hatorah, 2:2.
37. Sefer Habris, 1, end of Maamar 14, Ch. 8. I heard from Rav Don Segal at a hesped for Rav Shach that Rav Shach used to study the Sefer Habris specifically for this reason, to gain a deeper appreciation for G-d and his world.
38. Shut Hillel Omer, O.C. 144.
39. This work was first printed by Israel Ta-Shma, See his Studies in Medieval Rabbinic Literature, vol. 1, Jerusalem 2004, pp. 181–207. A more recent critical edition was printed by Yaakov Yisroel Stal, Amoros Tehoros Chizonis Upinemis, Jerusalem 2006.
40. This is based on the introduction of Y. Stal to the previously mentioned edition. For more on this work see Joseph Dan, History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism: The Middle Ages, vol. V, Jerusalem 2011 [Hebrew], pp. 393–423.
41. Perek Shirah, Jerusalem 2005, p. 39. Chazon Tov, (Jerusalem 1998, p. 65), adds that the reason why the word pelah is used in relation to the elephant (besides being related to its name) is because it is a true wonder. It is huge, and all its features are large, but at the same time it can move very fast.
42. Rabbi Eliyahu Klugeman, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, New York 1996, p. 320.
43. Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch 8, 1995, p. 259.
44. Al Yoffee, p. 45. On this fascinating person see David Assaf, Caught in the Thicket (heb.), Jerusalem 2006, pp. 283-316; on this work see ibid, pp. 299-300.
45. For an impressive listing of Rishonim who quote this Yerushalmi, see M.M. Honig, “On the New Edition of Sefer Hamaskil of R. Moshe Ben R. Eliezer Hacohen,” Yerushaseinu (2006), pp. 218–220.
46. Magen Avraham, ad loc., 14.
47. Sefer Hamaskil, Jerusalem 2004, pp. 48–49.
48. M.T., p. 5, 81–82, 91–92, 98, 105, 150–151, 154, 155–156.
49. The sefer was unfortunately never printed but the haskamah was, in the introduction to Rav Fried’s Shut Ohel Yosef, New York 1903.
50. See also Rabbi Avraham Mi-shayer Aryeh, Shiltei Giborim, Jerusalem 2010, pp. 228-251.
51. Shut Lehoros Nosson, 4, Bnei Brak 1985, Siman 68.
52. Shut Hillel Omer, O.C. 144.
53. Mili De-Hespeidah, Bnei Brak 2005, p. 80.
54. Moaz Hadas, Jerusalem 1903, pp. 35a–36a.
55. Ha-Talmud U-maddah Ha-tevel, Jerusalem 1984, pp. 78–79.
56. See Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog, Judaism Law and Ethics, London 1974, pp. 161– 165.
57. Kav Hayashar, Jerusalem 1993, p. 8. See also Rabbi Yitzchak Eshkoli, Tzaar
Balei Chaim, Ofakyim 2002, pp. 217-218.
58. The Chida saw other non-kosher animals see M.T. p. 5, 32, 68, 69.