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Is there anything wrong with taking animals from the wild and confining them to restricted living quarters. In other words, are zoos “kosher”?


Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet

The question presupposes that a zoo is necessarily to the detriment of an animal. If this were so, most would have likely been shut down by now. In reality, the zoo tends to replicate the animal’s natural habitat and, in many instances, preserves the life of the animal against the law of the jungle. The dual goal of animal welfare and conservation provides a strong ethical justification for zoos.

Those that object usually equates animals with humans and often argue, “How would we feel if we were caged?” The obvious answer is, not any worse than if we had to live out in the wilderness, always looking for prey or worrying about becoming prey, in order to survive. The point is, human beings are superior to animals and any equivalence is a self-evident absurdity.

There are any number of great Sages in the past who would visit zoos, if only to marvel at the greatness of Hashem’s creation. Besides, what would Chol Hamoed Pesach be like without the opportunity to visit the zoo and share our matzah with the monkeys?

– Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet is a popular Lubavitch lecturer and rabbi of London’s Mill Hill Synagogue

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It depends. Most zoos try to reenact the natural environment of the animal and in many cases serve to save the animal from extinction. In such cases it is definitely permitted. If, however, the environment is restrictive and harmful for the animal, then it will fall under the category of tzar baalei chayim and it would be forbidden.

As an aside, it might even be a mitzvah to visit a zoo. The final verse of Parshat Shemini states that we should “distinguish between the pure and impure, and between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not” (Vayikra 11:47). Furthermore, the Rambam begins the section of the Mishneh Torah about forbidden foods with the words, “It is a positive commandment to know how to differentiate between kosher and non-kosher animals.” How can a person observe these laws without visiting the zoo and carefully studying how the paws of the lion look different from the split hooves of the ram?

– Rabbi Mordechai Weiss lives in Efrat, Israel, and previously served as an elementary and high school principal in New Jersey and Connecticut. He was also the founder and rav of Young Israel of Margate, N.J. His email is [email protected].

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The Torah teaches us that if one notices an animal collapsing under its heavy burden, one is obligated to help relieve the animal of that burden (Shemos 23:5); a similar directive is presented later in the Torah (Devarim 22:4). In connection with the first verse, the Gemara in Bava Metzia (32a-33a) discusses at some length the concept of causing “tza’ar ba’alei chayim,” suffering to living creatures. Such behavior is clearly forbidden; the discussion there is about whether one who does cause an animal to suffer has violated a Rabbinic or a Biblical prohibition, and if the latter, what exactly the precise source is. Although the matter is debated there, R. Yosef Caro, in his Kessef Mishnah on the Rambam (Hilchos Rotzeiach 13:9) concludes, as do many others, that it is in fact forbidden by the Torah. In the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 5:14), the Rama rules that while doing something which causes an animal to suffer is generally forbidden, if one does so for health or medical reasons, or for some other constructive purpose, the prohibition is inapplicable.

One may therefore conclude that even if an animal experiences some level of suffering by being confined to a zoo, since the goal is to provide proper recreational pleasure to human beings who visit the zoo, the concern for tza’ar ba’alei chayim may well be waived. Indeed, the author of the Sefer Lekket Yosher reports (p. 66) that his rebbe, R. Yisrael Isserlein (author of the Terumas HaDeshen), an important halachic authority in the 1400’s, walked some distance on Shabbos to see two lions that had been brought someplace for viewing, never having seen a lion before. Similarly, the Chida writes in his Midbar Kedeimos (Ma’areches Beis, no. 22) and elsewhere that he visited a zoo in London where he saw certain exotic animals. The Minchas Elazar of Munkatch (as recorded in Nimukei Orach Chaim 225:5) and the Steipler Gaon (as recorded in Orchos Rabbeinu, Volume 1, p. 94, No. 116) likewise went to zoos. These authorities clearly saw nothing wrong with going to see animals which had been trapped and were being held in captivity.

It could well be that their goal in visiting the zoo was not (only) for simple entertainment or leisure, but to be able there to marvel at the wondrous creation of Hashem’s world. It should be noted here that the Gemara in Berachos (58b) teaches that one should recite a specific berachah upon seeing certain animals. R. Ovadyah Yosef, in a teshuvah related to this subject (Shu”t Yechaveh Da’as 3:36), cites the verse in Tehillim (104:24) which exclaims how great Hashem’s works are how everything was created with Divine wisdom. There is a famous story about Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who wanted to see the majestic mountains of the Alps so as not to later be held accountable for having failed to take in the beauty of the world; he himself writes in glowing terms how every creature on earth, and indeed all of nature, attests to the power of Hashem (see his Collected Writings Volume 8 p. 259). If one can come to such an appreciation by seeing animals in a zoo, it would certainly seem appropriate to go there and to allow such a place to be established.

It should be added, though, that if the situation is such that one can tell that the confined animals are being mistreated and are otherwise suffering in a particular zoo, it would be improper to patronize that zoo. The Gemara in Shabbos (128b) allows for the violation of a Rabbinic prohibition on Shabbos in order to alleviate tza’ar ba’alei chaim; one therefore should certainly not encourage or contribute towards their mistreatment. Today, many modern zoos make every effort to properly care for all of their animals’ needs and to create an environment for them which is similar to their natural habitat, with the result that at least some are better off in captivity than in the wild. Zoos of that sort are thus “kosher” and may be visited, especially with an eye towards expressing gratitude to Hashem for having created such a magnificent world.

– Rabbi Michael Taubes has been involved in Jewish education, formal as well as informal, for over 40 years, serving both in the classroom and in various administrative posts. He is presently a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS and Yeshiva University High School for Boys. In addition, he is the spiritual leader of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck, N.J.


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