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Shabbat Parashat Shoftim 5774

Ask the Rabbi: Making Berachot on the Animals in a Zoo

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: To date I have not made berachot on animals I have seen in the zoo, but it seems from sifrei halacha that one should. Should I start doing so, and, if so, what are the basic rules?

Answer: (We will not discuss the beracha for beautiful animals, which the Mishna Berura (226:32) already said is not really in practice in our times). A baraita (Berachot 58b) says that when one sees an elephant, a monkey, or a kafof (the exact species is unclear), he recites the beracha …meshaneh haberiyot” (who makes diverse creations). This beracha is also cited regarding abnormalities within humans. Matters of abnormalities are likely to involve an element of subjectivity, as we will mention later.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is cited as saying the beracha applies to any unusual animal (Halichot Shlomo 23:35). Others say that the list is a closed one (see V’zot Haberacha, p. 156), which can be true for a few reasons. Perhaps Chazal saw a unique characteristic in those animals (see Meiri, Berachot 58b). Even if it could theoretically apply to other animals, it is difficult to know what to consider unusual, and therefore it is best to recite such berachot only when we are sure. (I do not why we are sure what type of monkey Chazal were referring to – a gorilla looks quite different from a chimpanzee, or a mandrel, etc.)

There is also a question as to how often to make the beracha. Rav Auerbach is cited (Halichot Shlomo, ibid.) as instructing zoo-goers to recite the beracha on the first animal one finds definitely fascinating and intend to cover the other animals. This approach can be justified on several grounds. When one expects to have different occasions in close proximity where a certain beracha applies, it is often better to make one beracha for all of them (e.g., regarding eating; see Yoreh Deah 19 regarding shechita). It also removes doubt that will arise when it is not clear if a beracha is again necessary. There is also logic to view the trip to the zoo as one experience, as I will explain. Perhaps, it is not that each animal needs to have or be included in a beracha, as different foods do. Rather, seeing unusual animals makes one reflect on the wonder of creation, and the entire trip to the zoo is focused on that.

It seems that most religious Jews do not make a beracha on animals in the zoo, including elephants. Does this have any justification? First, it is far from clear that when the beracha is appropriate, it is obligatory (see a brief discussion in Yabia Omer IV, OC 20). Additionally, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 225:9) says that this beracha should be said only the first time in a lifetime for each unusual sight, when it has its greatest impact. If one neglected to make the beracha or was a child at the first opportunity, the beracha is not made up later (see Birkat Hashem, IV, 3:28). While the Rama (ad loc.) says that the clock is reset every thirty days, as is often the case regarding similar berachot, the Mishna Berura (225:30) suggests making the beracha without Hashem’s name.

More fundamentally, we must recall the beracha’s subjective nature and note that times have changed. Once upon a time, a person could go through a lifetime without seeing a monkey or even a picture of one, and the excitement of seeing one made a beracha more natural. Nowadays, people go to the zoo periodically and whenever they want, and they have seen images of elephants and exotic animals many times (all agree the beracha can only be said on seeing them in person). Therefore, the excitement is not the same. (Seeing one in its habitat is likely different.)

Therefore, those who do not make the beracha at the zoo do not need to begin doing so. However, those who do say or want to start, especially those who get excited by the animal kingdom with whom Hashem has us share the world, do not have to fear beracha l’vatala (see Yabia Omer, ibid.), at least on monkeys, elephants or astounding animals. One can certainly make the beracha without Hashem’s name and should certainly think of Him often during the visit.

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