Today, a majority of American pet owners consider their pets not just mere animal companions. Rather, their pets are considered full-fledged members of the family. Often the passing of a dog or cat can create much sorrow, equal and often beyond that of a relative’s passing.
Among observant Jews, however, owning a pet is somewhat controversial. It is pretty much fully acceptable in the Modern Orthodox community, and almost non-existent in more right-wing religious circles. Try to find a veterinarian in New Square or Kiryas Yoel and you will see what I mean.
What follows is a discussion of the halachic debate preceded by a short overview of the history of animals as pets.
In most of ancient history, animals were kept and raised mostly for utilitarian purposes. There were some exceptions, however, in Ancient Greece and Rome and among the wealthy. In Ancient Greece and Rome there were dogs that were buried along with signs—tombstones, if you will—written by their owners who grieved their loss.
Pets, as we know them to be, however, did not come around until Victorian-era England. Sara Amato, in her “Beastly Possession: Animals in the Victorian Consumer Culture” writes that it grew in 17th- and 18th-century England, but only fully took hold in 19th-century England, and from there it spread to the rest of the world.
A Halachic Perspective
From a halachic perspective, it seems pretty clear from numerous Gemaras throughout the tractate that animals were looked at as muktzah on Shabbos. The Gemara in Shabbos 45b, the Mishnah in Shabbos 128a, and the discussion between Abaye and Rava in Shabbos 154b all indicate that pets were clearly “not a thing.” Ba’alei chaim were considered muktzah.
And yet, if we look at Tosfos on Shabbos 45b, we find a very interesting question. The Gemara explains that one may not move the chicken pen under discussion on Shabbos because it contains a dead chick. Tosfos asks: If, in fact, animals are muktzah, why does the Gemara explain that it is because of a dead chick? It would also be muktzah on account of a live chick!
The first opinion cited (which is rejected by the Ba’alei Tosfos) is that of HaRav Yosef who explains that a live chick would not be muktzah because a child can play with it. The Tosfos ultimately answer that the pen would not be muktzah because if there were live chicks there, it would be possible to shoo them away and the pen underneath would not be considered muktzah.
The Mordechai (page 57 in the new four-volume edition) cites the view of Rav Shimshon that when the Gemara says that chicks are muktzah, it means a chick born that day, but the Mordechai himself rejects that view. The Ritva as well cites the view of Rashi (which is not extant in our texts of Rashi) that chicks are not muktzah because they can be used to hush a baby who is crying. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 308:39) has rejected this view, however, as have the vast majority of Rishonim and Acharonim.
In a responsum of Rav Chaim Eliezer, the son of the Ohr Zarua (1250–1310), we find an even more stringent view—and that is the view of the Rosh (end of #81 and #82). He writes in response to Rav Chaim’s question that Chazal forbade the use of all animals because of a “Lo ploog.” They forbade all of them so as not to distinguish between animals. Just like all healing methods are forbidden on Shabbos for the barely sick on the concern that one might come to grind herbs, the Rosh’s view is that there is a “Lo ploog” here as well.
The Muktzah Sefer Versus The New Igros Moshe
In Rabbi Pinchos Bodner’s sefer Hilchos Muktzah, published in 1981, Rabbi Bodner poses a question (#24) to Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, on page 7 regarding pet birds and the opinion of Tosfos on Shabbos 45b (this is printed in Igros Moshe Vol. IV #16. Rav Moshe responds that all animals are muktzah, even those that children play with.
However, when this responsum was reprinted in Igros Moshe Orach Chaim Vol. V (22:21), Rabbi Mordechai Tendler added the following words in parentheses: “Unless they are specifically set aside as pets.”
The implications of this are somewhat earth-shattering. According to the new volume of the Igros Moshe, pets would be permitted and are not muktzah. According to Rabbi Bodner’s sefer they are muktzah.
The status of pets throughout halachic history is certainly more in line with the view in Hilchos Muktzah than with the new Igros Moshe. But clearly, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler must have heard from his grandfather that pets are not muktzah. And it seems that other family members may have heard Rav Moshe, zt’l, express this view as well. In Rabbi Lichtenstein’s new Headlines (Vol. III, page 277, note 41) he writes: “Below we present the transcription of an interview with Rabbi Eliezer Eisenberg, who noted that his esteemed father-in-law, Rav Reuven Feinstein, cited his father (Rav Moshe) as permitting handling pets on Shabbos, claiming that their status resembles that of a ball which is designated for play, and is thus allowed to be played with on Shabbos according to the Rema’s ruling (O.C. 308:45).”
Rav Binyomin Zilber (1906–2008), zt’l, author of the Az Nidberu (8:38), also seems to rule that pets are permitted, and the opinion of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, is cited in Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasah (27, note 96), that things may be different in contemporary times. Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt’l (Yabia Omer 5:26), rejects this distinction.
What About “Lo Ploog?”
The question can be asked: What about the Lo Ploog that no animals are permitted? There are two possible answers here. The first possibility is that Rav Moshe may have felt that since no other Rishon mentions the Lo Ploog, and a number of Rishonim, including the Ohr Zarua’s son, think that there are some animals that are permitted, Rav Moshe felt that this ruling of the Rosh is not l’halachah. A second possibility is that Rav Moshe may have held that the Lo Ploog existed when there was no universal social norm to keep pets. However, once the universal norm had changed in the 1800s, the Lo Ploog no longer applied.
The issue of pets being muktzah in modern times is something that will probably remain a debate for a while. Practical observance will also still be debated. Believe it or not, however, even according to the stringent view, there is no prohibition in touching muktzah—even pets. It is just lifting or moving them that’s problematic.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com. Read more of Rabbi Hoffman’s articles at 5TJT.com.