Judaism: It's All Happening at the Zoo
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish...
Blessings for Visiting the Zoo
After last week’s article concerning the blessing “ma’aseh bereshit” recited by those traveling throughout the country upon seeing the ocean, a unique mountain or hill, I will now deal with the blessings recited by visitors to the zoo: the blessing “ShCacha Lo BeOlamo” (who has such [beautiful things] in His universe) over beautiful animals, and the blessing “Meshaneh Ha’Briyot” (who makes strange creatures) over a monkey or elephant.
“ShCacha Lo BeOlamo”
Occasionally we encounter special, exciting and fascinating sights. In order to give expression to their spiritual significance, our Sages determined to recite a blessing upon seeing them, thereby connecting them to their Divine creation. Included in this, our Sages determined that one who sees particularly nice-looking or strong animals, or especially beautiful or superior trees, or an exceptionally good-looking, or tall, strong person – whether they be Jewish or Gentile – recites the blessing: “Baruch Atah A-d-o-n-o-I, E-l-o-h-e-i-n-u Melech ha'olam SheCacha Lo BeOlamo” (Blessed are You, G-d, our Lord, King of the Universe, who has such [beautiful things] in His universe) (Brachot 58b).
By reciting this blessing, a great tikkun (rectification) is made, for quite often people marvel at exceptionally beautiful, or strong and large creatures – some people even hold beauty or physical strength contests between certain creatures (both humans and animals). It is extremely important to connect these feelings to their source, and give praise to the Creator, who has such beautiful things in His universe.
Blessings are recited over two types of exceptionally beautiful creatures:
1) An animal unique in relation to others of the same species.
An expert on horses who sees a particularly handsome, strong, or fast horse recites the blessing “SheCacha Lo BeOlamo”. Likewise, if an expert on dogs or cats sees a beautiful or particularly large one, he recites the blessing.
Regarding a person who is not knowledgeable about horses or dogs – even if the animals are unique and have won awards – if one is not impressed by seeing them, he does not recite the blessing. If he is impressed, he does recite the blessing.
Similarly, a person who sees a cow that has won an award for producing the most amount of milk – if he is impressed by seeing it, the blessing is recited. If not, the blessing is not recited.
2) Unique species such as parrots and stunning peacocks
The second type of animals, those found in zoos, are species considered particularly beautiful due to their appearance and special colors, such as a large and spectacularly colored parrot, or a peacock with a beautiful tail. Since they are considered beautiful compared to other birds, and people travel to take pleasure in their beauty, the blessing “SheCacha Lo BeOlamo” is recited upon seeing them. Similarly, one who travels to see exotic fish, such as those in the Gulf of Eilat, given that they are considered particularly beautiful in comparison to other fish, recites the blessing.
The Proper Way to Bless in the Zoo
A visitor to the zoo should recite the blessing “SheCacha Lo BeOlamo” over the first beautiful species he sees, and have kavana (intention) to exempt all the other beautiful species with his blessing. This pertains to most people, who are not particularly impressed by all the gorgeous species. But someone greatly moved by seeing them, recites a blessing on each one individually.
A person taking children to the zoo, who sees they are particularly impressed by a certain animal, should instruct them to recite an additional blessing. It is best for an adult taking a group of children to visit the zoo to first recite the blessing for himself out loud, and for everyone to answer ‘amen’. Afterwards, each time they encounter a particularly beautiful species, a different child should be honored with reciting a blessing, thereby educating them to bless and admire God’s creatures. At the same time, they will also learn that the accepted practice is for each individual to recite one blessing over all the beautiful animals.
The Blessing “Mishaneh Ha’Briyot” for a Monkey or Elephant
Our Sages determined that a person who sees a monkey or an elephant recites the blessing: “Baruch Atah A-d-o-n-o-I, E-l-o-h-e-i-n-u Melech ha'olam mishaneh ha’briyot” (Berachot 58b; S.A. 225:8). Indeed, there is an opinion that a blessing should be recited upon seeing any unique-looking animal (Rashz”a in Hilchot Shlomo 23:35). In practice, however, according to the opinion of most poskim (Jewish law arbiters), our Sages determined to recite a blessing specifically on monkeys and elephants, because more than any other creatures, their appearance arouses particular astonishment, for although they are animals, they possess a certain resemblance to humans. A monkey is similar to man in the shape of its body and the use of its hands. An elephant is unique among animals in that its skin is smooth and hairless, and uses its trunk like a hand (Meiri, Berachot 58b).
A person who sees a monkey and an elephant together, recites one blessing over both. However, when they are in different areas, as is common in zoos, a separate blessing is recited over each one.
A Blessing Every Thirty Days
Those who have already visited the zoo within the last month do not recite the blessing over animals because if thirty days have not passed, one’s amazement at seeing them is diminished. But if thirty days have passed, even if one sees the same animals again, a blessing is recited. And although in the opinion of Ra’avad, the blessing over beautiful animals is recited once in a lifetime, and this opinion was codified by the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 225:9), this specifically relates to an animal whose second sighting does not evoke a special sense of amazement. But when visiting a zoo, there definitely is a sense of amazement – the fact that people go there specifically to see the animals demonstrates their wonder at seeing them (P’ninei Halacha, Brachot 15:15).
However, regarding a person who visits a different zoo, if he marvels at seeing the animals there anew, he recites a blessing over them, even though thirty days have not passed since his previous sighting.
A Suggestion for Zoo Managers
It would be appropriate for zoo managers to hang attractive signs near the animals that require reciting a blessing upon seeing them – “ShCacha Lo BeOlamo” next to the beautiful parrots and peacocks, and “Meshaneh ba’Briyot” near the elephants and monkeys, and to indicate that one who has already visited the zoo within thirty days should not recite the blessing once again.