The Great Pet Debate: Muktzah Book vs. New Igros Moshe

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By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com

It is known as the Muktzah Book versus the New Igros Moshe Debate.  The former was published by Rabbi Pinchos Bodner from Lakewood, and the New Igros Moshe of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l was published by editors after Rav Feinstein zt”l was niftar. But we jump ahead of ourselves. So let’s start at the beginning.

Today, a great majority of American pet owners consider their pets not as mere animal companions. Rather, they are considered as 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.
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 and communities. 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 – put preceded by a short overview of the history of pets as pets.

A HISTORY

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 century 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 Gemorahs throughout the tractate that animals were looked at as Muktzah on Shabbos. The Gemorah in Shabbos 45b, the Mishna in Shabbos 128a, and the discussion between Abaye and Rava in Shabbos 154b, all indicate that pets were clearly “not a thing.” Baalei Chaim were considered Muktzah.

And yet, if we look at Tosfos on Shabbos 45b, we find a very interesting question. The Gemorah 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 Gemorah 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 Baalei Tosfos) is that of HaRav R’ Yoseph 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.

OTHERS THAT HOLD A CHICK IS NOT MUKTZAH

The Mordechai (page 57 in the new four volume edition) cites the view of Rav Shimshon that when the Gemorah says that chicks are Muktzah it means a chick born that day – but the Mordechai himself rejects that view. The Ritvah 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 that is crying. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 308:39) has rejected this view, however, as have the vast majority of Rishonim and Acharonim.

THE VIEW OF THE ROSH

In a responsum of Rav Chaim Eliezer the son of the Ohr Zaruah (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 Plug here as well.

THE MUKTZAH BOOK VERSUS THE NEW IGROS MOSHE

In Rabbi Pinchas Bodner’s sefer on 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 Muktzeh – even those that children play with.

However, when this responsum was reprinted in Igros Moshe Orech Chaim Vol. V (22:21), the editors added the following words in parenthesis “unless they are specifically set aside as pets.”

EARTH-SHATTERING DEBATE

The implications of this are indeed somewhat earth shattering. According to the new volume of the Igros Moshe – pets would be permitted and are not Muktzeh. According to the Muktzah book – they are Muktzah.

The status of pets throughout halachic history is certainly more in line with Muktzah book than with the new Igros Moshe. But, clearly, the editors had heard from Rav Feinstein zt”l that pets are not Muktzah. And it seems that others 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 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 Rama’s ruling (OC 308:45).”

OTHER POSSIBLE POSKIM

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 Shmiras Shabbos K’hilchasa (27, note 96), that things may be different in contemporary times. Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l (Yabia Omer 5:26) rejects this distinction.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ROSH’S 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 Plug and a number of Rishonim including the Ohr Zaruah’s son think that there are some animals that are permitted, Rav Moshe felt that this ruling of the Rosh is not l’halacha. A second possibility is that Rav Moshe may have held that the Lo Plug existed when there was no universal social norm to keep pets. However, once the universal norm had changed in the 1800’s – then the Lo Plug no longer applies.

CONCLUSION

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 them or moving them that is forbidden.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. So it would seem it is NOT a machlokes Rabbi Bodner and Rav Moshe zt”l at all. At best it is is machlokes between Rav Bodner and the “editors” of the “new” Igros Moshe.

    The more accurate description, however, is that there is NO machlokes at all about what what Rav Moshe held. Perhaps one could say there is a machokes about what he WOULD say today, but I think he knew how to write “if they are designated to play with.” And he chose not to do so. Because it was not common? Because he did not agree?

    This would not seem to matter. Regardless, we have no clue as to what Rav Moshe himself might have held today.

  2. I think it’s very tough to be lenient today based on the new igros Moshe since we know who’s hands have been all over it

  3. As heard from one of the current members of the moetzes gedolei hatorah ” to walk a dog on shabbos one needs to be a talmud chacham. however, did you ever see a talmud chacham owning a dog”?

  4. There is a third position, that I was given by my shul rav when we got our first pet. Since that was in 1986, forgive me for forgetting sources: A pet may well be muqtza. But even if it is, many pets would be emotionally distressed by being neglected, and that is tzaar baalei chaim which trumps muqtza. (The way it is permitted to relieve a dairy cow’s physical pain by milking it — if in a way that avoids the deOraisa and makes sure the milk doesn’t accidentally gets used. Such as milking into a recepticle that already has a liquid in it, say detergent.)

    Therefore, we were told that regardless of one’s decision about whether a pet is muqtza, the implications for the animal’s owner are minimal. Other people may or may not be able to pet the dog or cuddle with the cat. Depends on their poseiq and their relationship with the animal.

  5. Times have changed and the living Torah changes with the times. Just as in days past it was normal to shower or bathe once a week at most, now daily hygiene is the norm. (Shaveh lichol ish). Pests today are commonplace- very different from even 10 years ago. Today they are definitely NOT MUKTZA.

  6. @Poodwahr – I really like your style of psak! Where and when can we discuss a few other sheilos I have about changing times (e.g. sheitlach, length of skirts, women’s pants, hilchos “negiah”, abortions, inter-faith and same-gender marriages, kol isha, mixed swimming, electricity on Shabbos, kitniyos, mercy killings, mechitzos in shul, etc.). I really hope you have the time.

  7. a few points ; if rav moshe zatl is not 100% clear , ask yourself un vos halten di andere gedolei haposkim?
    the fact that rav shlome zalmen in ssh shabs kehilchosoh was not matir , rav eliyahsev…( if i remember his safek was on an aquarium if it becomes a bosis ..( need to look up again)
    do u think in europe the kids didnt play with the chickens & goats ? yet they were considered muktza
    as far as tzar balei chaim because the dog didnt get attention on shabbos, thats a very far stretch , the proof is that chazal were matir many things that are far more painful & distressing to animals than not getting petted on shabbos. the overwhelming majority of even young isreal erliche yidden dont have pets ( not counting a fish tank)

  8. “The first possibility is that Rav Moshe may have felt that since no other Rishon mentions the Lo Plug and a number of Rishonim including the Ohr Zaruah’s son think that there are some animals that are permitted, Rav Moshe felt that this ruling of the Rosh is not l’halacha”

    Huh. Rav Moshe zt”l never saw the Or Zaruah’s sons teshuvos.

  9. Meir G, in Europe the chickens and goats were not pets. Their purpose was milk, eggs, and meat. *If* the children played with them it was no different than playing with their father’s tools, which would not make them not muktzeh.

    The whole concept of a pet did not exist for them; they would have considered it bizarre to have an animal in the house for the purpose of companionship. For companionship you had people.

    But I love your expression “Even Young israel erliche yidden”. It tells us everything about where your narrow parochial mind is.