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.
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.”
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.
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.