Can you pet a dog on Shabbos? It is this and similar questions that we endeavor to answer in this essay.
We begin in Parshas Yisro in which we read that not only are we, our sons, daughters, and servants commanded to observe the Sabbath via abstaining from work, but so are our animals. As the verse says:
[…] but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates;
The Mishnah (Shabbos 128b) tells us that it is permissible to use a kli (vessel) to lift or lower small birds. Furthermore, a Braisa in the Gemara, notes that it is forbidden to “oker b’heima, chayah, v’oaf.” Rashi (d”hkofin & ein) explains that only via a kli could the birds be handled, since to handle them with one’s hands would be assur, since they are muktzah.
Yes, that’s correct: animals, or “ba’alei chayim” as they’re referred to by the Sages, are considered muktzah. And not only are they considered muktzah, but they are a very stringent muktzah, as even to use them for a permitted purpose — such as to appease a crying child — is forbidden (Tosafos on Shabbos 45b, d”hhacha).
Without getting too side-tracked into the nine (or so) different categories of muktzah (perhaps for another time), one of the most chamur (pun always intended) genres is that of “muktzah machmas gufo.” Items in this muktzah category generally include: money, rocks, sticks, sand, dirt, raw foods; they are things which have no usable function on Shabbos and are completely removed from one’s mind as a functional Shabbos article 1 . They do not have the heter to be moved for any reason (even “tzorech gufo” or “tzorech mekomo” as other categories have). It would appear from Tosafos’ definition of ba’alei chayim that animals fall into this category, which is also the opinion of Ran (Rif 21b, d”h mihu) and Rambam (Hil. Shabbos 25:26). Beis Yosef (beginning of OC §308) says explicitly that, in fact, ba’alei chayim are completely assur.
It isn’t surprising, then, that R’ Karo follows his own opinion in his formulation of the halacha in Shulchan Aruch:
All animals and birds are forbidden to handle… and any kli which has an animal on it may not be handled either.
In se’if 40, R’ Karo continues and Mishna Berura (151-152) explains that an animal may be aided by humans to help it walk if there is tza’ar ba’alei chayim involved (i.e. l’tzorech the animal), but it cannot be lifted off the ground. And, if there is a possible hefsed mammon (monetary loss), then the animal can be pushed by a human (i.e. l’tzorech the human), but one must be careful not to violate the melacha of tzeida (trapping).
Three Kinds Of Handling
What is apparent so far is that there are three levels of “tiltul”, or handling, of ba’alei chayim:
- Regular handling: picking up the animal off the ground for any reason (even for tza’ar or hefsed) is assur.
- Helping the animal walk on the ground: permissible only when tza’ar ba’alei chayim is prevalent.
- Pushing the animal: allowed for tza’ar ba’alei chayim and for hefsed mammon for the owner (e.g. if the animal might run away, etc.).
Why Are Animals Muktzah?
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is what might be the sevara, or logical reasoning, as to why an animal would be considered such a stringent level of muktzah in the first place. Maggid Mishna (Hil. Shabbos 25:26) and Mishna Berura (308:146) both explain that since animals were used for work, and work is of course forbidden on Shabbos, they thereby have no utility on Shabbos and are thus inherently muktzah (machmas gufo).
Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim
What exactly is the law when it comes to a case of tza’ar ba’alei chayim? In what way can animals be handled in such a case?
Based on the above criteria, when an animal is experiencing tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the prohibition of muktzah was not removed to facilitate alleviating the pain. Chazal did, however, relax certain rules in the presence of animal suffering.
- Carrying the animal is always forbidden; helping it to walk—without picking it up, however, is permissible. (Animals that are easily picked up, however, like a chicken, may not be walked at all.)
- Pushing, or even pulling by a leash, any animal to assist it is permitted. This is true even in reshus ha’rabim since one is unlikely to come to carry the animal (see Bach, 308 d”h davka b’chatzer).
- There is no prohibition of giving a pill or medicine to animals on Shabbos, as the g’zerias “sechikas smamanim” when it comes to medicine only applies to humans, not animals (SSK 27:54-57).
Other options for an animal in distress would be to ask a non-Jew to assist (MB 305:70), or bringing a pillow or step to facilitate the animal helping itself (SA 305:19, MB 305:69). In addition, there is a minority view espoused by Shulchan Aruch HaRav (305:26) and Chazon Ish (OC 52:16) that permits the direct removal of an animal (even by hand) from a situation in cases involving both tza’ar ba’alei chayim and hefsed mammon. Thus, if a person’s bowl of inexpensive goldfish (you know, the one’s that come in bags at the fair) spills over on Shabbos, the goldfish may not be rescued. If, however, someone’s expensive dog fell into a pool on Shabbos, it may be removed by hand, if it isn’t a reshus harabim and no non-Jew is available (see SSK 27:54-58). Further, a dead fish may be removed from a fish tank so as not to cause the other fish to die if the other fish are expensive, and there is no issue of borer here (SSK 27:28).
In a similar vein, if an animal is causing damage (hefsed mammon) — e.g. the house cat is jumping all over the furniture — the restrictions of muktzah remain in force. Thus, grabbing the animal would still be forbidden. The animal may, however, be pushed, pulled by its leash, or removed with a shinui (such as one’s foot) in such a situation (Halachos of Muktzah, pp. 122-123).
We do not help an animal when it’s giving birth on Shabbos (SA 332:1) since this involves excess tircha, and even to support it is forbidden (MB 1). On Yom Tov, however, one may support an animal in labor (SA OC 523:3). Biur Halacha cites Pri Megadim who is in doubt about what to do if the animal (either the mother of the offspring) may die; he allows one to ask a non-Jew for help, and if there is no gentile around, then the Jew himself can do it in such a life-and-death situation.
Could one perhaps draw a distinction between animals that are doing work versus domestic pets? Are things any more lenient when it comes to household dogs or cats (or the like)?
Although we did mention above that the opinion of Tosafos is that animals are indeed muktzah, the truth is that one of the ba’alei haTosafos (HaRav R’ Yosef) is a bit more lenient when it comes to animals that are “fit to help quiet a crying baby” (in this case, a small bird). Although Tosafos debunk this opinion, the Rishonim debate whether an animal which can be used to entertain a child is considered to be muktzah.
HaRav R’ Yosef (above), and Responsa Maharach Ohr Zarua (§82) believe that such animals are not muktzah by virtue of the fact that they have utility. Yet Tosafos (ibid.), Mordechai (Shabbos 316), Hagahot Oshri (Shabbos 3:21), and Rosh (Responsa) reject both these authorities because of two possible considerations:
- First, the fact that an animal could be used to calm a child is insufficient utility to render the creature no longer muktzah machmas gufo.
- Second, Chazal classified all animals as muktzah regardless of whether a particular animal has utility on Shabbos. This is an example of "lo plug rabbanan", Rabbinic legislation that was instituted for a reason, yet encompasses even the cases for which the reason does not technically apply.
The question arises, though, whether circumstances have changed since the time of the Rishonim. These authorities discuss animals which can possibly be used to amuse children, but not animals whose entire purpose is to entertain and provide companionship to their owners. R’ S.Z. Auerbach (cited in SSK 27, fn:96), in fact, raises the possibility of making this distinction, yet he rules that pets are still muktzah. It appears that this question is contingent on one's acceptance of one of the two reasons (stated above) offered by the Rishonim for why an animal that can be used to quiet a child from crying is muktzah. If one assumes like the first reason — that the position that the possibility of using an animal to amuse a child is insufficient utility to remove it from being considered muktzah — then a cogent argument can be made that a pet is nowadays sufficiently useful to the extent that one no longer can say that they have no purpose to their owners on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and hence are not muktzah. However, if one adopts the position that the rabbis have deemed all animals to be muktzah, regardless of their utility, then even household pets nowadays are to be included in this category.
When it comes to pets, the modern-day poskim are divided.
The machmirim (in addition to R’ Auerbach, above), or stringent:
- Orchos Shabbos (2:19:124) states that even animals which people have as pets at home are muktzah, as “lo plug rabanan.”
- R’ Pinchas Bodner (“Halachos of Muktzah,” pp. 119) states that pets are functionless. As looking at them or playing with them is not considered a function, they are therefore totally muktzah on both Shabbos and Yom Tov.
- R’ Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer OC 5:26) also rejects R’ Auerbach’s possible distinction and says that Rosh’s logic of “lo plug” carries a lot of weight as an “omed hora’ah” in Yisrael.
The meikilim (in addition to Maharach Ohr Zarua and HaRav R’ Yosef in Tosafos), or lenient:
- Minchas Shabbos (8:10) is lenient when it comes to parakeets — since people benefit from their voices and so therefore they are not muktzah — as well as any animal used to entertain a baby since it would be considered a usable kli at that point.
- Halachos Ketanos (1:45), Nezer Yisrael (10), B’tzel Hachochma (5:33-34).
- In a bit of controversial teshuva, R’ Moshe Feinstein (IM OC 5:22:21) writes that ba’alei chayim are muktzah, but animals used for “sha’ashuim (pets)” are not muktzah. The reason this teshuva is considered a bit controversial is the fact that it appears in volume five of Igros Moshe Orach Chaim, which is known to have been published posthumously 3 .
- It is the opinion of Mori v'Rebbi, R’ Chayim Soloveichik, that house pets are not considered muktzeh since nowadays they do have a tzorech.
Animals Cages, etc.
An interesting nafka mina, or practical difference, between the two sides would be as follows: If pets are indeed classified as muktzah, it follows that anything the pet was standing on during bein hashmashos is also muktzah (based on the laws of bosis). Thus, birdcages, fish tanks, dog/cat beds, etc., which had their respective animals on them as Shabbos began are considered muktzah even if the animal was removed from them on Shabbos (MA 308:66, SSK 27:30).
Not everyone agrees to this stringent opinion, though. R’ S.Z. Auerbach (SSK ibid. fn:96) posits that although the fish and birds are muktzah due to their being ba’alei chayim, the cage or tank they are housed in is not muktzah since they, along with their animals, are for decorative purposes 2 . Others suggest within R’ Auerbach’s approach that he only allowed small fish tanks to be moved since they are “omed l’taltel,” whereas a big fish tank which does not move, or a birdcage, would not be allowed to be moved (ibid. fn:101).
One may removed the cover of a fish tank, though, to feed the fish (OS 2:19:124).
Feeding Animals On Shabbos
Feeding animals is forbidden on Shabbos unless they are dependent on you for their food and sustenance (SA 324:11). Based on this, Mishna Berura (ibid. 29-31) and Magen Avraham (7) strongly oppose the custom to feed the birds on Shabbos Shira (Parshas Beshalach) each year, since they’re not dependent upon us to feed them. Others (Chavos Yair and R’ Ovadia) say “minhag Yisrael Torah hi” and are lenient to allow feeding the birds so long as the food isn’t placed directly in front of them.
A starving animal, even though it is not yours, may be fed on Shabbos. Shaking out a tablecloth with crumbs onto the yard or street is also okay since you’re not going out of your way to feed the animals and birds by doing so (Yalkut Yosef, Shabbos 4:38-47)
R’ S.Z. Auerbach (SSK 18, fn:62) states that a seeing-eye dog is not muktzah for a blind person on Shabbos. He reasons that since their essential function is such that they will be moved out of necessity, then one surely intends to move them on Shabbos and hence their designation as muktzah is avoided 3 .
When it comes to Yom Tov, it should be noted that the halacha is slightly different when compared to Shabbos. Since food preparation (ochel nefesh) is permissible on Yom Tov, slaughtering an animal is allowed since they didn’t have refrigeration during the times of the Gemara to keep meat fresh over an extended period of time. Since one can prepare the meat of kosher animals, such animals are not muktzah (SA OC 497:6). All other animals, however, are muktzah. Ramah (OC 495) qualifies that milk-producing cows and egg-producing chickens, even though they will not be slaughtered, are nevertheless not classified as muktzah.
Shulchan Aruch (OC 305:1) paskins that decorative items should not be worn by an animal when its owner takes it into an area not enclosed by an eruv since an animal does not benefit from such items. Furthermore, Shulchan Aruch (ibid., se’if 17) rules that items which animals wear for purposes of identification are not considered beneficial for the animal. They are worn solely for the convenience and benefit of its owner.
The question arises, though, regarding identification tags which clearly benefit the animal, such as those which show that it has an owner and can be returned home if properly identified. Aruch HaShulchan (305:5), after some initial hesitation, rules stringently. He believes that halachah considers all identification markers to be in the category of items that a Jew may not permit his pet to wear in reshus ha’rabim on Shabbos. However, R’ S.Z. Auerbach (SSK 27, fn:33) disagrees when it comes to tags that are worn for the benefit of the dog, such as identification tags which allow the animal to be returned to its owner in case it is lost, provided that it is in the animal's interest to be with its owner. R’ Auerbach cautions, though, that if the tags are worn by the animal merely to verify that its owner has paid all the required taxes and fees associated with owning the animal, then the animal may not wear them since they serve only the needs of the owner. R’ Auerbach's ruling appears not to be limited to tags worn to prevent the animal's death; it seems to apply to any tag worn for the benefit of the animal.
Using A Leash
According to those poskim who allow pets to be handled on Shabbos, there would seemingly be no issue of muktzah to use a leash as well. However, one would need to exercise caution when walking a pet on Shabbos with a leash in an area not enclosed by an eruv. Firstly, Shulchan Aruch (OC 305:16) says that the handle of the leash should not protrude more than a handbreadth (approximately 3-4 inches) from under the hand of the person walking the animal. This is because it is forbidden to have a considerable protrusion as it would appear as if the individual walking the animal is carrying the leash instead of merely holding the leash. Additionally, Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) states that one must be sure to keep the leash reasonably taut, so that the leash does not hang within three inches of the ground. If the leash would hang so close to the ground it would appear to be an article that the animal is wearing unnecessarily.
Finally, the issue of “tzeida,” or trapping an animal on Shabbos, is another related topic with a number of issues that could arise. Tzeida is one of the 39 melachos, and if/how it would apply to domesticated pets is perhaps a discussion for another time.
As we've seen, there is much debate as to the propriety of owning house pets in their relation to proper Shabbos adherence. While many halachic authorities permit ownership of pets, a pet owner, however, must be aware of the many halachic complexities which arise. With appropriate care and attention, though, one can overcome any potential cat-astrophy.
1. Notwithstanding that one can designate such items for a permissible use before the onset of Shabbos.↩
2. This sevara seems strange to me, though, since based on the laws of bosis, the cage/tank should be muktzah as well, irrespective of its decorative purpose.↩
3. Additionally, the part that says pets are not muktzah is written in a bit of a smaller font. I’ve been unsuccessful in trying to ascertain why that is, but some seem to speculate or cast doubt on this psak of R’ Moshe due to the aforementioned quandaries.↩
4. An interesting side note regarding seeing-eye dogs: R’ Moshe Feinstein (IM OC 1:45) rules that it is permissible for a blind person to bring them into a shul.↩