In Teshuvot Yechaveh Daat (3:66), Rav Ovadia Yosef discusses the Halachic propriety of attending a bullfight and visiting a zoo. Although the first question appears obscure and the answer to the second question seems obvious, this Teshuva teaches vital lessons regarding our evaluation of cultural activities of the non-Jewish world. This insightful Teshuva has many other Halachic and Hashkafic (relating to Jewish Thought) implications that we shall elucidate in this essay.
Rav Ovadia characterizes the institution of bullfighting as “a culture of sinful and cruel people” that runs counter to Torah values. An important Torah value is to avoid inflicting gratuitous pain on animals (Tzaar Baalei Chaim). The Gemara (Bava Metzia 32-33) indicates that Tzaar Baalei Chaim is a Torah level prohibition. According to the Gemara (Berachot 40a), it is improper to eat before one has fed his animals. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 85a) relates a story of a calf that stuck its head beneath Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s coat to escape the slaughterer’s knife. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi told the calf that it should go to the slaughter, for this is why it was created. The Gemara relates that Hashem brought travails upon Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi as punishment for his failure to pity the calf.
The following Halacha demonstrates the priority Chazal accord Tzaar Baalei Chaim. The Gemara (Shabbat 128b) permits helping an animal that fell into a water ditch on Shabbat by supporting it with a pillow, even though it is a violation of the rabbinical prohibition to render an item Muktzeh on Shabbat(מבשל כלי מהכינו . The pillow was not Muktzeh when Shabbat began and becomes Muktzeh when it is placed beneath the animal on Shabbat. Chazal waived this rabbinical prohibition because of concern for Tzaar Baalei Chaim. This passage in the Gemara is codified as normative by the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 25:26) and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 305:19). In fact, this Halacha serves as the basis for the Shulchan Aruch’s (O.C. 305:20) permission to ask a non-Jew to milk a cow on Shabbat. Rav Ovadia points out that it is rare for Chazal to waive a rabbinical prohibition relating to Shabbat. Tzaar Baalei Chaim is one of the very few considerations that merit such a waiver.
The Torah expresses its concern for Tzaar Baalei Chaim many times. The Mitzva to unload a donkey from its heavy load, the prohibition to muzzle an animal while it is threshing, the prohibition to plow with two different types of animals, and the angel reprimanding Bilam for needlessly striking his donkey, are a few examples of expressions in the Torah’s that we not harm an animal needlessly. Part of Eliezer’s test of Rivka’s character was to see if she also gave water to his camels. Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzva 550) explains that a reason for the prohibition to plow with two different animals is concern for Baalei Chaim. The different species might be incompatible and working together might torture the animals.
Acharonim express concern for Tzaar Baalei Chaim. A prime example of this concern is Rav Yechezkel Landau’s (Teshuvot Noda Biyehuda Yoreh Deah 2:10) ruling forbidding recreational hunting because (among other reasons) of Tzaar Baalei Chaim. Rav Landau writes that in the Tanach we find recreational hunting as an activity of people of poor character such as Esav and Nimrod. Similarly, the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Vayikra 17:11) asserts that we have no right to kill an animal needlessly. This, he writes, explains the seemingly odd requirement of the Mishna (Sanhedrin 2a) to convene a panel of twenty-three judges to determine if an animal deserves to be put to death. Indeed, the Rama (Darchei Moshe Orach Chaim 316:2) writes that one who hunts with dogs will not participate in the feast of the Livyatan upon the arrival of the Mashiach.
Chazal teach that three personality traits characterize a Jew (Yevamot 79a) – a sense of shame, a sense of compassion, and a willingness to engage in acts of kindness. Rav Ovadia feels that exposure to acts of cruelty such as bull fighting erodes our compassionate instincts. He describes some of the cruel aspects of bullfighting such as starving the animal before it enters the stadium and stabbing it with a sword to stir its anger. Accordingly, he rules that a Jew should not attend a bullfighting match. He compares bullfighting to the cruel activities of the ancient Roman theaters, circuses, and stadiums, which Chazal (Avoda Zara 18b) forbade us to attend.
The Mishna (Gittin 61a) lists a number of activities that are prohibited because “it strengthens the hands of sinners.” Rav Ovadia rules that purchasing a ticket for a bullfight serves to strengthen the hands of the sinners who stage these hideous events. Rav Ovadia asserts that even non-Jews are forbidden to conduct bullfights. However, one may ask that a specific prohibition to conduct bullfights does not appear on the list of the Seven Noachide Laws that the Torah obligates all mankind to abide by.
An answer is that the Torah demands every human being to act with basic decency. For example, the Torah (Devarim 23:4-7) prohibits marrying a male descendant of Ammon and Moav. A reason for this prohibition, the Torah states, is these nations’ failure to provide us with bread and water when we traveled through their land on route to Eretz Yisrael from Egypt. One may ask why the Torah holds Ammon and Moav responsible for an action (or inaction) that is not specifically prohibited by the Noachide code.
Rav Yehuda Amital (in a lecture at Yeshivat Har Etzion) answers that we see that the Torah expects and demands every human being to behave decently. Moreover, the Torah demands every human being to refrain from engaging in immoral activities, even if an activity is not formally prohibited by the Noachide code. Failure to do so will result in divine retribution. The angel’s threat to punish Bilam for needlessly striking his donkey is an example of this principle. Rav Ovadia believes that it is self-evident that bullfighting is an immoral activity that no human being should engage in.
It would appear that either reason to forbid attending a bullfight suffices according to Rav Yosef. Accordingly, it is also forbidden to watch a bullfight on either television or videotape. Watching a bullfight is corrosive to one’s sense of compassion even if he is not present at the stadium.
Rav Ovadia concludes, “It is clear that it is a Mitzva to publicize that one should not attend events such as these.” Similar events might include boxing matches. Indeed, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (in a lecture at Yeshivat Har Etzion) stated that it is forbidden to watch a televised boxing match because of the cruelty involved. It is also probably prohibited to watch violent television shows or films, or watch television shows where people are tortured in exchange for money. In addition, Rav Ovadia’s ruling seems to apply another bizarre Spanish tradition, the running of the bulls. Although Hemingway glorifies this tradition, its foolishness is self-evident. The Sefer Hachinuch (ibid.) writes that if the Torah is concerned with Tzaar Baalei Chaim, it is certainly concerned with inflicting gratuitous pain on human beings.
Visiting a Zoo
On the other hand, Rav Ovadia wholeheartedly endorses the practice of visiting a zoo. He writes that the soul is stirred by the sight of the amazing variety of God’s creatures, as the Pasuk (Tehillim 104:24) states “How great are your works, Hashem, You make them all with wisdom, the world is full of Your possessions.” Rav Ovadia cites Maaseh Rav (the behavior of outstanding rabbinical figures) as proof to this assertion. He notes that Rav Moshe Isserlin, the author of the Terumat Hadeshen, walked a great distance one Shabbat to view a pair of lions that were brought to his city for exhibition. The Chida (Midbar Kedeimot 2:22), a Sephardic luminary, relates that when he traveled to London he visited its zoo. The Chida records with excitement that he saw an incredibly wide variety of animals at the zoo including an unusually beautiful eagle that was more than a hundred years old. Rav Ovadia adds that he knows of many sages and pious people who visit zoos, and no Torah authority objects.
Rav Ovadia (Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch p.282) rules that when one sees an exceptionally beautiful animal at the zoo (a parakeet is his example) and is overwhelmed by its beauty and grandeur, he should recite the Beracha “Shekacha Lo Olamo” (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 225:10). He notes that the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 225:8) rules that when one sees an elephant or monkey he should recite the Beracha “Meshaneh Haberiyot.” The Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 225:14), though, writes that one should recite the Beracha on a beautiful animal only upon the first time one sees very beautiful animals because afterwards it is not no longer a breathtaking experience. He writes, however, that if the animal is more beautiful than he has seen previously, he should recite the Beracha. One should consult with his Rav if he should say Hashem’s name when reciting this Beracha.
The Gemara (Berachot 28a) records that when Rabbi Zeira was exhausted, he would sit outside the Bait Midrash and rise when a Torah scholar would pass by. He chose this recreational activity because this “would bring him reward.” We learn from this passage to choose recreational activities that enrich the soul. Minimally, we should avoid recreational activities that harm the soul.
Rav Ovadia’s responsum teaches a vital lesson for our encounters with other cultures. We must critically evaluate the practices of other cultures. We can be open-minded without having our brains, or Torah values, fall out.