Throughout the world, April 8th is celebrated as “Zoo Lovers Day.”

The first zoo of record was built in 1752 at the behest of Emperor Francis I in Vienna, Austria. Although it was built initially for the private viewing of the royal family, it was opened to the public 13 years later. The next zoo opened in 1775 in Madrid, Spain, and then in 1795, in Paris, France. Having a zoo became a badge of pride for countries. Today we see the very same competition among cities.

Aside from the fun, education and excitement associated with a trip to the zoo, there are some important Jewish lessons as well that one can appreciate when visiting the zoo.

First of all, there are special blessings that the rabbis ordained at various times, that are to be recited when utilizing one the different human senses, and when performing certain acts, as well as blessings as a form of gratitude. The Talmud (Brachot 58b) instructs those who encounter beautiful creatures (and trees) to say, “Blessed is He [God] Who has such things in His world.” The commonly accepted practice is to recite the blessing on the first such animal that one sees. The Talmud also mentions a specific blessing to be recited when seeing elephants, monkeys and a third animal whose identity is no longer known. The text of the blessing over these animals is, “Blessed is He [God] Who makes strange creatures.”

The rabbis identify certain behaviors with specific animals. The Talmud claims (Eruvin 100b) that had there not been a Torah, we would learn modesty from the cat, work ethic from ants, spousal fidelity from the dove, and proper intimate conduct from roosters. Cats display modesty when they cover up their waste, no ant takes from the winter food storage of its fellow ant, doves remain loyal to their mates and roosters act lovingly toward their partners before and after mating. The Bible identifies snakes with sin, lions with leadership, and even a spider saved King David’s life when he questioned why the world needs these arachnids.

Perek Shirah is an ancient Jewish text (it is first mentioned in the 10th century CE). It describes the Creation and how each element thereof sings God’s praises, using Scriptural verses that identify various creatures and their specific songs. This text also provides great insight into the animal kingdom and their role in the world.

There is one final matter to keep in mind when visiting a zoo. In the context of inappropriate sexual behaviors, Maimonides states that, with the exception of professional animal breeders, people should avoid watching animals mate (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Inappropriate Relations 21:19).

Enjoy your next visit to the zoo and remember to thank God for creating such a beautiful, rich and fascinating universe!

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