By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
When I was growing up, my family used to daven at Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, which was then in Forest Hills. At the yeshiva, all the local children liked to visit “the dungeon.” The dungeon was the lone dormitory room on the basement level. Its walls were concrete slabs. The ceiling was approximately 16 feet high and the windows were 12 feet above the floor. The solitary source of illumination was a dim fluorescent fixture that hung down from the ceiling, hence the name dungeon.
The children liked to visit the dungeon because one of its prisoners had a fish tank. One Shabbos, as we were admiring the fish, it became clear that one of the fish was sick. The owner of the fish tank (now a Far Rockaway resident) and the children went to the mashgiach to ask an urgent question: May one put medicine into a fish tank on Shabbos or yom tov?
We have just learned in Masechta Shabbos that it is forbidden miderabbanan to take medicine for minor ailments on Shabbos. The reason for the prohibition is that the Sages were concerned that one might transgress a Torah prohibition while preparing the medicines. The Mishnah Berurah (332:5), quoting the Rif and the Rosh, writes that the rabbinic injunction against taking medicine does not apply to administering medicine to animals. The Sages were not afraid that someone might violate Shabbos to provide medicine to his animals. Since an individual’s concern for his animal’s condition is not as great as his concern for his own well-being, one will not come to violate Shabbos to provide medicine for his animal. Based on this, the mashgiach answered that medicine may be administered to the fish.
I once heard Rabbi Mordechai Becher of Gateways deliver a lecture entitled “Animal Rights.” He started off by declaring that in the Torah’s view, animals don’t have any rights. Nevertheless, we are commanded that our conduct towards the animals be appropriate because tza’ar ba’alei chayim d’Oraysah—the concept of being concerned with an animal’s pain is of biblical origin.
This has relevance to hilchos Shabbos. Animals are muktzeh on Shabbos. The Mishnah Berurah discusses a scenario where an animal is trapped somewhere on Shabbos without food and one sees no alternative to alleviate the animal’s suffering but to lift up the animal. The Mishnah Berurah writes that there is a machlokes if one is allowed to violate muktzeh to aid the animal. However, the Az Nidberu understands that the Mishnah Berurah seemed to rule leniently. The Chayei Adam rules that one can rely on the lenient opinion.
Rabbi Becher quoted a vegetarian who explained his philosophy by declaring, “Animals shouldn’t eat other animals.” The obvious fallacy of this argument is that many animals eat other animals. Entire food chains consist of larger animals eating smaller animals. What is wrong with a human being on top of the food chain? Rabbi Becher noted that the idea that a human is endowed with higher intellect and a sense of compassion and should therefore be a vegetarian may have some place in Judaism. However, it is reserved for a human who has otherwise reached a state of perfection.
Goldfish eggs and fry are routinely eaten by other fish, as well as by adult goldfish. What would be the halachah if fish eggs are hatched in an aquarium on Shabbos and one wants to remove the young fish to a different tank to save them? The fry are muktzeh. Still, wouldn’t this be similar to the aforementioned leniency of handling muktzeh animals to save them? HaRav Shlomo Zalman, zt’l, doubts whether these situations are analogous. Saving animals from pain is vastly different than saving fish from being eaten. Small fish are routinely eaten by larger fish and there is absolutely no mitzvah to stop that from occurring. However, it seems from his writing that if someone intended to place the fry in an empty tank and inadvertently placed them in an occupied tank and realized his error on Shabbos, the halachah may be different. Perhaps then the fish will be eaten as a result of his actions, and that wouldn’t be deemed natural biology. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and offers a program to help children with ADD increase focus and concentration. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.