Feeding the Birds
Question #1: Was Mom Wrong?
“My mother always shook out crumbs in our backyard on parshas
Beshalach. Although she was frum her whole life, she had little
formal Jewish education, and all of her Yiddishkeit was what she picked
up from her home. I discovered recently that Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah
prohibits this practice. So how could my mother have done this?”
Question #2: Dog Next Door
“We have an excellent relationship with our next door
neighbor, who happens not to be Jewish, although I am not sure if that affects
the question. They are going away on vacation and have asked us to feed their
pets while they are away. May I do so on Shabbos?”
Question #3: In the Zoo
“How are zoo animals fed on Shabbos?”
Many people have the custom of scattering wheat or
breadcrumbs for the birds to enjoy as their seudas Shabbos on Shabbos
Parshas Beshalach, which is called Shabbos Shirah. This practice,
which we know goes back hundreds of years, has engendered halachic
discussion as to whether it is actually permitted. I will first explain the
reasons for the custom and then the halachic issues and discussion,
which we can trace from the earliest commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch
to the recent authorities. I am also assuming that there is no problem of
carrying – in other words, we are discussing scattering food within an area
enclosed by an eruv.
Manna on Shabbos
To explain the reason for this practice that my mother
taught me and that my mother-in-law taught my wife, we need to first look at
our parsha. Moshe informed Bnei Yisroel that no manna would fall
on Shabbos morning, and that the double portion received on Friday would
suffice for two days. The Torah teaches that some Jews went to look for manna
anyway on Shabbos morning, but did not find any.
According to the traditional story, Doson and Aviram took
some of their own leftover manna from Friday, which means that they went a bit
hungry that day. They placed this manna outside the Jewish camp, and in the
morning they informed the people that manna had fallen. Their attempt to
discredit the miracle failed when the people went to look and found nothing
there. This was because some birds had arrived to eat the manna before the
people would find it. To reward the birds for preventing a chillul Hashem,
people spread food for the birds to eat.
Like the birds
I saw another reason for this practice, also related to the
falling of the manna. According to this reason, placing feed for birds is to
remind us that Hashem provided food for us in the desert, similar to the
way birds readily find their food without any difficulty.
Others cite a different basis for the practice. According
to this version, the reason for feeding the birds on this Shabbos is because
on Shabbos Shirah, we commemorate the Jews singing praise to Hashem
after being saved at the Yam Suf. According to this reason, the birds
also sang shirah at the Yam Suf, and we feed them to commemorate
the event (Tosafos Shabbos 324:17, and several later authorities who
quote him). As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word tzipor is based on the
Aramaic word tzafra,which means morning, and expresses
the concept that birds sing praise to Hashem every morning (see Ramban,
There is a fascinating account transmitted verbally from
the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, who heard from his grandfather, the Ba’al
HaTanya, that their ancestor, the Maharal of Prague, would do the following on Shabbos
Shirah: First, he told the rebbei’im of the schools and the fathers
to bring the children to the shul courtyard. He then instructed the rabbei’im
to relate to the children the story of Keri’as Yam Suf,how
the birds sang and danced while Moshe and the Bnei Yisroel sang Az
Yashir, and that the children crossing Yam Suf took fruits from
trees growing there and afterward fed them to the birds that sang.
No local songbirds
Although I have not yet explained the halachic
controversy surrounding this custom, I will share a difference in practical halacha
that might result from the dispute between the different reasons. According to
the first two reasons, one would spread food for the birds, even if one lives
in an area where the bird population includes no songbirds. According to the
third approach, in such a place there would be no reason to observe the
Notwithstanding that Jews have been observing the custom of
spreading food for birds on Shabbos Shirah for several hundred
years, there is a major halachic controversy about its observance. This
is based on a Mishnah and a passage of the Gemara that discuss
whether on Shabbos one may provide water and food for birds and other
creatures that are not dependent on man for their daily bread or birdseed. The
reason for this prohibition is, apparently, because this type of activity,
being unnecessary for one’s observance of Shabbos, is viewed as a tircha
yeseirah. I will explain this as “distracting exertion,” meaning that Chazal
did not want us involving ourselves in what they determined to be unnecessary
activities, since this detracts from the sanctity of the Shabbos day.
I have seen much discussion about the custom of feeding
birds on Shabbos Shirah, but virtually all in Ashkenazic
sources. It seems to me that this custom is either predominantly or exclusively
an Ashkenazic practice. The only Sephardic authority I have found who
mentions the practice is the Kaf Hachayim, who lived in the twentieth
century, and whose work predominantly anthologizes earlier commentaries on the Shulchan
Aruch. Therefore, his reporting the Ashkenazic authorities who
discuss the custom does not necessarily reflect that any Sefardic
communities observed this practice.
At this point, we need to discuss the background to the halachic
question about the practice of feeding the birds on Shabbos Shirah.
The original source
The Mishnah (Shabbos 155b) rules that one may
not place water before bees or doves that live in cotes, but one may do so
before geese, chickens and Hardisian doves.
What type of dove?
There are actually three different texts of this Mishnah.
According to one version, one is prohibited to water “Hardisian” doves (Rashi),
which refers to a geographic location where they raised doves similarly to the
way ducks or geese are raised as livestock.A second version prohibits
providing water to “Herodian” doves (Rambam, Bartenura). This text
refers to a variety of domesticated bird developed by Herod, or, more likely,
by his bird keepers. (The Meleches Shelomoh cites a third text, which is
not pertinent to our discussion.)
In a passage of Gemara relevant to the mitzvah of shiluach
hakein, the prohibition against taking the mother bird and her eggs or
young offspring, the Gemara (Chullin 139b) provides two texts and
explanations as to which of these two types of birds, Hardisian doves or
Herodian doves, is excluded from the prohibition. In the context of shiluach
hakein, the prohibition is dependent on the birds being ownerless, and both
Hardisian and Herodian doves have owners. (From the Gemara’s
description, it appears that Herodian doves may have been a variety of parrot
or other talking bird. We have no mesorah that parrots are a kosher
species of bird, which is one of the halachic requirements for the
mitzvah of shiluach hakein, but that does not preclude understanding the
Gemara this way.)
In either instance, it is permitted to take both the mother
and the offspring of both Hardisian and Herodian birds, because the Torah
prohibits doing so only when the birds are hefker, ownerless, which
these birds are not. The Gemara describes the large numbers of these
birds that were raised, something that today’s breeders of chickens can only
Although these varieties of birds were well known at the
time of the Mishnah, by the time of the Gemara, these varieties
were heading toward extinction.
Returning to the Mishnah in Shabbos,
according to either text, “Hardisian” or “Herodian,” one may provide these
birds with water on Shabbos. Our first question is why the Mishnah permits
one to water geese, chickens and these doves, but not bees nor doves that
reside in cotes. The Gemara provides two answers to explain why there is
The first answer is that bees and most doves are not
dependent on mankind for their sustenance, whereas geese, chickens, and these
varieties of domesticated doves are. The Gemara then provides a second
answer that limits the prohibition to water, since it is readily available
without human assistance. According to the second answer, there is no
prohibition against feeding birds on Shabbos. The prohibition is only
that one should not provide water to those birds and insects that can easily
get their hydration on their own.
Feeding on Yom Tov
According to some rishonim, we find a similar
discussion regarding providing food for animals on Yom Tov (Rashi,
Dogs versus pigs
In the same discussion of Gemara, it quotes a beraisa
(a teaching dating back to the era of the Mishnah) that permits
feeding dogs on Shabbos, but prohibits feeding pigs. The beraisa
itself asks why there is a difference, and explains that the sustenance of
one’s dogs is dependent on the owner, but the sustenance of his pigs is not.
This leads to an obvious question: Both of these species
are non-kosher, yet the beraisa does not prohibit feeding one’s dogs. It
also does not say that it depends on whether he owns them or not. Rashi explains
that since a curse was placed on any Jew who raises pigs (see Sotah 49b),
Jews should not be responsible for feeding them, and therefore Chazal
prohibited doing so. Although pigs are often domesticated by people who are not
concerned about observing the halacha that prohibits raising them (Sotah
49b), Chazal expanded this prohibition and ruled that, even should
someone own a pig, he may not feed it on Shabbos since the sustenance of
a pig should not be dependent on a Jew (see Rashi, Shabbos ad locum;
Magen Avraham, Machatzis Hashekel). On the other hand, one may feed dogs on
Shabbos, since it is permitted to own a dog, particularly in a farm
setting, where dogs are useful for herding sheep and other activities.
Only my dog?
In relation to this question, we find a dispute among early
acharonim. The Magen Avraham, one of the greatest of the early
commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch, rules that you may feed any
non-dangerous dog on Shabbos, whether you own it or not. He understands
that the Gemara meant that you may feed any animals that are dependent
on man, and you may feed all dogs, but you may not feed any pigs, even when they
are dependent on man, since a Jew is not supposed to raise pigs (Machatzis
On the other hand, other authorities rule that one may feed
a dog only when it is dependent on a Jew for food (see Elyah Rabbah 324:11).
The halachic authorities note that there are a few
instances in which it is permitted for a Jew to own a pig. One situation is
when he received it as payment of a debt; another is that he inherited it from
someone not observant. The halacha is that he is permitted to sell it,
and that he may wait until he is offered a market value price for it. In the
interim, he is permitted to feed it, even on Shabbos, since it is
dependent on him for food (Machatzis Hashekel).
Based on this analysis, the geonim permitted feeding
silkworms on Shabbos (Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch, Orach
Chayim 324:12). Similarly, some authorities explain that the Gemara’s
discussion is only about feeding animals that one does as a matter of course, but
that one may and should provide food to any animal that is hungry (Aruch
Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 324:2).
Which way do we rule?
The authorities dispute which answer of the Gemara
we follow. The Rif, the Rambam (21:36) and the Shulchan Aruch
(Orach Chayim 324:11) conclude that we follow the stricter approach,
whereas the Ran and the Olas Shabbos conclude that the more
lenient approach may be followed. Thus, according to the Shulchan Aruch’s
conclusion, one may not provide either food or water on Shabbos to bees,
doves or any other creature that is not dependent on man, while according to
the Ran, one may provide them with food but not water. It should be
noted that, in situations where it is permitted to feed the animals, one may
even put food directly in their mouths (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 324:10).
At this point, we can mention the last of our opening questions. “We have an excellent relationship with our next door neighbor, who is not Jewish, although I am not sure if that affects the question. They are going away on vacation and have asked us to feed their pets while they are away. May I do so on Shabbos?” “How are zoo animals fed on Shabbos?”
The second question is easy to answer. Since these animals
are in captivity, they are dependent on man for food, and one is not only
permitted, but required, to make sure that they have adequate feed on Shabbos.
The first question may be a bit more complicated. These animals generally are
not dependent on the Jewish neighbor, but this Shabbos they will be. I
refer those who want to analyze this question further to a short piece by Rav
Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach, quoted in Shulchan Shelomoh (Chapter 324), in
which he discusses a related topic.
The custom on Shabbos Shirah
At this point, we should discuss our opening question,
whether it is indeed permitted to feed birds on Shabbos Shirah.
The Magen Avraham (324:7) mentions the practice of providing grain for
birds to eat on Shabbos Shirah, and states that the practice is
in violation of the halacha. This approach is followed by most of the halachic
commentaries, including the Elyah Rabbah, the Machatzis Hashekel,
the Shulchan Aruch Harav, and the Mishnah Berurah.
However, there are some authorities who justify the practice. For example, the Tosafos
Shabbos suggests it is permitted, since we are doing it not to make sure
the birds are fed but to perpetuate the minhag. Thus, he posits, the
ethical and religious intent renders the activity permitted. A few of the later
commentaries – those who, in general, strive to justify common practice – are
lenient, either citing the reason of the Tosafos Shabbos, or
similar approaches (Aruch Hashulchan 324:3; Daas Torah).
An interesting additional halachic side point is that
the early authorities discuss scattering grains, or specifically wheat, to the
birds. In earlier days, when people owned farm animals and used grains as feed,
these grains were not muktzah on Shabbos. However, most of us do
not own raw grain, and, since we can neither grind it nor cook it on Shabbos,
and we do not eat it or feed it to animals as raw kernels, these grains are muktzah
on Shabbos (see Aruch Hashulchan 517:2).
Shaking out the tablecloth
Even among the very late authorities, we find a dispute as
to whether one may feed the birds on Shabbos Shirah. The sefer Shemiras
Shabbos Kehilchasah (27:21) rules that one should not, following the
approach of the Magen Avraham and the Mishnah Berurah.
However, he suggests a way of fulfilling the custom without creating any halachic
problem. His advice is to shake out the tablecloth after the meal in a place
where the birds can eat the crumbs. He bases this on the ruling of the Eishel
Avraham of Butchach (324:11 s.v. Gam), who says that, when throwing
or discarding food, there is no requirement to make sure that one does not
throw it in front of animals. The prohibition is doing extra work on behalf of
animals that otherwise will be able to fend for themselves easily. Shaking out
the tablecloth is not an unnecessary Shabbos activity.
Another suggestion is to spread crumbs before Shabbos,
which allows the birds to feast on them on Shabbos without involving any
On the other hand, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Valdenberg contends
that feeding birds on Shabbos Shirah has an old, venerated
history – he notes that he remembers it being practiced in the households of
many gedolei Yisroel, without anyone questioning whether one may. He
mentions the different reasons cited above why one may be lenient (Shu”t
Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. XIV, #28). In conclusion, I advise each reader to ask
his or her own rav or posek whether to follow the practice.
We should not conclude from this discussion that halacha
is opposed to our taking care of animals. The Tosefta (Bava Kama,end of Chapter 9)states, “Rabbi Yehudah said, in the name of Rabban
Gamliel: ‘Know this sign well: as long as you act with mercy, Hashem
will have mercy on you.’” Sefer Chassidim #666 notes: If we are merciful
to our animals, Hashem and others will be merciful to us.
The point is that when the animals can easily take care of
themselves, we should be devoting Shabbos to our own personal growth and
not become distracted from this goal. After all, Shabbos is our reminder
that Hashem created the entire universe.