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Trapping a Pet

I. Pet Laws

Pet owners face many religious laws regarding how they treat the animals in their care. On Shabbos, authorities debate whether people may carry pets or not, if the animals are considered muktzeh. Additionally, locking animals inside — trapping them — constitutes one of the 39 forbidden Shabbos labors. How do they apply to pets? The answer to this takes us to a 16th century debate that forced a student to choose between his two teachers.

The text underlying this issue is a Mishnah in Shabbos (107a): “An animal or bird in his possession, he who captures it is exempt.” If you already have it in your possession, you do not violate a biblical prohibition by capturing it more closely. The question remains whether exempt here means permissible or rabbinically forbidden. Generally speaking, when the Mishnah says “exempt” on Shabbos it means exempt from a biblical prohibition but still forbidden rabbinically (Shabbos 3a). What does that mean for trapping domesticated animals?

While today it applies only to pets, in older times it applied more generally. Most families had animals in their courtyard growing until they were slaughtered and eaten. Chickens and geese regularly walked in and out of the house. Could you grab an animal like that or otherwise block or restrict its path even while inside your house? If capturing a captured animal is rabbinically prohibited, then you may not.

II. Already Captured

The Mishnah in Beitzah (23b) permits capturing on Yom Tov animals and birds that are already within an enclosure. The Gemara (24a) continues:

“Whenever capture is lacking, capture is forbidden. What is meant by “capture is lacking?” Rav Yosef said in the name of Rav Yehudah in the name of Shmuel: Anything about which we say, “bring a trap and we will catch it.” Abaye said to him: But what about geese and hens about which we say, “bring a trap and we will catch it” and it is taught: One who captures geese, hens and Herodian doves is exempt? Rabbah Bar Rav Huna said in the name of Shmuel: These return to their coops at night and those do not return to their coops at night.”

In other words, because geese and hens return to their coops at night, they are considered captured even though they roam about. Therefore, someone who traps them on Yom Tov is exempt, which in this case seems to mean the act is completely permissible. What about on Shabbos?

III. Two Approaches

Rav Meir Ha-Kohen (Germany, 13th century), in his Hagahos Maimoniyos (Hilchos Shabbos 10:200) quotes Rav Baruch of Mainz who offers two approaches to this common question. First he suggests that on Yom Tov we are more lenient regarding capturing. On Shabbos, any animal that struggles if you hold it is not considered captured and therefore you may not further capture it on Shabbos.

Rav Baruch then suggests a different approach: There is no difference between Shabbos and Yom Tov in this respect. When the Mishnah says “exempt” it means that the act is permissible. However, Rav Baruch concludes that it is appropriate to be strict. Significantly, Rav Yosef Karo (16th century, Israel) in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 316:12) rules leniently like Rav Baruch’s second approach.

Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 16th century, Poland; Response, no. 10) quotes Rav Moshe of Coucy (13th century, France; Semag, prohibition 65) as reading “exempt” as forbidden, thereby prohibiting capturing a trapped animal on Shabbos. However, Maharshal points out that Rabbenu Asher (Rosh, 13th-14th centuries, Germany & Spain; Beitzah 3:1) permits capturing a trapped animal on Yom Tov. Maharshal reasons that since Yom Tov and Shabbos must be the same on this law, Rosh must also permit it on Shabbos. Therefore, Maharshal rules leniently, like Shulchan Arukh.

In contrast, Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th century, Poland; Glosses to Shulchan Aruch, ad loc.) follows Rav Baruch’s first approach and forbids capturing a trapped animal on Shabbos. Rav Binyamin Slonik was a student of both Maharshal and Rema. He addresses this specific question in a responsum (Masas Binyamin, no. 8) and notes that his two teachers disagreed. Rav Slonik begins quoting multiple authorities, including the Rosh, who distinguish between Yom Tov and Shabbos regarding capturing an animal, contrary to Maharshal’s equation of the two. After citing his two mentors, Rav Slonik proceeds to show that the majority of Medieval authorities rule strictly on this issue, like Rema. Even on Yom Tov, Rav Slonik argues, the permission only applies to animals being prepared for slaughter.

Strangely, I have not seen anyone point out that Maharshal contradicts himself. In his Yam Shel Shlomo (Beitzah 3:3) distinguishes between Yom Tov, when this is permitted, and Shabbos, when it is forbidden. I do not know how to reconcile this with his responsum. But perhaps Rav Slonik was more devoted of a student than even he realized.

In practice, Ashkenazim follow Rema and only allow further trapping an animal that you can pick up in one swoop (setting aside for the moment issues of muktzeh) but not an animal that you have to chase (Mishnah Berurah 316:57).