Reviews & Media

Listen to Nachum Segal interview Rabbi Natan Slifkin
Mishpacha - Unwinding with the Zoo Rabbi
The Jewish Observer - Gam Zoo Letovah
Ha-Aretz – "Torah Teacher With Animal Attraction," by Tamar Hausman
The Jerusalem Post – "Funny, You Don't Look Zooish," by Liat Collins
The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles – "Zoo Rebbe," by Eric Silver
Comments on the Program

Gam "Zoo" LeTovah

Enhancing our efforts to teach and inspire others through observing Hashem's wild creatures

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

Exceeding Wildest Expectation

The job of a rabbi can be dangerous these days. Last winter, while posing for a photograph on location in California (guest lecturers are often expected to provide photographs of themselves), I was suddenly hurled to the ground by an angry seven-foot alligator. But I suppose it was my fault for wrestling with it in the first place.

About two years ago, I was asked to write an article for the JO concerning a sideline kiruv program that I was developing at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo ("The Wild Side of Chinuch" Jan. '00). At the time, it was just a three-hour tour of the zoo during which I explained Torah perspectives on the animal kingdom, including lessons that we learn from different animals and Torah approaches as to how we relate to animals. For example, the bear is cited in the Torah as a symbol of tremendous anger: "I will meet them like a bear bereft of her cubs, and I will tear open their closed hearts..." (Hoshea 13,8). The reason for this is that although bears are very large animals, their cubs are tiny, weighing less than a pound at birth. Since the mother must invest a large amount of time and effort to wean them, she forges a very close relationship with them. The mother bear is therefore especially dangerous when her young are taken away from her, and we see from here that giving to someone leads to loving them. This tour was an interesting sideline to my regular learning and teaching, which few people expected to go any further.

Yet in a short period of time, this project has, baruch Hashem, developed into a program that exceeded my wildest expectations. Since there is nothing better than a good pun, the program is named Zoo Torah. And I myself have earned a rather unusual title. One day, while I was walking into Ohr Somayach to give my daily shiur, a student pointed to me and said to his friend, "Do you know who that is?"

"No, who?" asked his friend.

"That's the Zoo Rabbi!"

"The what?"

"The Zoo Rabbi! The rabbi for the zoo!"

"Good grief," muttered his friend, "they've got rabbis for everything these days!"

This article describes the new directions in which the Zoo Torah program has grown.

Zoo America

Originally conceived for the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, the Zoo Torah program has been successfully implemented in several North American cities for local Jewish communities. Various Torah education institutions engaged my services to give tours of the local zoo – in most cases, with the helpful cooperation of the zoo management – as well as lecturing about the topic in shuls and schools. So far, I have taught in the zoos of New York (at the Bronx Zoo), Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Diego (at both the famous zoo and the magnificent Wild Animal Park).

The Zoo Torah program can operate at any city with a local zoo. Subtle modifications are necessary in each case, depending on the exhibits at the zoo. For example, at the Los Angeles Zoo, I took advantage of a most unusual exhibit. The babirusa, a bizarre type of pig, was once proposed by a non-Jewish scientist to be kosher, since it possesses a multiple-chambered stomach like a ruminant and has cloven hooves. Additionally, it has horns on its snout (and thereby earns its name, which means "pig-deer" in the local Indonesian language). This appears significant, because the Gemora states that any cloven-hoofed animal with horns is certainly a cud-chewer. It transpires, however, that the babirusa is not, in fact, kosher. Although it has a ruminant-like stomach, the staff at the L.A. Zoo discovered that it does not actually chew its cud. And it transpires that the "horns" are not true horns at all, but rather are canines that turn upwards and project through the skin of the head.

Meanwhile, back in Yerushalayim, the Torah tours of the Biblical Zoo have grown in popularity and benefit from the opportunities for hands-on encounters with the animals. Since it is impossible for everyone to attend a tour, some of the material was published by the zoo, in both Hebrew and English, under the title, In Noah's Footsteps: Biblical Perspectives on the Zoo. The book-launch ceremony at the zoo was attended by guests from all sectors of society, including senior rabbanim from the Israeli rabbinate, chareidi political figures, well-known journalists from Torah newspapers, supporters of the zoo, zookeepers, and a boa constrictor. All commented on the significance of the occasion, except the latter, who merely hissed.

Zoo Talmidim

An important development has been the creation of special programs for children. Most of the original material in the zoo tour was too advanced for a younger audience. Furthermore, the zoo surroundings, while excellent for stimulating an adult audience, were too stimulating for children to be able to concentrate. So, at the request of several schools, I developed a children's program.

After tinkering with various permutations of lessons, the most successful version is a four-day program, in which the third day includes a zoo tour, while the other days' lessons take place at the school. The entire program is based on a stimulating 30-page education pack. The children are already expecting to learn about the differences between kosher and treife animals; but what they are not expecting is to be provided with real skulls, hooves and paws for that purpose. The main focus of the program is on identifying the key characteristics of different animals and determining lessons we can learn from them. Other workshops include topics such as understanding how to balance the prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim (causing pain to living creatures) with our license to make use of this world for our needs. The children learn to grasp why killing animals for food or medical experimentation is permissible, while hunting for sport, or raising calves under cruel conditions to make the veal paler in color, is wrong.

Another popular workshop, exercised during the zoo tour itself, involves a list of animals mentioned in the Torah together with clues from both Tanach and Chazal as to their identities, which the students must guess. These range in difficulty from the namer and dov to the shafan (hyrax), the behemos mentioned in Iyov (hippopotamus), and tachash. The latter is identified by the Gemora as having beautiful skin, being a large, kosher, non-domesticated animal, and having a horn in the center of its forehead. According to the sefer Sichas Chullin, this may be the giraffe; certain giraffes possess a third horn in the center of their forehead.

Adults and Animals

A drawback of the new children's program is that it has added to the already popular misconception that the zoo is a place of entertainment for kids. One of the goals of the Zoo Torah program is to demonstrate that the zoo is a place of education rather than entertainment; not just for children, but also for adults. The tour does not only consist of lessons to learn from different animals, but also presents a Torah weltanschauung of man's place regarding the animal kingdom. For example, in secular society, kindness to animals emanates from animal rights, wherein "animals are people too" – and people are ipso facto animals, with no moral obligations. In Judaism, on the other hand, we are kind to animals due to human moral responsibilities. These are fundamentally linked to our very differences from animals; no animal can have any moral obligations.

One of the most valuable additions to the adult zoo tour has been the incorporation of Perek Shira. This ancient Midrash lists various elements of the natural world, including many animals and birds, attaching a passuk to each. The passuk alludes to the lesson of mussar or hashkafa that the creature teaches us. Perek Shira itself is highly cryptic, but various commentaries have been written on it over the last few centuries. I have just completed a lengthy English elucidation of Perek Shira, soon to be published with Targum Press under the title Nature's Song, and parts of this are now incorporated in the zoo tour.

For example, the agur, which is probably the crane, a large bird similar to a stork, sings, "Praise Hashem with the lyre, make music for Him with the ten-stringed harp" (Tehillim 33,2). Unlike other birds, cranes have terrible voices. Although they cannot sing musically, they clatter the mandible of their beaks together like maracas. They thereby allude to the theme of the passuk, which speaks of praising Hashem with musical instruments rather than song. The message is that we all have our own unique talents and abilities, which we should develop for our avodas Hashem.

For my proficiency in Torah zoology, my studies have included sections of Maseches Chullin that deal with the identification of animals in the Torah. A good deal of this information is critical to the accuracy of the program, such as that the nesher is almost certainly the griffon vulture rather than the eagle, as it is described (in Micha 1,16) as being bald (the so-called bald eagle is not bald, but rather possesses white feathers on its head), and as feeding on carrion (Mishlei 30,17).

Interestingly, it was also necessary for me to brush up on my zoological knowledge. Consider, for example, the mallee-fowl, an unusual bird that incubates its eggs by building a mound of fermenting vegetation over them, and carefully measures the temperature in the mound so that they do not cook. It lent new insights into the prohibition of hatmana, heating food on Shabbos by wrapping it in organic matter that produces enough heat to cook an egg.

Wild Ideas

The program was initially developed as an outreach effort. But I have since taught frum groups and found equal interest and benefit. One of the most unusual tours that I led was for members of a kollel chabura who were studying Maseches Chullin and wanted to learn first hand about identifying characteristics of animals!

Hopefully, it will be possible to implement Zoo Torah programs in many other cities in the U.S. There are also tentative plans to deliver Zoo Torah lectures on the kosher African safaris that are becoming increasingly popular.

B'ezras Hashem, the Zoo Torah program will continue to grow mei-chaya le'chaya!

Comments on the Zoo Torah Program

"Rabbi Nosson Slifkin has a special talent in communicating with adults and children which supports his deep enthusiasm for the world of animals. This combination is to be cherished, developed, and put into play. I look forward to his spending much time here in San Diego inspiring and teaching."
Rabbi Simcha Weiser, Headmaster, Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School

"Dear Rabbi Slifkin, Thankyou for sharing your wisdom and experience with our students about the animal world and its connection and relationship wtih Judaism. Your unique and intriguing presentation inspired and excited each of our students. It is already several days later and our students are still talking about your talk and expressed how interested they were in your presentation."
Rabbi Josh Spodek, Program Director, and Avital Abir, Vice President of Torah Affairs, Weinbaum Yeshiva High School, Boca Raton, FL

"Rabbi Nathan Slifkin has a unique ability to teach about the animal kingdom, especially with the unusual angle of Biblical perspectives, which is the special theme that our zoo presents. His material reflects a thorough knowledge of the animal kingdom and a passionate fascination for it. Nathan Slifkin's work here is highly valuable, and I am sure that any zoo would benefit from his novel approach to wildlife education."
Shai Doron, General Director, The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem

"Yasher Koach to you for a wonderful weekend. Your talks were informative, entertaining and even controversial. The zoo tours were an eye-opener. Your presentation is a superb way to present Torah to a group that is looking for something different."
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman, Congregation Ariel, Atlanta, Georgia

"Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's scholarship in both Torah and the natural sciences, his sense of humor and his delivery combine to make him a successful teacher. In addition to all the above, Rabbi Slifkin's unique, fun and informative programs at zoos, animals parks and with animal exhibits are a wonderfully refreshing way of introducing Torah to the uninitiated (and even to a more knowledgeable crowd). Teaching about Judaism through the use of the animal kingdom is original, entertaining and very effective."
Rabbi Mordecai Becher, Senior Lecturer, Ohr Somayach College and Gateways Education Program

"Thank you so much for the stimulating program you presented... The materials you prepared were excellent and informative. The high spot was the trip to the zoo and looking at the animals in the light of the Bible. I learned a great deal and I know my students also gained a lot from the program."
Marjorie Manley, Middle School Principal, Hillel Hebrew Academy of Los Angeles

"This is a unique, inspiring program connecting the natural world to the spiritual, wondrous marvels of God's creations and its moral meanings for us as human beings."
Rabbi Neal Kaunfer, Director of Secondary Education, Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York

"Quite enlightening! Although well understood by all participants, Rabbi Slifkin taught me a great deal about this (unfortunately) obscure area of Torah. I came out with a greater respect for the animal kingdom and the Torah values that are able to be gleaned from it."
Rabbi Harry Greenspan, Coordinator of Beit Midrash Programs, Yeshiva of Los Angeles

"The program includes high level insights into Judaism. It addresses the connection between nature, the animal kingdom and Judaism in its most spiritual sense. It is an eye-opener that should be experienced by all educators and students."
Shoshana Glatzer, Director, Education Resource Center, Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York

"Thank you for the wonderful program you conducted for the professional staff of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. The presentation was articulate and educationally sound, and helped to bring together Torah and rabbinic texts as well as the insights of science. I hope and expect that the educational community of the New York area will utilize your programs and materials."
Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan, Director of Nassau / Queens Services, Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York