The Baraita (Berachot 58b) states, “One who sees an elephant, a monkey, or a Kipof recites ‘Baruch Meshaneh Ha’Beriyot’ (He Who makes creatures different).”
Identifying These Animals
Elephants and monkeys are animals we are all accustomed to. Regarding the Kipof, Tosafot (Chullin 63a) state that this refers to three different kinds of owls. The Gemara (Niddah 23a) states that their eyes go before them like people, i.e. these nocturnal birds’ eyes face forward unlike diurnal birds.
Why Do Specifically These Species Require This Blessing?
The reason why our Sages enacted this blessing to be recited upon seeing specifically these creatures is because the traits and features of these species are different than other wildlife. Regarding the owls, as we have mentioned above, their look is more similar to people, unlike other birds. The same must be said about elephants and monkeys in that they have distinct features and unique behavior among the rest of the animal kingdom.
Nevertheless, the question remains to be asked that there are many species around the world with stark distinctions and unique features, so why did the Sages not enact a blessing to be recited upon seeing them?
The Sefer Melechet Shlomo (authored by Hagaon Harav Shlomo Adani) on the Mishnah (Kilayim Chapter 8, Mishnah 6) writes: “Elephants and monkeys are kinds of animals upon which one recites the ‘Baruch Meshaneh Ha’Beriyot’ blessing. I have heard from the great and pious Mekubal, Rabbi Meshulam, who inquired, what is so different about them? He answered based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 109a) that Hashem punished the people of the Generation of the Dispersion by turning some of them into elephants and monkeys. Thus, since primates have some human features and elephants understand the language of people somewhat, we recite this blessing.”
Visiting a Zoo
Regarding looking at these creatures in a zoo, there are some who prohibit it for all sorts of reasons, however, halachically speaking, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l rules that one may visit a zoo to see Hashem’s wonderous creations and recite the appropriate blessings upon them. The Leket Yosher (student of the Terumat Ha’Deshen) writes that his rabbi, Rabbeinu Yisrael Isserlan, exclaimed that he had never seen a lion and therefore he went to the zoo where two lions were brought. Furthermore, Maran Ha’Chida writes in his Midbar Kedemot (Letter Bet), “I have seen in London’s Tower Bridge many different, frightening, and aggressive creatures. Some were possibly even more aggressive than lions. They were bound with iron chains. I also saw a beautiful eagle there. I was told it was one-hundred years old. I also saw some animals from America.”
In his Sefer Ma’agal Tov (Maran Ha’Chida’s personal diary printed posthumously), he writes, “When I visited London, they took me to a tower where many kinds of animals were kept, lions, leopards, and a one-hundred-year-old eagle. I also saw the likenesses of the kings of England in iron riding on iron horses. This was astounding and looked nearly life-like. I also saw the royal crown with its precious stones shining upon it.”
The Gaon of Muncasz writes: “When I was in Berlin, I visited the king’s zoo where I saw elephants, monkeys, snakes, alligators, and sorts of astounding creatures. How great are Hashem’s creations! I recited the ‘Baruch Meshaneh Ha’Beriyot’ blessing and I had in mind for the elephants as well, although they were in a different room.” Indeed, Maran zt”l once visited the zoo in France and he recited this special blessing.
Nevertheless, the Poskim discuss whether the “Meshaneh Ha’Beriyot” blessing may only be said once in one’s lifetime or if one may recite this blessing every time one sees elephants and monkeys (when thirty days or more have passed since one has last seen them). Halachically speaking, the great Rishon Le’Zion Rabbeinu Yitzchak Yosef Shlit”a (in his Responsa Ha’Rishon Le’Zion) and Hagaon Harav David Yosef Shlit”a (in his Halacha Berurah, Chapter 225) rule that one should only recite this blessing once a lifetime. The next time one sees an elephant or monkey, one should only recite this blessing in one’s mind because of the doubt involved.
Summary: One who sees an elephant, monkey, or owl should recite the blessing of “Baruch Meshaneh Ha’Beriyot” with Hashem’s name. One should only recite this blessing once during one’s lifetime though.