Horse Racing on Shabbos and American Pharoh


American Pharoah, Victor EspinozaBy Rabbi Micha Cohn

On Saturday, June 6, a horse named American Pharoh won the Belmont Stakes, making it the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 37 years. The horse’s owner, Mr. Zayat, is an observant Jew originally from Egypt. The story has raised much curiosity among Frum Jews as to the permissibility of having one’s animal do work and conduct business on Shabbos. In this article, although we will not address the actions of this particular race, we will however present an overview of these concepts.

Shvisas Behemto and Mechamer

The Torah states that your animal should not do work for you on Shabbos. This concept is known as ‘Shvisas Behemto’, the resting of animals. For this reason, the Rambam (Shabbos 20,1) writes that it is forbidden to have one’s animal carry an item in the public domain. Likewise, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 246, 5) writes that it is forbidden to rent one’s animal to a non-Jew over Shabbos if he will use it to plow his field.

There is also a prohibition to direct an animal to do work. This prohibition is called ‘mechamer’. The Minchas Chinuch (Mosech Hashabbos) explains the difference between shvisas behemto and mechamer. Shvisas behemto is a prohibition on the owner to allow his animal to do work, regardless of whether he or even a non-Jew works the animal. Mechamer is a prohibition on any Jew to direct an animal to work regardless of whom it belongs to.

The Pnei Yehishua (cited by the Minchas Chinuch) understands that both the prohibitions of shvisas behemto and mechamer are only when the animal is doing one of the 39 melachos. For example, if a non-Jew plows a field with my animal, it is a transgression of shvisas behemto. If I command a non-Jew’s animal to carry through the public domain it is a transgression of mechamer. If, however, the animal carries items in a private domain, it is not a transgression of these prohibitions. Likewise, it seems from the Rambam (20, 4) that a horse carrying a person on Shabbos does not transgressshvisas behemto because of the concept of ‘chai nosei es atzmo’ (“A living being carries himself”). However, an animal carrying a saddle in a public domain does transgress Shvisas Behemto. The Aruch Hashulchan (246, 18) disagrees on the entire premise of the Pnei Yehoshua, and understands that all strenuous labor violates these prohibitions.

Based on these sources we can analyze if horseracing transgresses shvisas behemto and mechamer. If the Jockey is Jewish and he is directing the animal, this could possibly be violating mechamer regardless of who owns the animal. If the horse is owned by a Jew, the owner could be violatingshvisas behemto. However, according to the opinion of the Pnei Yehoshua, these are only issues if the horse is doing a melacha. It would seem that the running of the race itself is not a melacha. Going further, the horse carrying the Jockey is not a melacha either, as we mentioned previously. However, carrying the saddle and other gear is considered the melacha of carrying, but only if the raceway is not enclosed and is a public domain. As most raceways are enclosed, this does not seem to be a major issue. On the other hand, according to the Aruch Hashulchan, all racing is strenuous activity and violates shvisas behemto. (For further discussion see Yabia Omer 8, 30)

Schar Shabbos & Maris Ayin

Although we have demonstrated that the issues of shvisas behemto and mechamer could be negligible, the prohibition of profiting from Shabbos earnings is a serious concern. Generally, it is only permitted to profit from Shabbos dealings if it is part of a weekday transaction. This concept is called ‘havlaah’ (literally swallowing). For example, if a person rents his car to a non-Jew for a week at $100 a day, he can charge him $700 for the week because the Shabbos fee is included with the weekday fee, but he can’t rent it for Shabbos alone. In the case of the races, the prize is awarded for a race that is entirely on Shabbos. It should therefore be forbidden to have benefit from the money.

The Shulchan Aruch (245,1), however, permits a Jew to partner with a non-Jew, and stipulate at the beginning of the partnership that the non-Jew will take his portion from the Shabbos sales. In the case of American Pharoh, the horse is not owned directly by Mr. Zayat, but by his corporation, Zayat Stables LLC. Assuming that there are non-Jewish investors who have large shares in the corporation, it is possible that a similar arrangement could be made with the horseracing corporation. The money from such prizes would go to the non-Jewish partners and Mr. Zayat could take his share from other revenues like the selling of the breeding rights that do not conflict with Shabbos.

There is yet another issue. While ‘maris ayin’, giving the appearance of doing a transgression, is a general halachic concern, in the area of non-Jews doing melacha for Jews on Shabbos, the sages were particularly stringent. The sages forbid a Jew from leasing his bathhouse to a non-Jew over Shabbos although it is technically permitted. The reason is because it will appear that the non-Jew is the Jew’s worker who is running it on the Jew’s behalf, which is forbidden. Therefore, in our situation, even if the appropriate arrangements were made, due to the great publicity of these races, there could be an issue of maris ayin.


In summation, using animals on Shabbos could possibly transgress shvisas behemto and mechamer. Even in the event that it doesn’t, there are issues of profiting from Shabbos dealings and maris ayin. Therefore, before you consider horseracing, make sure to discuss these issues at length with your Rabbi.


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  1. i believe there is a problem of lifnei eever because of all the non frum yidden who were mechallel shabbos in betting activities on that specific race

  2. Everyone needs to lighten up and look on the bright side. His public acknowledgment that he walked to the race so as not to be mechallel shabos is creditworthy. His acknowledgement and identification of being an Orthodox Jew in the public media is further credit worthy as most Americans think we are a cult or simply dont understand us. So he doesn’t have all the Halochos right. What happened to criticizing in private and lauding in public (Pirkei Avos). What happened to Ahavas Yisroel? Shame on you all. Crawl back under your rocks

  3. Att. Bottom Line, #1,
    Don’t be do quick to judge! Do you know the owner? Do you know his background? Do you know what he gave up to become a Shomer Torah uMitzvos? Do you know when he became a Shomer?
    Bottom Line, he who hastens to judge, usually gets it wrong!!

  4. Easy win. Maybe Hashem fixed the sinners core to be Known.

    Blessings for the pharaoh.

    Better off betting on a shidduch.

    Not exactly jewish humor.

    Baruch Hashem.

  5. “but only if the raceway is not enclosed and is a public domain”

    The raceway may be enclosed, which would make it a private domain not enclosed for residential purposes and therefore an area where it is forbidden to carry.

    “the horse is not owned directly by Mr. Zayat, but by his corporation, Zayat Stables LLC. Assuming that there are non-Jewish investors who have large shares in the corporation”

    A LLC is not a corporation. And there is no evidence that Zayat Stables has any non-family owners. It does offer limited liability, which does not exist in halachah. Zayat Stables also has a bankruptcy in its past — there is no provision in halachah for bankruptcy. Zayat was able to hold on to horses worth tens of millions of dollars at the expense of his creditors through the tool of bankruptcy.

    And there are so many other issues here beyond Shabat. Horse racing in the United States is tzar baalei chaim on a massive scale. Almost all horses in the US get doped up with performance enhancing drugs and American Pharoh was no exception — in fact he is the first Triple Crown winner to win the Belmont Stakes while doped up. Two horses a day on average die on the racetrack either from injuries or illness.

    And there is also the problem that horse racing is a massive gambling operation. Chazal declared pigeon racers to be non-kosher eidim; today pigeon racers have been replaced by horse racers.

    ” His acknowledgement and identification of being an Orthodox Jew in the public media is further credit worthy”

    No, it isn’t. As a result of his running the horse in the race, people now think that working an animal on Shabat, tzar baalei chaim, and engaging in gambling operations are ok in Judaism as long as you walk to the race track.