Apes, Monkeys & Lemurs

In everyday speech, the name "monkey" is given to hundreds of different species of the same order (the order of primates - chief order of the animals). Primates share many characteristics such as five-fingered hands with opposing thumbs, forward-facing eyes, and color vision. But strictly speaking, monkeys are only the group with tails and narrow chests. Apes are larger than monkeys, have no tails, and have more complex brains. The apes include gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gibbons. Lemurs are small animals related to monkeys, as are other Night monkeys.

Like many other groups of animals, they vary in size, color and in their habits. They vary from the small Night monkeys, some of which are no larger than a small cat, to the great apes, such as gorillas, which may weigh up to 600 pounds.


A large zoo usually showcases dozens of different monkeys and apes. Intersperse the following “talking points” throughout your tour of those areas.

Don’t bully: Naturalists have observed that in the social organization of some species of monkeys, there are usually to be found “bullies” and “underdogs.” The biggest bully is most likely to become the dominant creature in the group. He is not necessarily a better fighter or a bigger and stronger creature than his rivals, although these factors certainly count. He is, however, usually a creature that under most circumstances is more aggressive, more ready to fight to get what he wants.

We often see the same things in a group of children -- and sadly, sometimes adults too -- where a smaller but more arrogant member of the group may dominate others who are bigger and older, but of a quieter and more peaceful nature.

A person who behaves like a bully will earn no honor or respect. At any rate, it’s no big deal; even a monkey can be a bully! A true leader is one who achieves a position of leadership by gaining wisdom through diligent study and developing the kind of character qualities and conduct which all good people value and admire.

When it’s good to imitate: Apes and monkeys are known to be great imitators. Monkeys that grow up as pets tend to imitate human behavior. We often speak of imitations in the negative sense, but imitating is not always bad; sometimes it is a highly desirable trait! When we see a person with fine qualities and admire the way he conducts himself in certain situations, we sometimes wish we could be like that person. If we try to imitate him, we can, in due course, acquire some or all of the good qualities of that fine person. For this reason the Sages taught us to acquire good teachers and companions, so as to emulate their good qualities.

Above all we are taught to "imitate" G-d Himself. This is what is meant when the Torah commands us to "walk in G-d's ways." For just as G-d practices lovingkindness and acts of benevolence without thought of any reward, so must we try to be in our dealings with other human beings and creatures.

Do mitzvahs with joy: While apes and monkeys are known to be great imitators, their imitation is not accompanied by thought or feeling; it is "mechanical." Thus, any human being who does a good thing without real thought or feeling is said to be acting "like an ape." This is also the origin of the English expression "to ape.”

All actions of a human being should be thought out, deliberate and meaningful. The things that we repeat often, every day, even several times a day, are the things which are most likely to become mechanical, and performed as a matter of thoughtless routine. Next time you do a Mitzvah do it with kavanah - with concentration and intention, with inspired devotion, and with joy!



Listen to the sound of monkeys in the jungle

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A group of monkeys is called a troop.

Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans are called “great apes” and can learn to recognize themselves in a mirror, gibbons and monkeys can't. Great apes can also learn to pass along information, reason abstractly and sometimes make simple tools.

Apes often use gestures and facial expressions similar to ours, but they can be quite misleading. When Ham, the first space chimpanzee, returned to earth and her capsule was opened, observers saw her grinning widely. “She loved the ride!” they exclaimed. Actually, she was grimacing in stark terror.

Wild gorillas are difficult to study because they are shy, secretive inhabitants of densely vegetated tropical forests.

By following wild chimps through the forests, scientists discovered that chimps use medicinal plants to treat themselves for illness and injury. Scientists have isolated an anti-tumor agent in one such plant!

Parent's Tip: Explain that a monkey's facial expressions can be quite misleading. What looks like a smile may actually be a sign of anger.


Apes are among the precious items which King Solomon imported to the Holy Land (I Kings 10:22). The Talmud mentions the fact that they were trained for domestic errands.

According to Judaism everything in nature was created for the benefit of humankind. This is readily apparent with monkeys: monkeys' physiological similarities to humans make them powerful tools to investigate the diseases and fundamental biology of people. Of course Jewish law forbids causing needless pain to any animal during experimentation.