Judaism & pets
IN THE TORAH
Though beloved today, Jews in ancient times were quite wary of dogs, particularly of keeping them in the home, as they were considered unclean and even violent. Deuteronomy warns that if a dog or sex are exchanged for a goat, the goat cannot be brought to the Temple as a sacrifice.
There are various references to dogs feeding on corpses. In Tehillim — the Book of Psalms — dogs are referred to as beasts that maul at humans.
However, there are still some positive references to dogs in the Torah. For instance, it claims that during the Tenth Plague, “Not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast — in order that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” The Israelites are then commanded to “feed the dogs the flesh torn by beasts in the field.”
In the Tanakh, King David singled out cats for their great hunting abilities.
Interestingly, Deuteronomy states that neither cats nor reptiles can convert to Judaism.
THE TALMUD & ZOHAR
The Talmud describes dogs as dangerous; however, it’s considered useful to keep dogs to prevent infestations. That said, dogs must be chained and whoever raises them is “cursed.”
There is a record of a woman that miscarried because a dog barked at her. A Talmudic sage notes that whoever owns a dog whose bark is capable of inducing a miscarriage causes “the presence of God to depart from the Jewish People.”
In Jewish mysticism, dogs are also portrayed negatively. Dogs are considered a symbol of the demonic. In the Zohar, it states that “the evil in the world is like a dog on a long leash.”
Jews have kept cats as pets since antiquity. It’s possible that cats were brought over to the Land of Israel from Egypt, where cats were worshipped as deities. Among Jews, cats were especially valued for their ability to hunt snakes. The Talmud even warns against entering a house without a cat, in case you were to step on a snake. The Talmud also suggests that dreaming about cats can signify change, which could be positive or negative.
The Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yohanan said that Jews could learn cleanliness and modesty from cats.
There are no Jewish laws prohibiting pet ownership. Between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries, various rabbis even encouraged the ownership of dogs for economic, agricultural, and protective purposes.
Jews are required to feed their pets before they feed themselves. They must also have prior arrangements for feeding the pets before obtaining them. It’s only prohibited to own a pet if they are known to cause damage to people or property.
Owners must even allow their pets to rest on Shabbat. Because “carrying” is forbidden on Shabbat, dogs should not be instructed to fetch items — such as a newspaper — for their owner. Though you don’t have to feed your pet kosher food, you shouldn’t feed them leavened grains during Passover or any food that is a mixture of meat and milk.
Animal neglect and cruelty are prohibited. Neutering or spaying a pet for “population control” purposes is also prohibited, though you can adopt or purchase a previously-neutered or spayed pet.
DURING THE HOLOCAUST
Since the N*zis’ rise to power in 1933, certain dog breeds were “improved” and trained for military purposes. While Jews were persecuted and stripped of their rights, new laws against animal cruelty protected dogs. For example: clipping their tail or ears was prohibited. Dogs were even split into two categories: “Aryan” and “non-Aryan.” “Non-Aryan” breeds could not join kennel clubs.
Right before World War II broke out, citizens were encouraged to enlist their dogs in the German army.
Dogs were used in ghettos and concentration camps to attack prisoners. There is speculation that there is a lasting trauma of dogs for Jews because of their use by the N*zis during the Holocaust.
Not all dogs during the Holocaust attacked Jews, however. There is a story about a stray dog named Bobby that wandered into a concentration camp and became attached to the prisoners, who adopted him as their own.
PETS & THE HOLOCAUST
The Germans had no consistent policy regarding the pets of deported Jews. If the deportation was previously announced, it was the responsibility of Jews to find arrangements for their pets. However, if the deportations were sudden, the pets were usually left behind for the Germans to deal with. Some naive Jews even brought the pets with them on the trains, thinking that they were simply being resettled to new homes. Sometimes the Germans killed the pets just to terrorize the Jews.
Usually, the pets left behind were collected by the neighbors or others. In the ghettos, Jewish-owned pets were usually shot, as they could pose a “security” problem. At one point, Jews were instructed to register their pets for a “health inspection;” consequently, all of their pets were euthanized for “rabies.”
It was only in 1942 that the Germans published a clear policy regarding pets. All Jews in German or German-annexed territories had to give up their animals or provide a “certificate of death” from a veterinarian. These animals were then euthanized. Many Jews protested the decree by refusing to give up their animals, but they were punished for doing so.
Survivors who were children during the Holocaust remember this decree as one of the cruelest of all.
THE CANAAN DOG
The Canaan dog — also known as the “Israel Canaan dog,” “Bedouin sheep dog,” and “Palestinian pariah dog” — is a breed native to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Sinai Peninsula. It’s considered the “national dog of Israel.”
According to tradition, when the Babylonians expelled the Jews from the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, the Jews had to leave their dogs behind, so the dogs “reverted back to the wild.”
In the 1930s, the Jewish paramilitary known as the Haganah created a dog service organization. It took six months to capture the first wild dog, but it was easy to domesticate. Afterwards, the dogs were selectively bred, a process that produced the “Canaan dog” breed as it exists today.
In 1949, there was an attempt in Israel to train Canaan dogs as guide dogs, but they are too small and independent. However, they are sometimes used as guide dogs for visually-impaired children.
Canaan dogs are intelligent scavengers, found mostly in the desert. Many are still in the wild, though their numbers declined after the Israeli government euthanized many of them to control rabies and due to the spread of the human population. Domesticated Canaan dogs are usually mixed with another bread. By 2012, only 2000 to 3000 Canaan dogs remained across the world.
CATS IN ISRAEL
If you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ve probably noticed that street cats are absolutely everywhere. Israel is about the size of New Jersey, with a human population of about 9.3 million. It’s estimated that about two million stray cats roam the streets; they are especially prominent in Jerusalem.
In the 1930s, the British brought an enormous amount of cats to Mandatory Palestine to combat a rat problem. Of course, the cats repopulated wildly, and now they are everywhere.
There are no studies on Jews and dogs or cats; however, it’s assumed that Jews own them at the same rate as the rest of the population.
Dogs are extremely popular in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, which even hosts a dog festival called “Kelaviv,” named after the Hebrew word for dog, “kelev.” The average Israeli dog is 6.5 years old. As of 2018, Shih Tzus were the most popular dog breed in Israel.
The first recorded “bark mitzvah” took place in 1958. In recent years, bark mitzvahs have become somewhat of a viral internet phenomenon. However, some Jews find them distasteful.
In 2019, a group of Sephardic rabbis in the Israeli city of Elad banded together to ban dogs from the city because they bark and scare people.
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.