Is your dog Jewish?

Religious Jews have traditionally not kept dogs as pets, despite the many benefits of doing so. What is the place of pooches in Judaism?

The Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind has graduated more than 350 canines in Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind has graduated more than 350 canines in Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In Oketz, the IDF’s elite canine unit, Belgian shepherd dogs are trained to sniff out explosives and booby-trapped buildings. They are used also in tunnel protection and to guard communities along the Gaza border. When handlers are wounded in explosions, their dogs often absorb the brunt of the blow, sparing soldiers’ lives. In October 2014, Channel 2 announced that at least four of these dogs were killed in battle during Operation Protective Edge, having saved more than 20 lives.
But despite the IDF’s use of dogs, relatively few Israeli homes have one. The dynamic and meaningful relationship that forms between a dog and its owner is less frequently found in Israel.
In December 2009, the police department in Helena, Montana, purchased a retired Oketz dog named Milky. The plan seemed perfect – the dog had skills the police department could use – but there was an unforeseen problem: Milky understood only Hebrew.
Since he had been trained in Israel, the Montana police had been given transliterated codes and commands, but they proved tricky to master. Finally local rabbi Chaim Bruk was called in to assist, and he taught the dog and its new owners the vocabulary they needed to work together.
The incident is charming, but it rustles up a cultural statement. Retired working dogs in America are not sent overseas. The trainer usually takes the dog home because of the bond that has been forged between animal and owner. Why is it that Israelis are apparently so averse to dog ownership? The Humane Society of the US estimates that 62 percent of American families have a pooch, as do nearly 50% of British families. In contrast, the World Society for the Protection of Animals determined that only 5% of Israeli households own them. Another report shows that Jerusalemites have 15 dogs per 1,000 people, compared to 71 dogs per 1,000 New Yorkers.
However you look at it, the statistics suggest a longtime canine aversion among Israelis, and particularly among Orthodox Jews.
A LOOK at the Torah and rabbinical sources dealing with man’s relationship to animals may shed some light on this phenomenon.
The Torah explains as far back as Genesis 2 that God created animals before Adam. Still, Jewish thought teaches that people have superior souls because they were created by a deeper thrust of air from the essence of the divine, and that this gives us the power to elevate the souls of other creatures.
In this view, the soul of a dog is elevated through positive interaction with humans.
Indeed, the Jewish animal owner understands that the needs of an animal are a matter of ethics and morals, and for working animals this has always been the status quo. The Book of Proverbs declares, “A righteous person takes heed of the life of his beast,” and the Talmud reminds us that “a person must not eat before feeding his animal.”
It seems, then, that when it comes to working dogs, we are appreciative of their skills and look after their needs. Jewish tradition is familiar with the canine in its role as guard dog and sheepdog. Jewish communities have benefited from the sled dog, tracking dog, water dog and police dog, and dogs in other forms of work. But the identification of dogs as pets is another story.
In the Book of Exodus, God informs Moses of the 10th plague on Egypt, the slaying of the firstborn: “There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt, such as there has never been and such as there shall never be again. But against all the Children of Israel, no dog shall wag its tongue, against neither man nor beast, so that you shall know that the Lord will have differentiated between Egypt and Israel.”
Miraculously no dogs barked to call attention to the homes of the Israelites during the plague.
Rashi attributes the commandment of throwing meat to dogs and of feeding stray dogs (but not any other animal) on Shabbat to the gratitude we must show them for their behavior during the Exodus.
Yet Maimonides ruled that raising a dog is forbidden “unless it is secured by chains.” And in the Talmud, Rabbi Natan contends that raising an “evil dog” in the home violates the biblical prohibition not to “place blood in your home.” Rashi is clear on what constitutes such an animal: “It bites and it barks, thereby causing women to miscarry.”
Furthermore, as Rabbi Elijah Judah Schochet writes in his book Animal Life in Jewish Tradition: Attitudes and Relationships, there are biblical references to dogs as noisy (Psalms 59:7-14), greedy (Isaiah 56:11), stupid (Isaiah 56:10) and filthy (Proverbs 26:11).
Meanwhile, dogs are not kosher and could not be brought to the Holy Temple. It is therefore concluded that a dog should not be allowed to enter our personal and holy temple – our home.
The Kabbala supports this negative image in other ways, suggesting that the dog is a symbol of dark powers. The Zohar compares the evil in the universe to a vicious dog on a long leash that can grow out of control unless we pull it back.
The Zohar also notes that the Hebrew word for a dog is kelev, because a dog is all heart (lev). But there is a criticism of this form of connection: If we give all of our heart to a pet dog, we are probably not adequately investing in meaningful family and community life.
THERE ARE sociological reasons for the anti-canine vibe as well. It is well documented that dogs were highly valued in Egypt. So adored were the Egyptian breeds that families would have dogs mummified and buried in the family tomb along with their deceased relatives. Jewish families avoided dogs to make a clear distinction between Egyptian values and their own.
According to Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the first record we have of Jews keeping dogs as domestic pets is in 15th-century Germany, but then, as now, the fashion never quite took off.
More recently, there have been too many dark times when dogs have been used by enemies of the Jews. Pogroms and heinous Nazi crimes, to name just two examples, left some Holocaust survivors with a lasting fear and hatred of dogs. Many families of survivors would not consider taking a dog as a pet.
Other issues relate to the care of dogs. In 1992, Rabbi Howard Jachter published an article in the Journal of Halacha & Contemporary Society titled “Halachic Perspectives on Pets.” He dealt with a slew of issues pertaining to dog ownership, including the permissibility of ownership, Jewish law regarding feeding pets non-kosher food (today, certain dog food producers offer hametz-free and vegetarian dog food in abundance), and dog care on Shabbat. Neither brushing a dog’s coat on Shabbat nor owning a dog that bites is allowed.
Opinions still vary on whether a service dog is allowed in a synagogue and whether it is permissible to neuter a pet.
Families with many children are another factor affecting the current attitude toward dogs in certain Jewish communities. Large families are replete with needs, and bringing a dog into a busy home could be burdensome, given the animal’s need for exercise, food, attention and potentially costly veterinarian fees.
In Israel, there is the added issue that dogs respond poorly to wartime conditions, and there are many cases of overstressed dogs who suffer from post-traumatic symptoms and need time-consuming attention.
DESPITE THESE plentiful concerns, most dog owners will attest that their four-legged family friends are a part of their daily happiness. Dogs are nearly always delighted to love their owners and are deeply loyal. Bumper-sticker wisdom reminds us, “To err is human. To forgive is canine.” Even if you accidentally step on your dog’s paw, he’ll be back at your side with a wagging tail just a few minutes later.
Today, there are many breeds of dogs, and kennel clubs watch carefully so that purebred dogs are honored for their skills. Whether they are used for sheep wrangling, company for the aged, or as guard dogs or family pets, there is rarely unwanted aggression in a dog that is trained, walked on a leash, fed regularly and cared for appropriately.
There have been many studies on the values and attributes of a loyal dog, and it has been proven that pets help lower blood pressure and lessen anxiety.
MSN reported that “researchers at the State University of New York studied 48 stockbrokers who were taking medication for hypertension. They found that those who had a cat or dog at home had lower blood pressure during stressful situations compared with their pet-less counterparts.”
Dogs can also boost our immunity. Dr. James E.
Gern, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, explained: “A growing number of studies have suggested that kids growing up in a home with “furred animals… will have less risk of allergies and asthma.” Homes with a dog and an infant record pet allergies 19% of the time, compared to 33% of dog-free homes.
Dog owners tend to have better health in other areas as well, with lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels compared to non-dog owners. This is probably because dogs are exposed to germs, and this helps their owners keep their immune systems in good shape; dog owners get sick less, and less severely, than non-dog-owners.
Dogs are also great for making social connections.
Singles with pooches repeatedly tell stories of unplanned conversations starting with another dog owner. Certainly dogs ease people out of social isolation and shyness, reports Prof. Nadine Kaslow, who specializes in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, Atlanta. “People ask strangers about their breed,” Kaslow says. “Sometimes the conversation stays at the ‘dog level,’ sometimes it becomes a real social interchange.”
Mental health benefits are endless. One of the biggest issues facing our world today is depression, and doctors are aware that clinically depressed people who own dogs show a better quality of life than those without. Caring for a dog can help alleviate the characteristics of depression and bring a sense of positivity to the owners’ lives.
The benefits of dog ownership for the elderly include greater happiness, healthy exercise and a calming effect. For Alzheimer’s patients, there are studies that show fewer outbursts when there is a pup in the home.
Dogs are also an effective home security system because of their keen sense of hearing. This can increase a person’s sense of security, which is good for mental and physical health.
Will an understanding of these benefits change prevailing Israeli attitudes toward canines in light of the historical relationship between Jews and dogs? It’s hard to say. But we might do well to remember the words of author Milan Kundera, winner of the Jerusalem Prize for Literature: “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent.
To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”