Opinion

To the Rabbis Who Banned Jews From Owning Dogs: You Must Be Barking

When ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbis recently called dog-owners 'accursed' they drew on a long tale of anti-canine hostility in Jewish sources. But dogs can be Jews' best friends, too

A woman sits on a balcony with her dog during the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem June 6, 2019
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The Israeli city of Elad is clearly not the place for me. As a dog-lover, I have zero inclination to live where the local chief rabbi, Mordechai Malka, and several of his colleagues, signed an edict declaring "all dogs bad" and their owners accursed.

I wonder what they would make of my hound’s regular attendance at Shacharit, or my habit of saying the Shema with him before bed, because, like all communion with nature, this deepens my kavvanah in the awareness that God’s sacred gift of life flows through us both.

Rabbi Malka and his colleagues are correct in noting that dogs have a bad press in the classic sources. In Talmudic times, dogs were often carriers of rabies. They frequently served as guard dogs, both of flocks and borders, and were liable to be fierce. Their barking frightened beggars, preventing tzedakah, and risked making pregnant women abort.

>> Why Did the Nazis Like Dogs? >> All Dogs Are Bad and Their Owners Accursed, Israeli City’s Rabbis Rule

In the outstanding book on the subject, A Jew’s Best Friend, which he co-edited, Philip Ackerman devotes a chapter to analysing rabbinic references to dogs in the context of medieval Islam. While frank that Maimonides manifests "an environmental disdain towards dogs and canine husbandry" (supported by clear Talmudic precedent), he also observes of "the rabbinic elite" that its "bark seems to have been worse than its bite."

For neither the Tanakh nor subsequent Jewish teaching is as totally negative as the present-day rabbinical edict of Elad suggests.

The Torah rewards dogs for not barking on the night of the Exodus, instructing that treif meat be thrown to them, thus engendering the rabbinic saying that "God does not constrict the reward of any creature." The hero of the apocryphal book of Tobit is followed on his long journey by his faithful dog.

The Mishnah rules that shepherds who bake bread solely for their dogs are exempt from the obligation of taking challah, the portion of dough given to the Cohanim, whereas if they plan to share the meal with their canine companion, the mitzvah remains mandatory (Mishnah Challah 1:8). This implies that dogs were, at least sometimes, treated by their owners with attention and affection.

People interact with a dog as they dine near a portrait spray-painted on a metal shutter of a closed storefront in Mahane Yehuda, one of Jerusalem's most popular outdoor markets February 24, 2016
\ REUTERS

The Talmud notes that in Rav Hisda’s home there was sufficient high-quality bread for the dogs, indicating that they formed an integral part of the household (Mo’ed Katan 28a).

In the early mediaeval Perek Shirah, dogs praise God with the verse, "Come let us bow down and kneel before God who made us." For God "is merciful to all his works," (Psalm 145) a verse which may have inspired the late Chief Rabbi of Haifa, She’ar-Yeshuv Cohen to say, some years ago, contra Rabbi Malka, that having pets teaches children loving-kindness. There is no suggestion that dogs were excluded from this recommendation.

Uziel Elyahu, the chief Orthodox rabbi of the northern municipality of Misgav, in 2002 ruled that keeping guard dogs is allowed, as well as guide dogs and those kept "to develop a person’s emotions."

No doubt, though, more recent history has contributed to negative views about dogs among Jews. Nazi camp guards famously used dogs, especially German shepherds, as tools of their own sadism. Especially notorious were Amon Goeth’s two beasts, Rolf and Ralf, who tore their victims apart. But it is the SS and their partners who must be held responsible for abusing animals in this manner, and not the dogs themselves.

For dogs were not to be found only among the oppressors. Emmanuel Levinas, a prisoner of war, remembered the stray dog Bobby who spent weeks among the prisoners, treating them with affection. He later wrote that, contrary to Nazi rhetoric, to Bobby the prisoners definitely were human beings.

More significantly, in German-occupied territory during WWII, pets in Jewish households were killed, both as an independent act of cruelty and to make their owners suffer. In Berlin and Prague, they had to be delivered to the Nazi authorities. In Kovno, Jews had to take them to the small synagogue, where the animals were shot. Such fellow suffering deserves a measure of compassionate recognition.

But dogs can’t only be judged only by the past. They are a significant part of the lives of many Jews today, offering faithfulness, love and healing.

Ilan Assayag

Israel’s training centre for guide dogs, established at Bet Oved in 1991, was recently extended to include a new kalbiyya, a puppy-rearing building. Dogs are also trained there as companions for people, especially soldiers, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Other dogs, no doubt with stresses of their own, have served, and sometimes died, in the IDF’s elite Oketz unit, where they save human lives from concealed explosives.

It is therefore scarcely surprising that, despite the cano-phobic edicts of a number of Israel's municipal rabbis, the country as a whole is becoming increasingly dog-friendly. In 2016, Tel Aviv declared itself the most welcoming place in the world for canines, claiming, not necessarily accurately, that it has more dogs per (human) capita than any other city in the world.

According to Israel's National Dog Registration Center, there were 477,000 registered dogs in Israel in 2018, a rise of 12.5 percent in the last two years. German Shepherds now account for the third highest number of puppies born in the country, evidently a sign of reconciliation. 

Yet the edicts evidently express the consensus in ultra-Orthodox localities. Thus in the entire town of Modiin Illit, with a population of 73,000, there are just four registered dogs.

There clearly need to be more sermons noting that the word kelev [dog] can be broken down into ke-lev, "like the heart," and, as the Hasidic masters liked to remind us, "The Merciful One desires the heart."

People sit with their dog on the shore of the Mediterranean sea in Jaffa, Israel June 16, 2019
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Like Britain, no doubt Israel already is or soon will be training Canine Assistance and Medical Detection Dogs, the latter capable of scenting cancers as a very early stage, or warning parents when a diabetic child is having a dangerous blood-sugar low. None of this, of course, contradicts the requirement that owners take due responsibility for their animals’ behavior.

Such realities challenge Rabbi Abraham Yosef of Holon’s inability to find "any grounds for permitting any dog whatsoever in any manner," though he concedes that medical reasons for owning dogs may be considered by the Bet Din, each case on its merits. One wonders what specialized rabbinical qualifications are needed for this task.

What is saddest about the Elad edict, especially when the acute global environment crisis requires us to rethink our relationship to the natural world and question our hitherto anthropocentric dominance of it, is the lack of awareness of the profound value that the presence of animals brings, not least that of dogs.

Dogs offer companionship, kinship, comfort, love and the feeling of belonging together to both creation and Creator.

Jonathan Wittenberg is a rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism. Twitter: @RabbiWittenberg