Orthodox Jews and Pet Ownership
Like many non-Jews, Jews also own pets despite the common perception that pets and Jewish law (Halacha) do not mix. However, there is no Jewish law that prohibits the use of pets. That is why pets are found even in Orthodox Jewish families. Numerous articles have been published dealing with the halachic implications of pet keeping. This is probably because there is increasing interest from Orthodox Jews to make pets part of the family. What do those halachic implications look like?
- Jewish View of Organisms: Animals and Plants
- Families with pets
- Where does the perception come from that Judaism and pets don’t mix?
- The Jewish Bible and (pets) animals
- How should Jews treat pets according to Halacha (Jewish law)?
Jewish View of Organisms: Animals and Plants
More than 1.4 million different types of organisms have been identified to date. Many scientists estimate the total number to be many times higher: between 10 and 80 million copies. What is the point of it actually? According to Jewish religious scholars, G-d did not create for nothing. An explanation based on a midrash from the ‘Alphabet of Ben-Sira’ (a collection of Jewish commentaries).
Gd created all creatures after its kind
The Torah describes how G-d created everything after its kind. He gave every plant and every animal its own specialty. One organism has qualities to (survive) in the desert, the other in a swamp area. A link can be made between a theological perspective and the scientific knowledge that is available about the diverse adaptive capacity of organisms. G-d gave all organisms a task and these are interconnected within a community of life. Man, guided by his actions by intellect or reason, leaves his own mark on the ecosystems with which he interferes. He has the ability to follow, or oppose, the ways indicated by nature. In this context, the mitzvot (obligations) are important to keep species separate. The ox and donkey must not plow together, mixed seeds must not be used in fields and vineyards. We have been instructed to disturb the balance in the ecological system as little as possible. The purpose of following this mitzvot is to maintain balance with the environment.
The spider, the wasp and King David
But what is the use of all creatures? A midrash (interpretation):
Once when King David was sitting on the roof of his house, he saw a wasp eating a spider. David asked Gd, “Master of the Universe, what is the use of these creatures? The wasp eats the nectar of flowers; the spider spins webs. But what’s in it for me?”
Gd replied, “David, you are belittling my creatures! There will come a time when you will need them both.”
Some time later, David was on the run from King Saul and hid in a cave. Gd sent a spider that closed the entrance to the cave with a web. When Saul passed the cave and saw the web, he said, “No one can hide here, otherwise the web would be broken.” When David came out of the cave and saw the spider, he kissed it and said, “Blessed is our Creator, and blessed are you.”
Some time later David, looking for a water pitcher, found Saul and Abner sleeping in a tent. Abner lay in front of both entrances to the tent, his head on one side and his feet on the other. David was therefore unable to reach the water jug. But in his sleep Abner drew up his legs and David crawled underneath and took the pitcher. When he was about to leave, Abner stretched out his legs and shut David up. In desperation, David prayed to Gd, “God, why have You forsaken me?”
Then Gd sent a wasp that stung Abner in the legs. Abner bent his knees and David ran. Again David praised Gd, “Master of the Universe, who can imitate Your works, Your mighty deeds? All Your works are so beautiful.”
Families with pets
Pets are found in many Gentile and Jewish families. These are farm animals (such as cows, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, chickens, geese and possibly horses) and companion animals (such as dogs, cats, pigeons, (ornamental) chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs). The latter animals are not just there for company. They can also help with physical and mental health and develop children’s learning habits. However, there are also adverse effects such as aggressive behavior, negative odor (especially in dogs), the transmission of allergies and parasites, the death of an animal can lead to sadness and stress, the animals can wander, etc.
Where does the perception come from that Judaism and pets don’t mix?
Less pets can be found among Orthodox Jews than among other Jews. No studies have been done into the cause of this, but it may have to do with the fact that Orthodox Jewish families are generally large and that it is therefore difficult to keep a pet. There is less time and money to care for the animals. Also, the keeping of pets is simply disapproved by some or seen as an obstacle to observing the Jewish mitzvot (obligations). In addition, the Torah speaks negatively about dogs (see later in the text).
Nazis used dogs against Jews during the Holocaust
Many European Jews don’t like dogs anyway. Fear of dogs can be linked to cultural touchstones embedded in the collective Jewish consciousness. “Many Jews who come from Europe hate dogs,” said Natan Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi known for his work on Torah, zoology, and science. This is because of the Holocaust. The Nazis were obsessed with dogs. Many high Nazis walked around with dogs that terrified Jewish prisoners. Kurt Franz, Treblinka’s sadistic commander, owned a dog named Bari that was trained to attack inmates’ genitals. Hitler himself was devoted to Blondi, his German Shepherd.
The Jewish Bible and (pets) animals
The Jewish Bible also mentions animals and their relationship to humans. That ratio was different from today. Animals were mainly used to perform work. Having pets does not violate Jewish law as long as the animals do not pose a threat to people and property. An example of the relationship between humans and animals are the Jewish Patriarchs who were shepherds with livestock. Animals should not be treated cruelly according to the Torah. Kosher slaughter of animals is painless.
Talmudic visions of pets
The Talmud (Oral Torah) has quite a few contradictory views on pets. One source in the Talmud (Bava Kamma 80a) mentions the permissibility of raising certain types of dogs and cats because they keep the home pest-free – meaning that animals can be kept if they perform a useful function. But elsewhere the Talmud states that dogs should be kept in chains, which would clearly limit their usefulness. Another Talmudic view holds that those who keep dogs are cursed.
Jewish commentators on the dog
As mentioned earlier, dogs are spoken of negatively in the Torah. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides states that dogs can cause significant damage. The Shulchan Aruch even prohibits owning “evil dogs” unless they are chained. Rabbi Moshe Isserles from the 16th century writes in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch in a more nuanced way that Jews who live among non-Jews are allowed to own a dog. And in modern times, rabbis are even more lenient about pet ownership.
How should Jews treat pets according to Halacha (Jewish law)?
Religious Jews who observe Jewish law treat pets differently than non-Jews. For example, it is not possible to neuter male animals under Leviticus 22:24. According to the Shulchan Aruch, this also applies to female animals. Sometimes sterilization is allowed if an animal is in danger of death. But this should only be done by a non-Jew. By the way, Jews are allowed to accept a castrated animal from an animal shelter. However, it is forbidden to perform castration.
Also on the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat, special rules apply for dealing with animals. For example, animals are not allowed to be transported and they are not allowed to work. The animals may be fed (non-kosher food with the exception of food prepared from milk and meat from kosher animals and leavened grains during Passover) and playing with the animals is also not prohibited.
Animals should not be treated cruelly
The Jewish Bible forbids the cruel treatment of animals. Animals should not suffer physically and emotionally. It is also mandatory to feed animals before consuming food yourself. Kosher animals may be slaughtered for food. Euthanasia on an animal that is suffering is permitted.
Can pets be treated as ‘family’?
Friendship with an animal is generally easier than with a human, as long as they don’t bite or physically attack you. So you will not easily be hurt by an animal when you bond with it. But you will never be challenged by an animal either. With an animal, you will never have to question yourself, improve your manners, apologize. Your dog makes no demands on your personality. You can be as stubborn and unyielding as he is. This is not good for you. When animal societies replace human contact, only the animal benefits. Man is stagnating. An animal cannot partner with humans.
Bereavement ?? do animals get to Heaven?
The question of how dead animals can be mourned is very controversial. For example, some liberal Jews say Kaddish for a deceased pet. Orthodox Jews don’t. The Midrash and Maimonides deny that the souls of animals come into the World to Come. According to them, animals do not have an immortal soul. Kabbalists and Hasidim think differently about this and even believe that the soul of a sinful person can enter the body of an animal in a next life. After life, animals do not end up in a kind of ‘animal heaven’. They do get to Heaven in the broader heavenly sense. In the end, while different from humans, animals also have souls that live on and can be elevated. This idea gives us enormous responsibility in our interactions with the animal kingdom. After all, the animal’s height in the afterlife can depend on our positive interactions with it.