Of Canines and Commandments
By Mark Levenson
Last year I moved back to New York City from a long sojourn out West and, as
I try to mix in the Jewish circles of my Upper West Side neighborhood, I
have been dogged by a secret. But I've lived in the closet as long as I can
and, for better or worse, am now outing myself on the Internet.
My secret: I have dogs.
They're a pair of Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Benny and Mollie, so cute they
leave behind a wake of smiles as we negotiate the crowded sidewalks of
Manhattan. But reasons practical, theological and sociological conspire to
put a divide as big as the one in the Sea of Reeds between traditional Jews
and dogs. To many of my co-religionists, the stray dog-hair on my jacket
could just as well be a stain of bacon fat for the doubt it raises about my
fidelity to Jewish law.
Jewish antipathy to dogs is longstanding, as Rabbi Judah Elijah Schochet
points out in "Animal Life in Jewish Tradition," (KTAV, 1984):
"The dog is one of the few animals almost invariably spoken of in negative
and derogatory terms [in Jewish Scripture]. There apparently was little
personal relationship between biblical man and the dog.. Dogs are described
as being noisy [Psalms 59:7-14], greedy [Isaiah 56:11], stupid [Isaiah
56:10], filthy [Proverbs 26:11].... The term "dog" is applied as an insult
to humans [I Kings 22:38]. Furthermore, "dog" appears to have been a
derogatory designation for male prostitutes [Deuteronomy 23:19]."
Schochet argues that this treatment is a result of the position in which
biblical man found himself viz the dog in particular and animals in general.
Dogs were worshipped by Egyptians and Caananites, as were other animals. It
is one of the triumphs of Torah that it made clear to biblical man that God
and God alone was worthy of worship, and that man's role was to be a
respectful steward over creation, including animals. The exultation of the
dog was incompatible with this concern.
And there are practical reasons for Jews to be less than dog's best friend,
particularly in the cramped quarters of a New York apartment. Jewish law
requires an absolute separation of the pots, pans, dishes and utensils used
for meat and for dairy. Homes in which the dietary laws of kashrut are kept
thus maintain separate meat and dairy sections. My apartment has three:
meat, dairy and -- in a counter and shelf never used for the preparation of
human food - canine, so that the non-kosher dog food can't contaminate the
rest of the kitchen, rendering it, too, non-kosher. Then, on Passover, the
requirements multiply as the prohibition against a Jew owning or using
leavened products renders most - but not all - commercial dog foods illegal
under Jewish law, even when they're acceptable the rest of the year. It's
possible to juggle these requirements, but easy for others to assume that I
am cutting corners on kashrut for the sake of my canines.
Beyond theology and practicality, there are visceral reasons for Jews to be
anti-dog. From the Crusades to the Pogroms to the Holocaust, the
relationship between Jews and dogs have mostly seen the former fleeing the
business ends of the latter, set on them by anti-Semitic persecutors. If
Jews have a racial memory of dogs, it's not a happy one.
And yet, there are particularly Jewish reasons for Jews to regard dogs with
affection. In Torah, when God informs Moses of the imminent tenth plague on
Egypt, the slaying of the first born, He says: "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 whet its tongue, against neither man nor beast, so that you shall know
that the Lord will have differentiated between Egypt and Israel" [Exodus,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could only conceive of a single dog doing nothing in
the night-time but Torah gives us an entire nation of them. Not a dog barks
or howls against the Jews, signifying the tranquility they enjoy while the
Egyptians are suffering the horrors of the ultimate plague. Once the Jews
gain their freedom to worship God, the dog is singled out for reward
throughout the generations for its show of restraint on that terrible night:
"People of holiness shall you be to Me; you shall not eat flesh of an animal
that was torn in the field; to the dog shall you throw it. [Exodus,
Meat torn from a live animal, rather than slaughtered according to Jewish
law, is non-kosher and unfit for Jewish consumption. Rashi, the pre-eminent
Torah commentator, attributes this command of throwing such meat to dogs to
the gratitude we must show to the dog, just as God does not let any good
deed go unrewarded. Thus, this command contains an ethical inculcation as
This positive regard for the dog, rare in Jewish Scripture, blossomed during
the Rabbinic period (200-500 C.E.), when animal worship was more a thing of
the past and the Sages were free to re-mythologize animals, to derive moral
and ethical lessons from the animal kingdom in general and the dog in
particular. One example:
"The Jerusalem Talmud [Schochet writes] cites as one of Rabbi Meir's fables
the story of a dog who observed a serpent poisoning the curdled milk of its
master. The dog barked frantically, but to no avail, as its master failed
to heed its warnings and set out to partake of the milk. The desperate dog
hastened to consume the food itself, thereby dying an agonizing death while
saving the lives of its master and his fellow shepherds. The grateful
shepherds buried the faithful dog with funerary honors and erected a
monument to its memory."
So Talmud anticipates "Greyfriar's Bobby" and "A Dog of Flanders" by 1,500
years. This positive tone becomes a running thread through writings of
medieval commentators, Kabbalists and others. However, one of the tenderest
depictions of the dog and its bond to humanity, to my mind, again comes from
the Sages. In an elaboration of the book of Genesis called Genesis Rabba
(22:12) they deal with the apparently ignominious mark of Cain, bestowed
after Cain kills Abel and is condemned to lonely exile. Since the mark of
Cain is never described in Torah, it leaves the Sages free to speculate as
to its nature. The Talmudic figure Rav does just this, suggesting that the
mark was actually a dog that God gave to Cain to keep him company in his
When Jews show tenderness to dogs, they are thus acting on lessons first
taught in Torah and implementing Torah's requirement to be a holy people.
Also, they are conveying a crucial ethical lesson: if the dog, a servant
and tool of man, is worthy of kindness, how much more so are our fellow
human beings -- creatures created in the image of God -- worthy of such
Now, if only I could get my fellow Jews to remember that when they see me
taking a Sabbath stroll with my little, furry friends.
Mark Levenson is a New York writer.
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