Bechadrei Haredim, an ultra-Orthodox web portal, was first to report last week that leading rabbis in the Israeli city of Elad, including its chief rabbi and all of its Sephardic rabbis, had issued a ban on owning dogs.
“We have heard and have seen that lately, a serious phenomenon has spread in our city, Elad, in which young boys and children walk around publicly with dogs. This is strictly forbidden,” said the rabbis in the mostly ultra-Orthodox city 25 kilometres east of Tel Aviv. “As explained in the Talmud and by the Rambam, anyone raising a dog is accursed, and especially in our city, where many women and children are afraid of dogs.”
It’s hard to argue with the rabbis’ reasoning. Indeed, the Talmud is not kind to dogs or the idea of dog ownership. Rabbi Natan, in a talmudic discussion, argues that one who raises an “evil dog” is in violation of the prohibition in Deuteronomy, “Do not place blood in your home.” A separate dialogue claims that dog breeders are accursed. Similarly, Maimonides believed that dogs “should be tied up during the day and untied at night,” because they cause frequent damage. (Many prominent commentators moderate this position, claiming it only applies to the “evil dogs” of the Talmud. The rabbis of Elad found a clever way around that potential loophole: they ruled that every dog is evil, “for it barks on whomever it does not know, and because of its bark it is a bad dog even if it does not bite.”)
Dogs don’t come out looking well in Yiddish proverbs either. As American academic Robert A. Rothstein recounts in A Jew’s Best Friend? The Image of the Dog Throughout Jewish History, the language is filled with less than flattering canine imagery. “Wherever one throws a stick, one finds a dog,” for example, is a metaphor for the notion that bad people are found everywhere. And you don’t need rabbinic-level interpretive skills to decode Yiddish aphorisms like “There is no such thing as a good dog,” “A dog remains a dog” or – the traditional gem – “When dogs bark, the in-laws are coming.”
But despite all the negativity toward dogs in our history, it’s hard not to see them as the quintessential Jewish pets. Their compassionate eyes, obsession with food, their noble, undying loyalty and instinctual inclination to help and heal – what could be more Jewish? And they look good wearing kippot, too. Good luck convincing your kitty to even try one on.
Perhaps the most Jewish lesson dogs teach us echoes the saying in Ethics of the Fathers: mitzvah goreret mitzvah, meaning that one good deed begets another. Dogs, with their perpetual zeal, humour and love, remind us to act the same, opening us up to the unique joy that comes from lending a helping hand (or paw). They model good behaviour to us, not the other way around.
One year after my beloved dog, Bob, died, I still expect to see him at the door when I get home. It’s a sad feeling, until I remember everything I learned from him. And then all I can do is smile.