Dogs in Judaism: Demons, guards or companions?

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On October 4, a feast day in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, you may find a procession of animals heading for the Blessing of Pets based on Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, where the saint prays: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.”

In a downtown Washington, DC church this month, there was a blessing ceremony for dogs as reported in The Washington Post. One dog owner said he felt so blessed to have his dog that he wanted to make sure that his dog received a blessing. Cats were noticeably absent from the ceremony, but not for any ideological reason. The church wanted to retain the order that comes with only one species being blessed at a time.

This attitude is in strong contrast to many Jewish superstitions around dogs. The Talmud mentions that it is unlucky to be between two dogs (BT Pesahim 111b) Joshua Tractenberg in his famous book on Jewish superstition writes that in the medieval period: “The disconsolate howling of a dog is a certain indication that the angel of death is strolling through town. If a dog drags his rump along the floor in the direction of the door, this too is a token of approaching death.”

In kabbalah, dogs were often associated with demonic powers; dogs on a long leash are compared to acts of evil that can get out of control unless we pull them back and dominate our impulses. These associations with dogs explain why it is rare for Hasidim to have dogs as pets.

Some traditional Jews, when seeing a dog, will actually move away and recite a verse from Exodus—“but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites (11:7)”—assuming a hostile relationship between the two. The context is the plagues, describing the suffering of the Egyptians upon losing their firstborn. There will be a cry all over Egypt, Moses describes, but no dog shall bark at any of the Israelites to make a distinction between the Egyptians and their slaves. This unnatural phenomenon will signal the beginning of the end of slavery with dogs playing a strange role in our redemption.

All superstition aside, as early as ancient midrash there was a value placed in using dogs to guard people. Dogs are also mentioned in the Bible as shepherding and hunting assistants, so while they were not kept as pets, they were used for work purposes. According to Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the first record we have of Jews keeping dogs as domestic pets is in 15th-century Germany.

But if we turn all the way to our actual beginnings, Genesis 2 records that animals were originally created as a source of companionship for humans after God announced in a world that seemed all good that human loneliness was not good. To ameliorate it, God created animals and brought them to Adam to name. In the act of naming, Adam realized that ultimate companionship for him would come from someone more anatomically like himself.

Having said that, as all dog owners know, dogs sometimes come through for us when humans fail. Dogs are always happy to see their owners, are deeply loyal, never say a bad word and are profoundly forgiving. Step on a dog’s paw, and a minute later he’ll be licking you with enthusiasm, as the bumper sticker wisdom goes: “To err is human. To forgive is canine.” Anna Quidlin wrote Good Dog. Stay when her dog of 15 years died and observes that, “The life of a good dog is like the life of a good person, only shorter and more compressed.”

People who do not like dogs have a hard time understanding our affection for them, but dog-lovers hardly have to explain it to each other. Proverbs 6:6 tells us to learn industry from an ant. The Talmud picks up on this and extends it to what we learn from many other creatures. My dogs have taught me to be a better human being. Now if only I could live up to the person they think I am!

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on June 25, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.