At a dog festival in Tel Aviv. (Andrew Tobin/JTA)

Judaism and Dogs

Today domesticated canines are beloved pets, but traditional Jewish texts were uneasy about these creatures.

Dogs are the most common family pets in the United States and many other parts of the world, and are beloved parts of many Jewish households. However, that was not always the case.

Jewish tradition does not expressly prohibit the keeping of dogs as pets, but biblical and rabbinic sources do include numerous references that associate dogs with violence and uncleanliness and frown on the practice of keeping them in one’s home.

Dogs are for the most part portrayed negatively in the Bible. Deuteronomy appears to equate dogs and prostitution, ruling in Deuteronomy 23:19 that if one of these is used to pay for an animal — say, if one offered a dog or sex in exchange for a goat — that purchased animal cannot be brought to the temple as a sacrifice. The Book of Kings includes several references to dogs feeding on corpses. And in the Psalms, dogs are described as beasts that maul at human beings.

Among the few positive references to dogs in the Bible is in Exodus 11:7, which records that during the 10th plague visited upon the Egyptians — the death of the first-born — “not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast—in order that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” This silence of the dogs in Egypt is the reason offered by the Midrash to explain a later verse (Exodus 22:30) that commands the Israelites to feed to dogs any flesh torn by beasts in the field.

The negative attitude toward dogs persists in the Talmud, which frequently regards dogs as dangerous animals. Though the Talmud in Baba Kama states that it is permissible to keep certain kinds of dogs that are useful for preventing infestations of vermin, it also states that dogs must be kept chained and that those who “raise” (the Hebrew word used here is the same as the one used for rearing children) dogs are cursed. Elsewhere, the tractate records a case in which a woman miscarried because a dog barked at her. One talmudic sage states that the owner of a dog whose bark is capable of triggering a miscarriage causes the presence of God to depart from the Jewish people.

In the Jewish mystical tradition, dogs are symbols of the demonic. The Zohar, the core text of Jewish mysticism, says that evil in the world is like a vicious dog on a long leash.

The Mishneh Torah (a 12th-century code by Maimonides) states that one must keep a dog chained, because these animals are known to cause “substantial and frequent” damage. Maimonides permitted Jews living in border towns to let their dogs loose at night only, presumably for protection. The Shulchan Aruch (a 16th-century legal code) takes a somewhat less restrictive approach, saying only that an “evil dog” must be bound in iron chains. Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, a 16th-century Polish scholar also known as the Rema, in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch writes that a dog that is liable to harm people must be kept chained.

Among modern religious authorities, Rabbi Jacob Emden, an 18th-century German authority, permitted dogs for economic or security reasons. However, to keep a dog merely for pleasure is “precisely the behavior of the uncircumcised,” he said. However, this is regarded as a minority view. Most contemporary Jewish authorities maintain that there are no prohibitions on keeping dogs provided they pose no threat to people or property.

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