Dear Jew in the City,
I have never seen any Orthodox Jews with pets. Is there a reason for this? Or does it just so happen that I don’t know any Orthodox people who are great pet lovers. Thanks!
Leorah from Canada
Thanks for your question. It’s something I’ve wondered about before, and the answer is quite complex, mixing history, sociology, and Jewish law.
I’m not sure what sort of interactions you’ve had with Orthodox Jews, but if you think about it, a dog is the main pet you’d see a person out and about with. So unless you’ve been inside the homes of many religious Jews, you probably wouldn’t know if there was a cat, a bird, or a fish tucked away somewhere. But let’s start with dogs since they’re the most public of pets. When it comes to dogs, there seems to be a range of feelings that people have, from very positive to very negative. Let’s start with the Torah sources, then we’ll talk about history and sociology.
In terms of the Torah’s view on dogs, the most famous reference is in the book of Shemos (Exodus). As the Jews were leaving Egypt, we’re told, “And against the children of Israel, no dog wagged its tongue.” Or in other words, the dogs are praised for keeping quiet so that the Jews could escape without drawing attention to themselves.
The Maharal – a 16th century rabbi from Prague who is best known for the legend of having created a golem - wrote that a dog is called ”kelev” in Hebrew because it comes from the words “k’lev,” which means “like the heart.” It sounds a whole lot like the expression we say in English, “man’s best friend.”
However, there are some considerations one must take into account when owning a dog. In the Talmud, there is a prohibition against owning a dangerous animal. Of course not all dogs are dangerous, but the halacha (law) is pretty clear that it’s prohibited to own a dangerous one. The halacha, goes one step further, though. It is prohibited to own an animal that could be perceived as dangerous, even if it’s not actually dangerous, because there is a certain damage that the fear of the animal could cause others and Torah living is very concerned with how one person’s actions affect another’s.
The Talmud gives over a story of a pregnant woman who’s petrified of a barking dog she passes on the street. The owner assures her that the bark is worse than the bite, but the woman informs him that she has already miscarried due to her immense fear. In our old building, there was a guy who had two pit bulls. The guy was kind of scary looking, the pit bulls were very of scary looking, and their leashes were made out of chains! I personally have positive feelings about dogs without being a super dog lover, but these dogs scared me and they especially scared me when my children were around. Pit bulls have a reputation of being aggressive, and every time I was in the elevator with them and my kids, I would think about stories of pit bulls attacking children.
My husband and I both had dogs growing up, and although we don’t have one now, we’ve raised our kids to be comfortable around them (pit bull paranoia aside), but just the other day, as we were out bike riding, my daughter, who’s just getting used to no training wheels, got pounced on by a dog that was bigger than her and knocked off the bike. The dog got mud all over her face, scratched her a bit, and shook her up. My daughter was able to pull herself together pretty quickly, but you can imagine that if my daughter had a pre-existing fear of dogs, this incident could have really caused her great emotional distress.
So to sum up our sources, dogs seems to be viewed positively and are fine to own as long as they are neither physically dangerous, nor intimidating to others. However, there are more considerations that come into play as to why you’re not seeing so many Orthodox Jews with pets, and the next thing to look at is history. There is a history of dogs being used to intimidate Jews, first in the pogroms and later in the Holocaust, and if you think about it, fear of dogs is something that seamlessly passes from one generation to the next, even if the later generation has no reason to be afraid. All that is needed is a kid seeing his parent’s fear.
The people who are the closest to the old country, who have mixed in the least with Western dog-loving culture, is the ultra-Orthodox community, who happen to also look the most visibly “Orthodox.” I believe that many of them still hold on to this fear of dogs based on what happened to previous generations and having never gotten a chance to have positive dog experiences. Therefore, it’s pretty uncommon to see people in this community with dogs and it is quite common to see people in this community petrified of dogs. (Plus, in general, this is a community that’s more up on Torah learning, so they even have sources to back up their fear of dangerous animals.)
You have probably passed Modern or Centrist Orthodox Jews walking dogs on the street without even realizing it, either because they dress modestly but more stylishly and blend in, or because they don’t dress according to the laws of Jewish modesty at all and aren’t recognizably Orthodox.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many times pets get introduced into a household because a person is living alone and wants a companion or a couple doesn’t feel ready to have kids and wants to try out a pet as a practice run. But in the Orthodox circles, the practice run for having kids is usually having kids!
Then once all those kids are born and being cared for and paid for, many people don’t have time, energy, or money to add another life into the mix. (We’ve had a few fish, but that’s the biggest commitment to pet ownership we’ve made despite my kids’ desires for bigger, cuddlier pets.)
So, I think that you are correct that you’ve noticed the most “Orthodox” looking Jews are not walking around the streets with pets (namely dogs), but, I would say that there are still a fair number of Orthodox families with smaller pets at home or who ARE on the street with dogs, but you just didn’t realize they were Orthodox.
Hope this question no longer dogs you!
All the best,
Allison (aka Jew in the City)