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Why Do I Never See Orthodox Jews With Dogs or Any Other Pets?

Why Do I Never See Orthodox Jews With Dogs or Any Other Pets?


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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!

Sincerely,

Leorah from Canada

Dear Leorah-

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)

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  1. Just to let you know I’m an Orthodox Jew with 2 dogs, I live on a block of other Orthodox Jews who also have dogs, cats, birds and reptiles. We live in a very Frum area of New York so you see it is not uncommon for religious Jews to own pets it just not done by many.

  2. I wonder if the orthodox dogs eat only Kosher dog food?

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : July 20, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      the food doesn’t have to be kosher BUT a Jew is not supposed to benefit from milk and meat being eaten together, so it’s prohibited to feed it to a pet and on Passover, a Jew’s not supposed to own leaven, so the dog food on Passover needs to be with no grains.

  3. I hope you do not mind revisiting an old post. I am a Baalat Teshuva(in the process of becoming observant, not fully observant yet) but an currently studying with the goal of going to veterinary school. Do you know of any Halachot that are especially pertinent to either my studies or being a veterinarian? The comments appear to say that a Jew cannot perform the spaying or neutering surgery, it that true? What is the basis?

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : February 14, 2014 at 11:49 am

      It’s true. There’s a mitzvah in the Torah specifically prohibiting neutering animals – Leviticus 22:24: “Do not offer to G-d an animal whose testicles are bruised, crushed, torn or cut, and do not do such things in your land.” The underlying rationale is that G-d created animals and people to populate the world (Genesis 1:22, 1:28, et al.). To castrate an animal goes counter to that purpose. (More here: http://www.ou.org/torah/mitzvot/taryag/mitzvah291/ )

      Neutering is even problematic for non-Jews under the seven Noachide laws (http://www.ou.org/torah/mitzvot/taryag/noachide_laws_5/ ).

      Spaying is not prohibited by this verse because the obligation to procreate is only incumbent on the male of the species. Women are not obligated to procreate if they don’t want to because it poses a danger to them (see http://www.ou.org/torah/mitzvot/taryag/mitzvah1/ ).

      I hope this answers your question!

  4. We had a dog. I am a Jewish Yankee from Maine who got religion and my wife was a Mennonite
    Veterinarian converted by Bobov. He helpe us off eacj others nerves as per Rabbinical advice. He died Shabbos. Jewish tradition avoids negativity so I borrow an insight that is rather uncomfortable :

    “DOG, n. A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship. This Divine Being in some of his smaller and silkier incarnations takes, in the affection of Woman, the place to which there is no human male aspirant. The Dog is a survival –an anachronism. He toils not, neither does he spin, yet Solomon in all his glory never lay upon a door-mat all day long, sun-soaked and fly-fed and fat, while his master worked for the means wherewith to purchase the idle wag of the Solomonic tail, seasoned with a look of tolerant recognition.”

    Ambrose Bierce quotes (American Writer, Journalist and Editor, 1842-1914)

  5. Thanks for this lovely piece and fascinating discussion!
    I am from Israel and my best friend, humi, has a high eq and a true jewish heart!
    in israel dogs and animals in general attract a lot of positive attention not only because they are so cute and fun but also because they contribute to the strength of our country (for example: the story of Azit, the paratrooper dog and the military unit called Oketz).
    There’s also a very strong vegan movement and some of the arguments against eating meat involves jewish religious reasoning.
    Im encouraging you all to visit us here in israel and be convinced by how much love we give to dogs and pets in general!
    Shabbat shalom from Israel

  6. Alison you missed the only real reason. Dogs are substitutes for children for many people. Orthodox Jews have real children and don’t need, or have time for, substitute children, whereas Reform Jewish women have to a large degree given up on having their own children, and need dogs.

    • Ridiculous. I know several Orthodox families with many children *and* dogs. And some Reform women with big families (I don’t know many Reform people).

      You are a motzi shem ra.

  7. Thanks for posting the clarification. I took my dog for a walk on the beach where we live and there were about 20 orthodox Jews having a picnic. My dog is very sweet and well known on the beach. The groups reaction was one of anger and fear; one guy kicked at her and said “take it away, I don’t like it” and the kids scurried into their tents. We passed and smiled, but I was a bit offended. After reading this article it helped me understand. I won’t take it personally. Thank you.

  8. I was fascinated by the above discussion! I am not Jewish (nor Christian) but I have to say that the Jewish thoughts have always made sense to me (well, not all the ultra detailed stuff, but the basics).

    Question: this thing about not owning an animal that is dangerous, ok, on the surface I get that, but how did the Jewish farmers get around owning bulls and stallions and rams? These can be very dangerous animals. More people get killed by these types of animals every year than ever do by “intimidating looking dogs”. Is there any writings specific to these types of animals? Also, curious about the not neutering – that’s fine with me, but find it hard to believe that their sheep herds were ALL RAMS and not wethers? Look forward with real interest to your response and THANK YOU for a VERY interesting discussion!

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : September 17, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      It’s a kind of cost-benefit analysis. A bull might be dangerous but it serves a purpose. The same is true for a ram. A dog, on the other hand, was not a household pet back in the day – it was an attack animal whose primary purpose was to injure and/or intimidate. (Nevertheless, the possibility of injury from livestock exists and is addressed in great detail in the Talmud.)

      It’s like the difference between owning a car and a gun. Cars kill far more people but we’re more willing to accept that possibility because of the usefulness of their primary purpose, transportation. Those who oppose gun ownership do so because killing * is * their primary purpose. (I don’t want to get into a whole second-amendment thing but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the difference between owning a vicious dog and a gun in Jewish law: a dog has a mind of its own and can act without the owner. Owning a non-living weapon is actually less problematic from that standpoint.)

  9. I had no idea that there was a problem with keeping animals. I’ve learned a lot from this discussion. I’ve always had pets of every kind. My Orthodox acquaintances never mentioned anything to me. Now I understand why my son’s Rabbi asked why, when entering my house and seeing my hamsters, “Why do you keep such filthy vermin in your home?”. And now looking back, no religious person I’ve known has owned a dog or cat. I guess my friends had integrity, and criticism of my pets wasn’t worth their time or effort. A belated “Thank you.”

  10. Fascinating subject that I stumbled upon. I’m wondering if the urban status of so many Jews also contributed to the lack of dog-owning. My family and I are all from the five boroughs, and no one who lives here has ever owned a dog. I love dogs, and I’ve never thought myself equipped (or having enough space) to own one. However, family members who have moved to the suburbs do have dogs, because it seems to represent the American suburban ideal, and when people move back from the suburbs into the city, they bring their dog-loving ways with them. But if your grandparents, parents and you still live in Brooklyn, you don’t gain much dog-owning experience. But I suppose this theory can be easily refuted by looking at the Orthodox communities in more suburban Los Angeles or Rockland County, and their lack of dog-ownership as well. But I do wonder if dog-owning represents a certain assimilation to American culture that might seem unkosher.

  11. ROSARIO PEREIRA : August 11, 2016 at 2:11 am

    Come On! security in Israel owns and trains dogs. I have had a scary experience with one such that was sent after me in the docks where my ship had made fast. My knowledge of dogs came to good use there. It was remotely handled by a dog whistle no handler in sight. A scary experience even for me.

  12. Avigdor Halakha : December 21, 2016 at 5:15 am

    All I shall say is this “Of all the animals that walk on all fours, those that walk on their paws are unclean for you; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. 28 Anyone who picks up their carcasses must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening. These animals are unclean for you.” Leviticus 11:27

    I don’t think this refers only to eating those animals that have paws, which obviously includes dogs and cats, but also to raising them as pets since you are still in direct contact with them and they are unclean. Even if you just touch a dog you become unclean. So dogs and cats are a no-no for me.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : December 21, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      First of all, you’re ignoring the word carcasses. “Anyone who picks up their carcasses … will be unclean till evening.”

      That having been said, what is the ramification of being ritually unclean? Absolutely nothing. When the Temple was standing, one could not go there or eat sanctified food (such as sacrifices) until he had purified himself. Even so, one was permitted to intentionally render himself ritually unclean and it wasn’t sinful to do so. One could go months and months in such a condition with no repercussion or consequence whatsoever. Nowadays, when we don’t ever go to the Temple or eat sanctified food, there is no reason at all to avoid becoming ritually impure.

      Lots of normal activities render one impure, from entering a hospital (or a funeral home, cemetery, etc.) to having a baby. I would not recommend that one attempt to refrain from all types of impurity, nor is there any reason to do so!

      • Molly A Warrendorf : December 12, 2017 at 10:11 pm

        A carcass means they’re dead right? Of course you should not pick up a dead anything as you might catch disease.

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Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

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