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Are Jews a Dog People or a Cat People?

Yet another difficult internal and ancient debate that modern Jews are unlikely to resolve

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Are there “Dog Jews” and “Cat Jews”? Do Jews love their dogs and cats? Have they always loved them? If so, did they love them as pets? I shall briefly try and discuss the attitudes toward dogs and cats in ancient Jewish society, based on academic research undertaken during the last 15 years. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out I am not totally objective. I did, after all, dedicate an academic study on “Jewish” dogs to my grandchildren’s vizsla, Lupa.

For the most part, and in spite of some recent scholarly attempts at rehabilitation, dogs were held in contempt in Israelite society due to their penchant for dining on blood and carcasses (I Kings 14:11; 16:4, 21:19, 24, and 22:38). They were regarded as urban predators roaming about at night, barking and howling, in search for food (Psalms 59:7, 15), and such dogs could easily attack anybody who got too close (Psalms 22:17, 21) or bite those who foolishly tried to show them affection (Proverbs 26:17). Outside of the city there were wild dogs, busy devouring carrion and licking blood (II Kings 9:35-36; Exodus 22:30). Very few people would have wanted anything to do with them. The only hint of any positive role for the biblical dog is found in Job 30:1, which makes reference to “dogs of my flock,” perhaps indicating that in biblical times there were dogs who served as sheep dogs or herders.

The basically negative and at best ambivalent attitude of biblical Israelites was not that different from prevalent attitudes in general in the ancient Near East, which often stressed the impurity of the dog and its contemptible status. True, there were exceptions to the rule; some dogs did occasionally enjoy somewhat of a higher status, some Canaanite cults may have sanctified canines, the Hittites liked to use them in purification and healing rites, and the odd dog may actually have been kept as a pet—and if it lived in Phoenician Ashkelon might have been buried in the dog cemetery. However, these were exceptions to the generally negative stereotypes that existed in both ancient Israel and in neighboring lands.

Cats are not mentioned at all in the Bible. A figurine carving of a cat from Lachish in the Shefelah dates to c. 1700, the Middle Bronze period, but has nothing to do with Jews or Israelites in any form. The statue might have come from Egypt, and there was a good reason for that: Egypt was rich in grain and had many silos and these undoubtedly attracted mice and other vermin. The vermin attracted feral cats and later semi-domesticated ones who feasted on mice and vermin as well as on deadly snakes that were also found in Egypt. The cats were so successful that the Egyptians began to see them as embodiments of divine power. But none of this had any influence on the Jews, even though the land of Israel was under Egyptian rule for a good period of the time. If there were cats in ancient biblical Israel serving as mousers, we do not have any proof of their existence.

As we have just seen, Jewish or so far Israelite attitudes to dogs or cats were not divorced from their surroundings, especially during the Second Temple and Mishnah and Talmud period times. Greeks, Romans, and Persians loved dogs. Dogs were functional: They served as hunting dogs, sheep dogs, and guard dogs. Dogs could pull carts, and there were even performing dogs. Some dogs were said to be able to heal with a lick of their tongues. They were popular pets and companions for men and women of all ages: A “boy and his dog” and even a “girl and her dog” were quite common, and many women had a small lap dog as a pet. In Persia, dogs did all of the above-mentioned tasks and were popular, but they were also revered, taking on the status given to cats in Egypt—in part because the Persians mistakenly identified the spiny hedgehog as a dog, and this animal was instrumental in ridding houses of poisonous snakes.

Cats were a lot less popular, although as mousers and enemies of vermin they fulfilled an important function. Yet keeping them as pets indoors or even in the barnyard could be problematic since, in addition to mice, they had a tendency to attack or eat other pets in the home or chickens or fowl in the barnyard. Not only were they not “guard” animals like dogs, but it was often necessary to guard against their feral nature, even when supposedly domesticated: They were necessary but not loved. In Persia, though, they were khrafstra, noxious creatures, the same as the mice and the rats that they ate.

Did any of this influence Jewish attitudes? As we shall see, it was hard for the Jews to shake off negative attitudes about the dog common in the biblical period, while the lack of reference to the cat in biblical times might possibly imply a greater level of ambivalence. Jewish attitudes were functional, and the basic ambivalence remained, more so in the case of cats than of dogs. There might have been good dogs and bad dogs, but cats at best were merely suffered.

***

Jewish tradition in Second Temple and Mishnah and Talmud period times was well aware of the important functions of the dog as herding and a guard animal, and these were generally described in a positive manner, even though guard dogs by nature were supposed to be aggressive, and herders could be rather “pushy.” Some rabbinic sages therefore preferred to limit the use of guard dogs to cases of real potential danger such as border towns (Tosefta Bava Kama 8:17). Some sages could not rid themselves of an animus toward canines and could not be convinced that the functions dogs might fulfill were important; they even compared the raising of dogs “to one who raises pigs” (ibid.), anathema in ancient Jewish society.

Talmudic literature describes the tasks of sheep dogs and herding dogs in great detail. They protected the flocks, fighting against wolves who would steal or kill sheep (Sifrei Numbers #157), and they protected their masters, saving their lives sometimes even at the cost of their own (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:7, 46a). Rabbinic literature even mentions “the dog’s tombstone,” a monument erected in memory of such a heroic dog (Peskikta de-Rav Kahana, Vayehi Beshalah 1). Guard dogs, in official capacity or not, could offer great service to their masters, as in the case of the dog that protected the wife of a sage (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:7, 46a). It is not surprising then that the rabbis mandated that “working” dogs receive proper care and diet (Mishnah Hallah 1:8; Tosefta Hallah 1:7).

Were “Jewish” dogs pets, household or otherwise? There is little indication that they became household pets as was common in Roman society, although the emotional bonds that might have been forged between dog (usually sheep dogs or guard dogs) and master might have turned the dog into a quasi-pet, albeit one that would have been kept outside in the courtyard, not indoors. The Second Temple period book of Tobit in the Apocrypha tells of Tobit sending his son Tobias on a long trip to Media, and his dog goes with him and returns with him (6:2, 11:4). Was this dog a pet, or did he accompany his master specifically to protect him against the dangerous great fish or crocodile depicted in the book? Whether the dog was a pet or a companion, this book of the biblical Apocrypha does portray the dog in a much more positive light than was common in the earlier biblical period.

Although the attitude to dogs in rabbinical Jewish society might have become somewhat more positive than that in biblical times, the rabbis never forgot that a dog was after all still a dog and that even trusted and loyal ones could cause damage (Mishnah Bava Kama 2:3) or become dangerous and attack. Wild dogs, some rabid (Mishnah Yoma8:6), bloodthirsty (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Zekhor 8), and lustful (Bavli Sanhedrin 108b) continued to roam through the streets of towns and villages; such animals might attack livestock (Tosefta Hullin 3[4]:19) or even children (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Zekhor, MS Safed).

If there was any ill feeling toward dogs, though, it was not usually directed against wild dogs, but against those who raised them and those who did not properly supervise them. Precautions had to be taken, such as chaining guard dogs who were, after all, supposed to be vicious (Mishnah Bava Kama 7:7). Accidents happened: A domestic dog caused a woman to miscarry a fetus whose birth would have completed the number of souls necessary in Israel for the Divine Presence to rest upon it (Bavli Bava Kama 83a). Another time a barking dog caused a woman to miscarry; unfortunately for her the attempts of its master to calm her by telling her that the dog had its teeth removed came too late (ibid).

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Are Jews a Dog People or a Cat People?

Yet another difficult internal and ancient debate that modern Jews are unlikely to resolve