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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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The dog’s characteristics were used as symbols, and even if the attitude to dogs had improved the symbols were usually negative. The image of the hungry dog describes a ravenous hunger that could drive one mad (Josephus, War 6.196). Eating in a marketplace was acting like a dog (Bavli Kiddushin 40b). Unruly women and wives were compared to dogs (Sirach 26:25). The rabbis lament that after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple “the face of this generation is as the face of a dog” (Mishnah Sotah 9:15), a comparison that was clearly not intended as a compliment. All in all, in ancient Jewish society the dog might have been a dependable “friend” and a functional “friend,” but it was still a dog and acted like one.

As we saw above, except for Egypt, cats were less popular than dogs most everywhere, whether in the Graeco-Roman world or in the Persian world in which they were reviled. This was certainly true also for the ancient Jewish world.

Ironically, it was the very contribution of the cat to society that made it so unpopular. A Talmudic tradition in Bavli Horayot 13a-b tells of students who asked their master Rabbi Eliezer why dogs recognize God (!) and cats do not; dogs are believers, cats seem to be atheists, but not on principle or because they are intelligent. The answer boiled down to the fact that cats eat mice and rats, and eating these vermin causes, for some reason, forgetfulness: Cats could not even remember to believe in God. It would be a long time before anybody figured out that, by eating vermin, cats also rid the world of the infected fleas that lived on them and caused disease and decimating plague.

It was not that this service was totally unappreciated. Because cats rid houses of vermin, it was permissible to raise them and even sell them to non-Jews, something that was not normally allowed in the case of dangerous animals (Tosefta Bava Kama 8:17). House vermin were apparently a serious problem in Babylonia or Persia. Non-Jews dealt with it by bringing the spiny hedgehog into their homes, thinking it was a dog: The rabbis also seemed to think so (Kufri dog), but not being limited by the constraints of Zoroastrianism and its anti-cat teachings, they logically thought that it was better to bring a cat into one’s house than the dangerously non-domesticated and not overly friendly spiny hedgehog. Thus, the Jews in Babylonia, not having to deal there with religious restrictions regarding cats, but just with the general animus against cats, brought them into their homes, apparently not as pets, but as mousers.

Jews who did not have cats might even borrow one from a neighbor. It was not unheard of for a mouser to be killed “in the line of duty” by hearty vermin or for a cat to die through overindulgence in their feasts of vermin (Bavli Bava Mezia 97a). Jews in Babylonia also brought cats into their homes to attack and eat poisonous snakes.

It seems that part of the problem regarding cats was that they did not make do with eating vermin but tended to supplement their diets with domestic fowl or other small domestic animals. It was assumed that cats would attack other household animals, and steps had to be taken to prevent this (Mekhilta Mishpatim 16). If one left a henhouse unattended for any period of time, it was considered a “miracle” if the hens were found still alive (Yerushalmi Peah 3:7; 17d). Hens were safe nowhere, and a hungry cat might even try to break down or claw its way into the door of a room into which a frightened hen had fled (Bavli Hullin 52b). An even greater irony was that if a domestic animal was found clawed or attacked, the rabbis realized that dogs were more prone to violence and that the culprit was probably a dog (Bavli Hullin 53b), but they just disliked cats more.

More extreme anti-cat attitudes remained prominent in certain Jewish circles as well. Three Babylonian Talmudic-period rabbis, Rav, Samuel, and Rav Assi, were invited to a circumcision. Before it could take place, however, a cat—wild? stray? renegade house mouser?—attacked the infant and tore off its arm. Rav was so upset that he stated that all cats should be killed (Bavli Bava Kama 801-b). A Byzantine period midrash listed cats among animals that are of no benefit to mankind at all and either bite, sting, or wound their masters.

Not all rabbinic authorities concurred with the prejudices of their colleagues against cats. Some medieval Talmudic commentators were so upset by the anti-cat feelings of Talmud times that they pointed out that their cats were nicer (R. Solomon b. Aderet cited in Tur Yoreh deah #57). The third century C.E. Tiberian Rabbi Johanan stated that if the Torah had not been given, modesty could have been learned from cats. Unfortunately Rabbi Johanan did not elaborate or explain. The 11th-century French commentator Rashi attributed this to the fact that cats cover their droppings, which is apparently quite true; in this sense they are quite modest. The 11th-century North African commentator Rabbi Hananel ben Hushiel claimed that cats are modest because they do not copulate in public places, which is apparently not true at all. The classical world vividly documented, for whatever reasons, the active and often public sex lives of cats. Perhaps Rabbi Johanan just meant to say that cats remained modest in spite of their prowess as hunters. Perhaps, for some reason, he just liked cats.

Would anybody actually have kept a cat as a pet? One tradition in Bavli Shabbat 51b does mention a cord or leash of a cat that allowed the cat to be taken outside the house on the Shabbat while wearing this cord or leash. One would hardly put such a leash on a semi-wild violence-prone mouser. Could this single reference hint at the possibility of having a cat as a pet? Perhaps.

What seems clear is that the Jewish attitude toward both dog and cat is ambivalent. A basically negative attitude to dogs in biblical times underwent some rehabilitation after changes in the non-Jewish world helped the dog become popular due to their increased use and functionality, though Jews were not enamored with their dogs and never forgot that there could be both good dogs and bad dogs: The good dog was treated well and respected and perhaps even occasionally loved. The relationship to the cat was almost entirely functional. Few people liked them, even if they liked vermin less.

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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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