Kindness to Animals is a Jewish Value

August 25, 2023


While the start of Elul marked the end of the “dog days of summer”, there’s still time left to celebrate National Dog Month – the whole month of August! – and International Dog Day – August 26th!

Our pets, and our dogs in particular, were always, and remain today, a defining factor of my family of origin: 

My Grandpa Albie, my mom’s dad, rescued a number of dogs over the years from the local pound, and long after they roamed my grandparents’ house or lounged in their backyard, he proudly displayed their photos and told stories about them, etching their memories into our family’s collective memory.

On my parents’ first Hanukkah as a married couple, Dad surprised Mom with a puppy, a sheltie they named Meghan. She was their first baby, but within a few weeks, Mom found out she was pregnant with me! Since then, my parents have shared their home with many permanent and temporary furry friends – dogs, hedgehogs, sugar gliders. They loved and cared for each of them as their own children, thereby modeling for us, their human children, the unique responsibility and gift of opening our hearts and our homes to animals. 

And I, with the inherited notion that “a house is not a home without a dog,” got my very own from the DC Humane Society, right after getting my first “real” job. He was a brindle pitbull who I named Bruin. I’d never had such a big dog, nor one that came with the stigma that his breed often carries, and he taught me, and everyone he met, that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that love indeed heals. After eight great years with Bruin as my constant companion, he passed away in the winter of 2021, and it took me less than a month to welcome Priya, my current rescue pitbull (aka my red velvet house hippo/sweet potato), into my home.

While keeping dogs as pets is permitted by Jewish tradition, quite a bit of shade is thrown at dogs in Jewish text, and ethics around pets in general are not deeply explored by the traditional sources, kindness to animals – consideration of their feelings and experiences while interacting with humans, and an acknowledgement of their inherent dignity – certainly is. In fact, the most explicit examples come in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy Chapter 22 opens with: If you see your neighbor’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back…” and then, if you happen upon someone else’s livestock and that person “does not live near you or you do not know who [the owner] is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your neighbor claims it; then you shall give it back” (verses 1-2). This serves to teach us, not only respect for others’ property, but specifically that, with regard to domesticated animals without skills to fend for themselves, it is our responsibility to ensure they get home safely. 

And then, shifting topics, verses 6 and 7 go on to say, “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.” According to Maimonides, “If the mother bird is let go or escapes of her own accord she will not be pained by seeing her young taken away. In most cases this will lead people to leaving everything alone, for what may be taken is in most cases not fit to be eaten”. Here, the Rambam (as well as many of his predecessors and successors) acknowledges that while we, as humans, may have the power to, say, take a life to sustain ourselves, we must do so in a way that is as humane as possible. Additionally, Maimonides goes on to say, “There is no difference in this case between the pain of [humans] and pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning […] and this faculty exists not only in [humans] but in most living beings.” 

Taken together, these examples from this week’s parsha lay the foundation for the Talmudic notion of “tza’ar ba’alei chayyim,” that the Torah prohibits causing suffering to animals. And while it’s a stretch to say this encompasses bringing “fur babies” into your family, it certainly sheds light on the unique ways Judaism honors the animals with whom we share this world, and opens doors of possibility for interpretation for how we might honor the animals with whom we share our homes and our lives.

And so, a happy National Dog Month, and International Dog Day to all who are celebrating, and to everyone, Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Queen