Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Growth of Dogs in the Jewish Community

I used to be known as "the girl with the 3-legged cat." Now the poor mutilated cat has been upstaged by some dirty, poor-mannered dogs. Now, if a stranger knows anything about me, they know I have "two huge dogs." And in New York City, of all places! If I'm at a Shabbos table, this is guaranteed to be how I'm introduced. 

One day, I'm not going to be such an oddity. Dogs (and all pets) are slowly but surely making their way into Jewish communities all across America. It's becoming downright normal. 

Until recently, pet ownership was pretty exotic in the orthodox community. Many community rabbis (the majority? I doubt it) rule that pets can't be touched on Shabbat (often a knee-jerk answer instead of a researched one), and that is a good enough reason to not pursue pet ownership. Also, they're expensive, especially on top of 4 day school tuitions and eating kosher meat.

If that weren't enough, there is a deeply-entrenched fear of dogs in the Jewish community. My understanding is that many of my generation's grandparents are simply terrified of dogs (the Nazis definitely helped create that fear). Once a parent has a fear of dogs, he or she often tells the kids to avoid dogs and that they're "scary." Also, kids pick up on how their parents shy away from animals or even cross the street when a neighbor walks a dog down the street. The children have a lesser fear of dogs that might more appropriately be called inertia and habit. Today, my generation (who is having kids today) often grew up with parents who didn't like pets and didn't have any, but the kids had secular neighbors who had dogs. These children went over to friends' houses and met dogs there. Now, their adult friends are getting pets. This generation, despite being raised with a nominal dog fear-mongering, has been exposed to pets. There is still a lot of fear or dislike, but there is a great openness to having pets and a realization that pet ownership has many benefits. And that's how people end up with pets: the parents aren't opposed to the idea (or even think it might be nice), and then they have children who beg for pets. We've seen an exponential increase in pet ownership in the community, but I don't think it's anything like what we're going to see 10 years from now when my generation's kids are a bit older.

Unfortunately, the yeshivot aren't preparing their rabbinical students for these issues in the communities that will hire them. All you need is one pet owner in the community, and there will be shailahs for the rabbi. In smaller communities with high baal teshuva and convert populations, the pet ownership rate could be more than 50%. I would estimate that over 75% of one of my prior communities owned at least one species of pet, but often several species. Some friends and I are doing our best to change the attitude that "pet halacha" isn't a priority in rabbinic education, but change is always slow. However, at least there is a growing public conversation that is allowing pet owners to pool their knowledge and to locate far-away rabbis who are qualified to answer these questions.

When talking about pets, you need to assess your local rabbi's knowledge and his willingness to ask someone more knowledgeable in a particular halachic area. You can ask him what he has learned and if he knows a rabbi who is knowledgeable on pet issues. It helps if your rabbi owns pets or has owned them. Some things just can't be explained to someone who has never had a pet, and sometimes those facts can be halachically relevant. I'm told there's one book on the topic of pet halacha, but I haven't found it, and you don't see many rabbis publishing papers about it. (I did find a book about the halacha of wild animals!)

In some ways, pet shailahs are very similar to conversion: a community rabbi knows very little about today's conversion process (as opposed to what's "on paper" halachically) nor does he know how to apply halacha to someone "between" halachic statuses. Likewise, many rabbis (most?) know very little about the divergent opinions about pets and the various strategies that have been found to make pet ownership easier halachically. It is absolutely possible to own a pet with little to no halachic issues other than buying the right food.

These are some of the major issues that a community rabbi needs to know in order to serve the average community:
  • The rules of what pets can eat, particularly no mixing meat and milk and no chametz during Pesach. (Though I learned this year that there is a possible work-around for animals who can't survive without chametz - other than "selling" your pet to a friend to petsit for 8 days. I'm afraid I don't know enough to explain it to you.)
  • The various opinions on touching pets on Shabbat. People often say, "Pets are per se muktzeh on Shabbat," but rabbis don't always think to investigate the issue. That may have been true for much of history, but I would argue it's not today for at least dogs and cats. Of course, I'm no rabbi!
  • The rules of Shabbat and yom tov as applied to a pet. For instance, which dog tags, if any, can be carried on a collar on yom tov? How should you carry the leash? What will you do with the poop? What would you do if your pet escaped on Shabbat or yom tov? What would you do if your dog were hit by a car on Shabbat? How will you take care of your dog's needs if the eruv is down?
  • How to halachically neuter a pet (because your pet should absolutely be neutered!).
These questions are often machlokets and need to be decided before you're in the situation. For instance, when your dog runs away on Shabbat is not the time to hunt down the rabbi for a shailah!

Pet owners: have I forgotten anything major?

In happy dog news, we've recently welcomed two new puppies to the frum-female-blogging-world (that I know of): Max and Sabra!


  1. Our neighbourhood here in Monsey is overrun by frum dogs, mostly female. We are loving having a dog. We did not fully research the neutering halachot before we adopted Max - and thank G-d our Rabbi and the North Shore Animal Shelter worked together to make this happen.

    Animals are G-d's creatures too - and they bring so much joy!

    Thanks for the shout out!

  2. Putting your pet inside a cage on Shabbat. Fixing a cage or air filter on Shabbat. There are other questions that are easier to dispense with like: eating prior to feeding your pet.

    1. Putting the dog inside a cage (or shutting a room's door on it, for that matter): My understanding is that is a common misunderstanding because you can't trap an animal that is already domesticated and trapped. If the front door were open and unobstructed or the animal was "un-trapped" seems like a very different matter. If I remember correctly, the case in the Gemara is being able to shut the fence door on cows.

      As for eating before your pet, it's interesting because that contradicts dog psychology and the theories behind dog training (higher-ranked individuals eat first, and you certainly want your dog to treat every human as alpha dog, even children). I try to time it so that our feeding schedules don't have anything to do with each other. It's also a big reason I try to always have food out, rather than a set feeding schedule (which is only slightly less frowned upon in dog training theory). I'm able to do that because my dogs show no risk of becoming obese any time soon.

    2. It's actually a deer in the Gemara, but the point is the same. Anyway, the point is that there are lots of questions to pursue and deal with here. I remember Rav Koenigsberg gave me a compelling reason why one could consider poop not mukzeh if you have to pick it up (in your own yard, you could leave it potentially) but I forget the details.

    3. I love dogs, so I was disturbed by the general attitude towards them in the orthodox community. Even more I was astounded by how many were actually scared of even the littlest puppies! Dogs were such a normal part of my every day life for years. After my last dog passed away at a very old age I never got another one b/c I had a SN kid at the time and new I couldn't afford the attention a dog deserves, but I plan on getting one asap now that's we're moving to a house. Guess I need to learn the halacha now!

    4. To be pedantic, excrement being muktza does not mean it cannot be moved under certain circumstances. [and to be more pedantic, muktza items generally cannot be _moved_; the prohibition is not on touching].

      But I don't know what the precise application to a pet are; regrettably, I grew up in a home with a very allergic mother, and now our fourth floor apartment in RBS would not be a good environment for the dog I'd love to have...

    5. I'd imagine moving poop in a public area (as opposed to your private backyard) has to do with health and safety (especially disease prevention), as well as being unlawful to leave it there. That's total conjecture; I'm not sure what's actually relevant. Honestly, the idea of it being muktzeh never occurred to me.

  3. you are right, there is such a lack of information out there:

    Chag Samech!

  4. I echo what Mikeage said - it makes me CRAZY when people say you can't touch dogs and cats because of concerns about muktza; the issur of muktza is on MOVING muktza, so the problem when it comes to dogs and cats is not that they shouldn't be touched, but that they shouldn't be picked up.

    1. But we also don't touch money or pens. It's not a big jump and there is plenty of precedent for it. There are also concerns about removing the hair by petting them, in addition to whether that's moving muktzeh (the hair being muktzeh in addition to the overall pet, I guess?).

      But really, pets are not muktzeh. Pets used to not have Shabbosdik uses. They were utilitarian: protection, livestock guarding, whatever. Now all they're used for is companionship and affection, both of which are Shabbosdik. The animals have left the barn behind. Therefore, they have a use on Shabbat and thus are not muktzeh. I believe that argument was popularized by Rav Moshe.

      Most people who say they're muktzeh are just repeating it mindlessly and without ever looking into the issue.

    2. This is pretty late coming I know, but I wonder what the halacha would be on assistance dogs?

  5. My cats don't cause many halakhic issues, beyond their fragile stomachs seeming to be in open revolt against the kosher l'pesach catfood this year, although I think this has more to do with them wanting to express their displeasure at missing out on their usual Pesach week of tuna instead! :)

    In general, on Shabbos and Yom Tovim, we're usually to busy to spend much time fussing over our furry overlords and they groom themselves. We have a self-feeder and waterer and I just put off cleaning the litter until after Shabbos. My daughter also sees Shabbos as a great excuse for why one of the cats should get to sit in her chair at dinner or sleep in her room. "But Ima...we CAN'T trap him tonight!"

    Luckily, our male cat was neutered before we got him, but I'd really like to hear more on ways to neuter pets within halakha. I've found in my experience, that male kitties make friendlier pets.

  6. I have two cats, one of whom is quite elderly (she's 23); she has mammory cancer and a thyroid condition.  To spite all that, she isn't in pain and she's a fairly active, happy old lady.  

    A few weeks ago, she got out on Shabbos.  While excuting the occasional escapes is one of her favorite activities, I now refer to this particular adventure as 'the day I learned that skunks don't actually hibernate'.  (Many sources say skunks do hibernate, but don't you believe it!)

    When my beloved kitty returned home, she was she reeking of skunk, wretching from the smell, and was cut and scratched in various places.  I immediately decided to help her and get her cleaned up and then to the vet.

    Unfortunately, I still can't seem to decipher what I SHOULD have done.   It was Shabbos and I'll posit that cat washing isn't an approved activity - but letting her suffer until sundown seemed so very wrong also!  I've heard people discuss facing situations where halacha seemed counter to proper moral action, but I'd never experienced it. (And honestly, even if Baal Shem Tov and Elijah, himself, came down and told me to leave her alone until after havdalah...  I'm not sure I would have listened.)

    Any pet owners have any insights? Or know where to look? 

    PS.  If your pet gets skunked, use lemon juice rather than tomato to remove the smell. Lemon juice works better and doesn't turn your pet's white fur a light pink. (And yes, I speak from experience.)

  7. There are many sources on the topic of pets in halacha. Here are a few: Baba Kama 15b, Baba Kama 79b-80a, 83a, Rambam Hilchot Nizkei Mammon 5:9, Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 409:3, Sheilat Yaavetz (by Rabbi Yaakov Emden), number 17.

    Rabbi Howard Jachter has an article on this topic:

    There’s a shiur on yutorah by Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz on the halachos of neutering and pet ownership. Here’s a link:

    Here are my notes from the shiur:
    It’s assur for a Jew to neuter pets. The Shulchan Aruch says you’re not allowed to ask a non-Jew to neuter your animal, (there is an opinion that it’s muttar to relieve suffering of the animal.) Rabbi Jachter said you would have to ask a goy to ask another goy to neuter an animal. Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Rabbi Mordechai Willig of YU say you shouldn’t rely on these heterim for neutering just to have a pet. Rabbi Willig says we should tell Yirai Shamayim (those who fear Hashem) not to get a dog.

    Apparently, a book that deals with pet ownership is Man & Beast: Our Relationships with Animals in Jewish Law and Thought, pp. 234-238. It is by the controversial Rabbi Nassan Slifkin. (The book can be ordered here:

    Skylar, this was an intellectually lazy post. You don’t quote any sources or Talmidei Chachamim who permit or encourage pet ownership. You also said in your comment at 1:24 that pets aren’t muktzah and quote Rav Moshe. This is in fact his opinion, but almost all other authorities, including Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Shmirat Shabat Kehilchata 27, footnote 96), reject it. Here’s a post on that:

    1. If you think this is intellectually lazy, I'm going to guess you're new in these parts. The fact that I cited anyone at all is exceptionally rare. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one other time in over 400 posts in a year and a half. I'm not knowledgeable enough for that; so I throw it out there and see what people have to say. This blog isn't about citations. I do that enough in my day job, and this is meant to be friendly conversation. If people want citations, they can ask their rabbi.

      This isn't an intellectual blog. It's a practical one, meant to look at what people actually do. (And sometimes that doesn't even align with the halacha! Scandal!)

      As for the book, I believe that's the one I saw, and it was mostly about wild animals, not pets. However, that was based on a 30 second perusal.

  8. With all due respect for Rav Willig and others who hold that Yirei Shamayim should no own pets, then I guess I'll just be a Rabbi who isn't a Yore Shamayim. If he's okay with that, then so am I. (I count myself as a Talmid of his)

    If my dog isn't a Kelev Ra then there's no reason I can't have one. Telling someone not to go down a path because it gets dicey smacks of Rabbinic laziness. Rabbis who have lived their whole lives in New York and its environs have little appreciation for what the lives of people are like outside of it.

  9. Great little article in Hirhurim about the different opinions of pets on Shabbat:

  10. I have a real dislike for dogs, though I am well aware that it's due to how I was raised. My father was raised to hate dogs, and my grandfather hates dogs because one almost castrated him in Auschwitz. Still, even knowing the reason for my own dislike, even knowing that for me it's irrational (makes total sense for my grandfather though), I still dislike dogs.

  11. if your law forbids the sexual mutilation of an animal, asking someone else to do it or even a series of other people to pass on the request to accomplish it, is totally
    against the spirit and purpose of the law, and you stand guilty,you have initiated the process so it is as if you did the act yourself.

    1. A) I'm gonna guess you're not a rabbi. So already, your statement doesn't hold much weight.

      B) If you are Jewish (since you say "your law," I'm guessing you probably aren't), you should take a hard look at selling chametz but keeping it in your home and the "walls" of an eruv (not to mention the entire concept of an eruv that can cover an entire midwestern town). They're legal fictions. And they're still legal, just as legal fictions are still "real" and "legal" in the secular law. Unless you'd like to say the rabbis are full of it while you're at it.

      Leave blanket pronouncements of lawgiving to people who actually know what they're talking about.

    2. I'm reminded of Richard Feynman's tale of attempting to use this article on JTS (!) Rabbinical students, as excerpted at

  12. I suppose the question would be, is neutering a pet a mutilation, or an operation? It is not done today as it was many years ago, without anesthetic and by crushing a male animals testicles (used to be done to horses by cutting them off or crushing them with rocks)but under anesthetic and for the purpose of enhancing their domestic lives. Neutered and spayed domestic animals are usually happier and healthier and live longer than their unaltered counterparts and don't create unwanted animals that must be destroyed or live miserable lives.

    As I recall, women are permitted (if needed for spacing children, health concerns etc) to use any form of birth control including having the tubes tied if necessary, while men are not generally permitted to use any (with rare exceptions).

    Theoretically, it should be a simple matter to have female animals spayed and the remaining question would be, are male animals obligated to breed (or be able to potentially breed) in the same manner as human men? Having no moral agency, I can't see how they would be.

    If there is no such obligation on individual animals to breed, and it can be considered an operation for their greater well-being and health rather than a mutilation done out of cruelty or solely for human benefit, I'm having a hard time seeing why it should be forbidden for a Jew to ask for it to be done (usually your vet asks you, actually) or even for a Jewish vet to perform them.

  13. Your pets don't actually need to keep kosher. Your pets aren't Jewish - to be Jewish requires either conversion or the birth to a Jewish mother. Just as a gentile is not required to keep kosher, a pet is not required to keep kosher. That does not mean that you should not follow the general kosher rules regarding your household. But what the pet ingests doesn't matter so long as it doesn't violate the kosher status of your household.

    I don't know about catching your pet on Shabbos - I just don't know enough to make a comment. But for the person whose cat was sprayed with skunk and suffering, I think that it is appropriate to take the steps to alleviate the animal's pain. If you look to kosher butchering, there is a great emphasis placed on methods of butchering that are extremely humane. The blade must be especially sharp, it must be wielded by someone who is highly trained, and that person must have a strong love for/fear of G-d (and hence unlikely to be butchering for the delight of causing harm).

    Where a person's health or life is at stake, we are required to break Shabbos in order to obtain medical care for that person. While there is a great difference between bathing a cat and driving a woman in labor to the hospital, I can't see there being a mandate to cause an animal suffering in the name of honoring the Shabbos.

    Finally, as to neutering/spaying, the simple solution to this is to adopt a rescue animal either from a pound or from a rescue agency. Not only are you giving a good home to an animal that likely would otherwise be killed, but you get to avoid the question altogether as these groups invariably neuter/spay the animals before they release them to the public.

  14. As a dog and cat owner that is currently in the early infancies of the process of conversion me and my wife are really scared the Beis din will turn us down solely because we have pets. Has anyone expereinced anything like this?

    1. Don't worry. I've never heard of anyone turned down for having pets. Worst case scenario, I know of one rabbi (an independent rabbi, not part of any RCA beit din to my knowledge) who makes people promise to not get any more pets after their current ones die. I know of a chareidi beit din through Agugath Yisrael that required a convert to commit to not petting her cat on Shabbat (because of concerns about muktzeh, which is an argument that rabbis disagree on). However, even this very right-wing beit din did not object to pet ownership itself. Personally, I worked with two different RCA beit dins, and my 2 dogs and 1 cat were never mentioned (they did know about them). If anything, perhaps they should have mentioned how difficult pet ownership can make dating because of so many people in the community don't understand pets and even fear them. (Even then, it worked out wonderfully for me.) But since you're married, that doesn't apply! Honestly, as a married couple converting, pets will be the least of your concerns. Converting a family (whether it's one Jew or none) is complicated and takes time and causes frustrations because no one moves at the same pace as the other one. Pets will be a studying checkmark rather than a hurdle, I think.

      Your mileage could vary, but if this were brought up as a serious issue (as opposed to making sure you understand the halachas of pet ownership, which can be very complicated), I think you should take that as a red flag that this is not the beit din for you. (And if it's the case of an individual rabbi on a RCA beit din, they need to learn more about the halacha and how thousands of frum Jews make it work just fine; it is likely a case of personal bias and stereotype rather than reasoned halachic analysis.) Along those lines, make sure you find a rabbi who owns a pet (whether or not he works as a community rabbi). Do not take halachic rulings about pets from people who have never owned a pet. They don't understand the factors involved, the alternatives, or the norms. They're simply not qualified, but they never realize how unqualified they are. It seems so straightforward on paper! Good luck!

    2. You're very fortunate in the US to be able to choose a Beit Din. In the UK we have two! Or three if you count Gateshead, but there are only two who deal with geirus.