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Mishpatim(Exodus 21-24)

All About Dogs

As a little girl, my wife often asked her father for a pet. And she always received the same answer: "What do you need a pet for? You have brothers!"

What was my father-in-law saying? Why spend time taking care of an animal, when a human being - created in the image of God - could be the focus of one's attentions?

Which is not to say that Judaism is "anti-animal." In fact, the Torah prohibits causing pain to animals, and even prohibits sitting down for a meal until one's animals have been fed! And of course, hunting for sport is known to be a rare pastime among Jews.

The dog in particular plays a prominent role in Jewish lore.The Hebrew word for dog, kelev, can be translated as "close to the heart" - a reference to the loyalty and companionship dogs often have to their masters.Here are some more canine references:

  • Jewish tradition reports that dogs can be vicious; the Talmud says that dogs used to help guard Israel's Northern border.
  • The Sages say that dogs (at least of ancient times) possessed a sixth sense, knowing even when the "angel of death" had come into town.
  • There are many references in the Prophets of people comparing themselves to a "dead dog" - indicating a lowly individual, unworthy of special attention.

The dog is also mentioned in this week's Torah portion. The Torah, in discussing various ritual laws, states:

"You shall not eat the meat of an animal that was torn in the field, to the dog shall you throw it." (Exodus 22:30)

Eating the meat of a kosher animal that has been savaged by a wild animal is considered a loathsome act. The Torah only permits the consumption of meat from an animal that has been slaughtered in the ritual manner of "sh'chita," which causes the animal minimal pain.

But why does the Torah single out the dog to be the recipient of an non-kosher carcass?

The Midrash refers to another mention of dogs: In Exodus 11:7, concerning the Israelites' departure from Egypt, God promises that the Exodus will be so unopposed that "not even a dog will bark..."

Rashi (11th century France) notes how these verses are one way in which God assures us that the guilty ultimately receive their punishment, just as the righteous receive their reward. Because the dogs were silent during the Exodus from Egypt - allowing the Jews to leave without the annoyance of any disturbance (any to "rain on their parade") -therefore the Almighty rewarded the dogs by declaring that meat from injured animals should be thrown to them. Rashi says that if the Almighty rewards such actions from animals, certainly He will reward human actions.

But that's not all. The very next verse (Exodus 23:1) says:

"Do not utter a false report."

What's the connection? In Jewish tradition, a barking and yapping dog is symbolic of one who speaks "loshon hara" (gossip) about others.

The Talmud says the juxtaposition of the two verses is not accidental. He who utters a "false report" (even gossip that may in fact be "true") has besmirched the gift of speech, and belongs in the company of annoying, barking dogs.

January 11, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 11

(9) Anonymous, March 1, 2017 11:37 AM

Amen. Excellent article and very well written! Thanks for posting!

(8) Anonymous, December 30, 2012 4:01 PM

Rabbi Appel Got it Half RIght

Dogs can be both viscous and very sweet. Dogs were used to guard Israel's northern border. Now dogs are an integral part of the IDF, protecting against terrorist attacks and bomb threats: The Sages are correct (not just for biblical times) that dogs possess a sixth sense. Not only can they sense the "Angel of Death," but they can sense many things in the way of smells and sounds (and possibly other means of communication) that are transparent to us humans. With respect to the Exodus, the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes solved the crime in "Silver Blaze" by deducing it was the owner of the house who was the criminal. How did he know? Because the dog did not bark. The only person who could have committed the crime without arousing the dog was someone the dog knew as a friend; the dog's owner. We can deduce that the dogs knew the Israelites, either naturally or through divine intervention. As a youngster, the neighborhood dogs would playfully accompany us kids to the bus stop, but would get very testy if a stranger approached. By the way, some dogs are annoying yapping dogs, barking at anything and everything, while most only bark to warn. Likewise, we humans have gossipers, those that speak lashon hara and those that utter false reports and still others that guard their tongues. Uttering a false report is NOT loshon hara, rather it is hotzaat shem a/k/a hotzaat diba and translates to slander or defamation. Loshon hara is the the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose. Mere gossip (rechilut) is also prohibited. An in depth analysis can be found in the writings of Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan (Chafetz Chaim), particularly Shmirat HaLashon. Uttering a false report is a grave sin compared to lashon hara or rechilut. It derives from Exodus 23:1. The prohibition against mere gossip and possibly against lashon hara derives from Leviticus 19:16 and 25:17.

(7) Jeanne, January 25, 2011 6:16 PM

annoying, barking dogs vs loshon hara

What a very good comparison between annoying, barking dogs and "loshon hara". I pray to HaShem that he will bring the picture of "annoying and barking dogs" to mind before I give into the temptation of gossip. Thank you for this wonderful article.

(6) Anonymous, January 25, 2011 2:10 AM

a blessing

My very elderly mother, who can't see or hear very well, has a little dog who helps her know people have arrived at her home. This loving, hard-working little dog is a blessing from Hashem who has such boundless mercy.

(5) Sara, January 24, 2011 9:11 PM

There is a fine line between humans and dogs

Today like no other time in history I see people going over board with their pets, dogs included. So many diseases are being transmitted between humans and animals. It was just on the news the doctors was saying that you should sleep with your pets nor kiss them in the mouth. Some people are treating animals better than themselves or family members. I understand clearing what this article is saying.

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