Halachic Perspectives on Pets - Part I by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society Number XXIII



            In recent decades, it has become common among some observant Jews to own pets.  A pet owner, however, is regularly confronted with a wide variety of Halachic issues.  The following several articles will discuss a number of these issues, among them caring for a pet's needs, removing reproductive organs, Hilchot Shabbat problems, and bringing a guide dog into a shul.  The discussion will begin with an examination of a fundamental question, the Halachic propriety of owning pets.


The Propriety of Owning Pets

            The Halachic literature indicates that it has been common practice among Ashkenazic Jews over the past several centuries to own non-farm animals, especially dogs.1  Rabbinic authorities have debated the propriety and permissibility of this practice.  Their positions depend to a great extent on how they harmonize seemingly contradictory Talmudic texts which appear in tractate Bava Kama.  The Gemara (Bava Kama 15b) cites Rabbi Natan, who asserts that one who raises an "evil dog" in his home violates the biblical prohibition "Do not place blood in your home" (Devarim 22:8).2  The implication is that it is permissible to raise a dog in one's home provided that the creature is not an "evil dog."  Rabbi Yishmael, in fact, permits one to raise a type of dog known as a Kofri dog (Rashi: small dogs or large hunting dogs which do no harm) since they help eliminate rodents (Bava Kama 80a).

            On the other hand, the Gemara (Bava Kama 79b) writes that one is forbidden to own a dog unless it is securely chained (if the dog is securely chained it will neither do any damage nor frighten anyone with its bark).  Moreover, the Amoraim pronounced a curse upon one who owns dogs (Bava Kama 83a).  These statements seem to apply to all dogs.

            Rambam (Hilchot Nizkei Mammon 5:9), in fact, rules that it is forbidden to raise any dog unless it is secured by chains "since dogs frequently cause considerable damage."  Rambam apparently believes that Rabbi Yishmael's permissive ruling is contradicted by the Mishna and Gemara of Bava Kama 79b and 83a, respectively.  Rabbi Yishmael, accordingly, would be the sole authority who permits raising Kofri dogs, and thus Rambam believes that the consensus of opinion among Talmudic authorities rejects his view.3

            Most Rishonim, however, including  Smag,4  Yeraim,5 Tur,6 and Hagahot Maimoniyot,7 disagree with Rambam and limit this prohibition to "evil dogs."  These authorities believe that the statements that appear on Bava Kama 79b and 83a are limited to "evil dogs."8

            Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 409:3) rules in accordance with the opinions that limit the prohibition to an "evil dog."  The Acharonim almost without exception accept these opinions as well.9  Rabbi Yaakov Emden appears to be the lone authority who believes one is forbidden to own any type of dog.10

            The question, though, is how to define an "evil dog."  Rashi (explaining why Bava Kama 79b forbids raising a dog unless it is chained) writes, "It bites and barks, thereby causing pregnant women to miscarry."  Rashi can be interpreted in one of two ways (since he uses the Hebrew letter Vav which sometimes means "and" and sometimes means "or").  The first possibility is that an evil dog is one that both bites and barks, and the second possibility is that it is one that either bites or barks.  Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo Bava Kama 7:45) is inclined to adopt the second possibility and suggests that a dog is considered to be "evil" if it barks, even if it does not bite.  The reason for this, Rabbi Luria recounts, is that a dog's bark11  may cause a woman to miscarry.  The Gemara (Bava Kama 83a), in fact, records two incidents of women who miscarried because they were frightened by dogs.  Therefore, Rabbi Luria suggests that the only dogs one may own are the Kofri dogs that Rabbi Yishmael explicitly asserts are permitted.  Rabbi Luria seems to indicate that one is permitted to own these dogs even if they bark.  Apparently, since people are aware that these dogs are not harmful, they know that they need not fear these dogs' bark.

            Nevertheless, Rabbi Luria limits his ruling to "God-fearing individuals" and concludes his discussion by stating, "Therefore, we must excuse the Jewish people (i.e., those who own dogs which bark but do not bite) but praised is one who is careful [to limit his ownership to Kofri type dogs] and blessings should be conferred upon him."  The implication is that there is some Halachic justification for those Jews who own dogs that bark but do not bite.  The justification seems to be based on an interpretation of Rashi's description of an "evil dog" as one that both bites and barks.  Accordingly, only a dog that bites would frighten a woman with its bark and possibly cause a miscarriage.

            Shulchan Aruch Harav (Hilchot Shemirat Guf V'nefesh, number 3) adopts a similar, albeit somewhat more firm, stance on this issue.  He notes that Jews commonly own dogs that bark but do not bite and that some authorities justify the practice by limiting the definition of an evil dog to one that bites.  Shulchan Aruch Harav asserts, however, that this view is rejected by the consensus of Halachic authorities and that the category of "evil dogs" includes those dogs which bark even though they do not bite.  Therefore, he concludes that "all God-fearing Jews should be certain to keep their dogs that bark tied up in iron chains while people are awake, even if their dogs merely bark but do not bite."  On the other hand, Knesset Hagedola (Choshen Mishpat 409:4) notes that the common practice among Jews is not to accept the stringent view of Yam Shel Shlomo and Shulchan Aruch Harav.  He indicates that the custom is to own dogs which bark as long as they do not bite.

            Although Knesset Hagedola writes that the common practice among observant Jews is not to follow the opinion of Yam Shel Shlomo, it appears proper to follow the latter's opinion.  First, Shulchan Aruch Harav, which is recognized as a major Halachic work, supports Rabbi Luria's position.  Second, the Gemara considers a dog's fearsome bark to be a public nuisance.  Hence, if one chooses to own a dog, one should be certain not only that the dog does not bite, but also that the creature does not frighten people with its bark.  However, if one finds it absolutely necessary to raise a dog that may cause harm (for protection, for example), one must be certain that the animal is tied up securely at times when it may do damage either with its bite or its bark.

            Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Sheilat Yaavetz, number 17) adds a further restriction to the type of dog one may own.  He writes that one is permitted to own a dog if the creature serves an economic or protective purpose.  However, he strongly condemns ownership of a dog as a pet as being a waste of time and "precisely the [abhorrent] behavior of the uncircumcised."

            Nevertheless, Rabbi Emden does not marshal sources to support this position and appears to constitute a minority view.12  Shulchan Aruch and most authorities limit the Talmudic prohibition to ownership of "evil dogs."  The clear implication is that one may own a dog for any reason, provided it is not an evil dog.13  Moreover, the Talmud indicates that Jews used various animals for recreational purposes.  The Mishna (Shabbat 90b) relates that children used to play with a certain type of locust.  The Gemara (Bava Batra 20a) tells of a certain type of bird known as "Kalanita," with which a child can use to play.  These two passages seem to demonstrate that the Mishna has no objections to keeping animals for enjoyment, contrary to the position of Rabbi Emden.  Rabbi Emden might respond that these passages do not discuss dogs and do not prove that one may keep a dog as a pet.  Rabbi Emden might agree that one may own a pet which does not require much attention.  Perhaps he believes that only keeping a dog as a pet mimics "the abhorrent behavior of the uncircumcised."

            Our discussion regarding dogs appears to apply to ownership of other animals as well.  Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 261:1) rules that one may kill an "evil cat" which harms children.  Once again the rule is limited to an "evil" animal.  The general principle according to most authorities is that one may own a pet provided that the animal does not pose a danger to people or property.14

            Next week, God willing and Bli Neder, we will discuss the issue of feeding pets.


                  1.  See Rama, Choshen Mishpat 409:3; Yam Shel Shlomo Bava Kama 7:45; Knesset Hagedola Choshen Mishpat 409:4; Shulchan Aruch Harav, Hilchot Shmirat Guf V'nefesh, number 3.

                  2.  See Rambam, Hilchot Rotzeach, 11.

                  3.  There are two possible explanations of how Rambam interprets Rabbi Natan's statement cited in Bava Kama 15b.  One possibility is that his opinion, like Rabbi Yishmael's, is a minority view that the majority opinion (presented on Bava Kama 79b and Bava Kama 83a) rejects.  The other possibility is that the biblical prohibition applies only to an "evil dog."  However, the rabbis extended this prohibition to all dogs.  A careful examination of Rambam Hilchot Nizkei Mammon 5:9 appears to indicate that the prohibition is indeed on a rabbinic level.

                  4.  Positive commandments, number 66.

                  5.  Number 210.

                  6.  Choshen Mishpat 409.

                  7.  Hilchot Rotzeach 11:3.

                  8.  See Yam Shel Shlomo Bava Kama 7:45.

                  9.  Ibid.  See also Shulchan Aruch Harav, Hilchot Shmirat Guf V'nefesh number 3, Tosafot Yom Tov Bava Kama 7:7, and Aruch Hashulchan Choshen Mishpat 409:4.

                  10.  Sheilat Yaavetz, number 17.  Rabbi Emden's position appears to be contradictory.  First he states that it is forbidden to raise any dog and dismisses Rabbi Yishmael's permissive ruling as a lone view which the Halacha rejects.  However, later in the responsum he writes that it is permissible to possess dogs which are necessary for economic or security reasons.

                  11.  It seems that this refers only to a frightening bark and not to every dog's bark.  Only a frightening bark would be likely to cause a miscarriage.

                  12.  A number of authorities disapprove of keeping animals as pets, such as Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid (Sefer Chassidim number 1038), who condemns owning birds as "adding nonsense" (Midrash Kohelet 6:11 seems to be the source for this statement).  He adds that the money one spends on these birds should have been donated to charity.  The Sephardic Halachic authority, Rabbi Chaim Pelaggi (Tochachat Chaim, Parshat Beshalach, page 126) cites this opinion of Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid.  Rabbi Yaakov Breisch (Chelkat Yaakov 3:87) also writes that it is inconsistent with the spirit of Judaism to own a dog.  However, he does not offer any proof to this assertion.  In addition, a number of authorities object to owning dogs based on Kabbalistic teachings (Pele Yoetz, s.v. Kelev).  However, these comments have not been incorporated into mainstream Halachic works such as the Shulchan Aruch.  It should be noted, though, that it is unquestionably permissible for a blind person to own a guide dog.  These dogs are well-trained and do not pose any danger.  In addition, owning such an animal does not mimic "the abhorrent behavior of the uncircumcised" since the owner has a great need for the dog.  It also should be noted that a number of rabbinic authorities believe placing a bird into a cage to be a violation of Tzaar Baalei Chaim - the prohibition against causing unnecessary pain to animals (see Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halachic Problems, volume three, page 195, footnote 3).

                  13.  The Gemara (Bava Metzia 71a) urges a widow not to own a dog because she will be suspected of committing bestiality (presumably, this rule is limited to a widow who lives alone).  Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 22:18) codifies this rule but Taz (ad. loc. 10) approvingly cites the opinion of Tosafot (Bava Metzia 71a s.v. Lo) who state that this law is a "mere stringency" and that it is essentially permissible for a widow to own a dog "since the people of Israel are not suspected of committing bestiality" (see Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer 24:1).

                  14.  Three essays have recently been published on this topic in Hebrew.  Rabbi Yaakov Navon, "Gidul Kelavim, Nizkam, Vehamisdzar Bahem" (Techumin IX, pp. 171-190), presents the opinions of Rabbi Luria and Rabbi Emden as authoritative.  He fails to note both the Knesset Hagedola's recording of the common practice among Jews to follow a more lenient ruling than that of Rabbi Luria and the latter's defense of the practice of those who own dogs which bark but do not bite. Moreover, he does not note that Rabbi Emden's position is rejected by most authorities.  Rabbi Yigal Ariel's essay, "Gidul Baalei Chayim," (Techumin VIII, pp. 243-258) concludes that it is preferable to restrict one's ownership of dogs to those which do not frighten people with their bark (in harmony with the position of Yam Shel Shlomo).  In his book Chayto Aretz, Rabbi Menachem Slay examines the propriety of owning pets purely for recreational purposes in a chapter entitled "Hachzakat Chayot Bayit Ketachbiv" pp. 53-65, and provides a wealth of sources on this topic. He notes positive aspects of pet ownership such as acquiring an appreciation of the magnificence of God's creation.  It is worthwhile to note that in classical rabbinic writings there exists positive comments regarding dogs' loyalty to their masters (see Horiyot 13a, Jerusalem Talmud, Terumot 8:3, Bereishit Rabbah 22:12, Bereishit Rabbah 73:11, and Pesikta D'Rav Kahane, Paragraph 10 [Beshalach]). On the other hand, Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 571) in his explanation of why the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:19) forbids offering a sacrifice purchased with money acquired from the sale of a dog writes "it is well known that dogs are brazen and mean."

Halachic Perspectives on Pets - Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

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