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All About Dogs

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Yehuda Appel

The role of dogs in Jewish lore.

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.

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