In describing our miraculous departure from Egypt, the Pasuk makes a special mention of dogs: “But against any of the children of Israel no dog shall sharpen his tongue, against man or beast; that you may know that Hashem distinguishes between Egypt and Israel” (Shemos 11:4-7).
As commentaries explain, the silence of the dogs was a part of the distinction that Hashem made between the dying Egyptians and the nascent Jewish nation. Chazal teach that the dogs were rewarded for their part in the miracle. As the Mechilta explains (on this Pasuk), the Torah therefore assigns non-Kosher meat to dogs (Shemos 22:30). We throw them our non-Kosher meat (tereifa) because Hashem remembers their unnatural silence in Egypt.
A common animal owned as a pet is the domestic dog, commonly referred to as “man’s best friend,” in recognition of dogs’ special loyalty and companionship. Since some Jewish homes have a dog, there is reason to reflect on the halachic aspects of dog ownership.
It is proper to own dogs? It is permitted to neuter a pet, where there is a need? And what are the relevant halachos for feeding pet animals? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Owning a Dog
The Gemara (Bava Kama 15b) cites Rabbi Noson that one who raises an “evil dog” in his home transgresses the Torah prohibition, “Do not place blood in your home” (Devarim 22:8).
This clearly implies that when the dog is not evil—that is, a dog that is not likely to cause damage (see also below)—the Torah permits one to raise a dog. Later in Bava Kama (80a) we find specific permission (in the name of Rabbi Yishmael) to raise dogs to eliminate rodents. Rashi explains that the reference is to small dogs or hunting dogs that do no harm.
At the same time, we find that it is forbidden to own a dog unless the dog is securely chained up, so that it cannot cause physical damage, nor frighten anyone with its bark—which the Gemara notes can cause a woman to miscarry her child (Bava Kama 79b). This applies to any dog, and not only to those of especially dangerous breeds.
The Gemara expands on this statement (83a), also mentioning (in the name of Rabbi Eliezer) that one who raises a dog is considered as one who raises a pig, for which a special curse applies. The Rama (in his commentary to the Gemara) explains that this refers only to an untied dog, and not to a dog that is kept tied.
Based on these sources, the Rambam (Nizkei Mammon 5:9) rules that it is forbidden to raise any dog unless it is secured by chains. He explains the reason for this: “…since dogs often cause significant damage.”
However, most early authorities understand that the restriction noted in the Gemara concerning chaining a dog is limited to evil dogs—dogs prone to damaging others. For domesticated and well-behaved dogs there is no such restriction, and it is permitted to keep such a dog without concern (see Tur, Choshen Mishpat 409; Hagahos Maimoni, Rotze’ach 11:3; Semag, Aseh 66). This lenient opinion is noted by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 409:3), and this is also the general ruling given by later authorities.
What is an Evil Dog?
In defining an evil dog (which is forbidden to keep at home), the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 7:45) writes that only dogs that neither bite nor bark are not in the category. As noted above, a dog that barks is considered dangerous since a bark can cause a woman to miscarry. Thus he requires chaining one’s dog even if it only barks.
The Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Shmiras Guf Ve’nefesh, 3) reaches a similar conclusion, noting that many Jews own dogs that bark but do not bite, but stating that the justification for this is weak since the consensus of authorities is that even a dog that merely barks must not be left unchained. He concludes that “all G-d-fearing Jews should ensure that barking dogs are secured with iron chains while people are awake, even if these dogs merely bark and do not bite” (see also Kenesses Hagedola, Choshen Mishpat 409:4).
Some rabbinic authorities continue to highlight the negative aspects of keeping dogs. Rav Yaakov Emden (Sheilas Yaavetz 17) states that it is only permitted to keep dogs for purposes of protection or for an economic reason, but other than this one should refrain from the practice, which reflects the negative ways of non-Jews. A similar statement is made by Rav Yaakov Breisch (Chelkas Yaakov 2:34), who writes that keeping dogs is an arrogant practice. Shut Shevet HaLevi (6:241) also writes that even when permitted, keeping a dog at home is inappropriate and befits “those who are empty and lowly.”
Yet, the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 409:3) states that this depends on the common custom of the place, writing “go and see what the custom is.” Today there are areas where dogs are common, and other areas where they are rare. In the former areas, it will certainly be permitted to keep a non-dangerous dog at home, and this is sometime recommended for reasons of therapy, for benefit of children, and so on. In the latter areas, where some will be upset by a dog’s bark (and there is special concern for pregnant women), it would be improper, and potentially forbidden (if left unchained) to keep a dog.
Many people keep dangerous dogs such as German Shepherds at home to prevent burglary. The Ramo justifies this practice but rules that one must keep these types of dogs in chains.
The Pasuk states (Devarim 11:15): “I will give grass in your fields for your animal, and you shall eat and be satisfied.” The Gemara (Berachos 40a; Gittin 62a) derives from here that one may not eat before feeding his animals, according to the order in the Torah, providing first for the animal’s needs, and only then for the human’s.
This ruling is not noted by the Shulchan Aruch, apparently following the Rambam, who notes the idea of feeding animals first as a middas chassidus, and not a full obligation (Hilchot Avadim 9:8).
Yet, the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 167:18) cites the statement of the Gemara as normative halacha, noting elsewhere (271:12) in the name of Rav Yaakov Emden that this is actually a biblical prohibition.
The Chayei Adam (45:1), Mishnah Berurah (167:40) and Aruch Hashulchan (167:13) all note this law as a prohibition. One must therefore be careful to refrain from dining (the Mishnah Berurah refers to eating but not to drinking) before feeding one’s animals.
Rav Yaakov Emden (Shut Ya’avetz 1, 17) writes that the halacha of feeding one’s animals does not apply to cats and dogs, if they are not dependent on their owners for survival and can fend for themselves by eating food from the garbage and the like (cited by Shaarei Teshuva 167:9; Chayei Adam 45:1). However, for domesticated animals confined to a house setting, as is the case for dogs in general, this leniency will not apply.
Which Foods to Feed
Note that even to animals one must not feed a cooked mixture of meat and milk, from which it is forbidden to derive benefit (Yoreh De’ah 87:1). This applies specifically to meat from a kosher domesticated animal (beheimos), and not to a fowl, to non-domesticated animals (chayos), or to non-kosher meat (it is permitted to buy non-kosher meat for one’s animals).
There is a particular doubt concerning the status of a meat and milk mixture with meat from a kosher animal that was not ritually slaughtered (see Rambam, commentary to Kerisus 3:4, who is lenient), and because of the doubt involved one should be stringent in this matter (see Pri Megadim, Introduction to the Laws of Mixtures of Milk and Meat; Shut Chasam Sofer 92). The Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Deah 87:12, is lenient.
Another prohibition one must take into account is chametz on Pesach. It is forbidden to derive benefit from chametz on Pesach, so that one must be wary of chametz ingredients in pet food (Shulchan Aruch 448:17). This applies even to food that does not belong to the Jewish owner, whereby there is no transgression in the ownership of the chametz. However, it is permitted to feed one’s animals kitniyos on Pesach, from which there is no prohibition of deriving benefit.
It is common for a pet owner to neuter his pet. Sometimes this is done to male pets, and to dogs in particular, in order to prevent them from behaving aggressively. For female pets this is done to prevent the pet from multiplying. It is permitted to do so under halacha?
The Torah prohibits neutering an animal, as we find in the Torah verse. The words “you shall not do so in your land” (Vayikra 22:24), follow the disqualification of neutered animals as an offering, and are understood as a reference to all animals. The prohibition is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 5:11), though there is debate concerning a female animal as to whether the transgression is biblical or rabbinic (see Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggros Moshe, Even Ha’ezer 4:34).
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 56b) records a dispute whether removal of reproductive organs is forbidden even for non-Jews or not. Rishonim differ about which opinion is accepted in halacha. The Beis Shmuel (Even Haezer 5:16) rules that this dispute has not been resolved, so that a doubt remains over whether it is permitted or not. However, the Gemara explicitly states that according to all opinions it is forbidden for a Jew to ask a gentile to neuter his animal.
There is a dispute whether it is possible to circumvent the prohibition by selling the animal to a non-Jew. Many authorities (see Shut Shoel Umeishiv 3:1:229; Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 185; Shut Haelef Lecha Shlomo, Even Haezer 23) permit selling to a non-Jew who himself will not neuter the animal but will ask another gentile to do so. But this is only suggested as a strained solution for extenuating circumstances, and there is room to doubt whether the convenience of owning pets will be sufficient cause.
The Shevet HaLevi (6:204) rules that it is permitted to ask a non-Jew to neuter a female animal by indirect methods (see Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski, “Tubal Ligation and Jewish Law: An overview,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society VII, pp. 42-52). There are certain newly developed alternatives to castration which do not involve the removal (direct or indirect) of reproductive organs, and these will of course be preferable.
Dogs on Shabbos: Muktza
The Gemara (Shabbos 128b) states that animals are muktza. Since they have no utility, they are comparable to sticks and stones which are classified as muktza machmas gufa (see Magid Mishnah, Hilchot Shabbos 25:25). They are muktza by their very nature, since they have no use on Shabbos.
According to some Rishonim, this applies to all animals, even those that are used to quiet a child. Although they have utility, they are nonetheless muktza for two possible reasons. One is that this is not a sufficient utility to escape the category of muktza machmas gufa since for this purpose a greater measure of utility is required. A second reason is that the Sages classified all animals as muktza regardless of a particular animal’s utility (see Tosafos, Shabbos 45b; Mordechai, Shabbos 316; Hagahos Oshri on Rosh, Shabbos 3:21).
Although some opinions are lenient on this matter, the stringent opinion above is noted by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 308:39), who rules simply and without exception that animals are muktza, and this is made explicit by the Shulchan Aruch Harav (308:78).
What is the halacha, however, for animals that are entirely intended for a person’s companionship or enjoyment? Does the muktza prohibition remain in place? Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 5:22) ruled that pets that are entirely set aside for human recreation, are not muktza on Shabbos, and Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport confirmed (in a letter to R. Tzvi Ryzman) that Rav Moshe told him several times that pets are not muktza. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach tended to be lenient concerning seeing-eye dogs (see Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasa Chap. 18, note 62; Shulchan Shlomo, Orach Chaim 308:39, no. 74), and even ruled that goldfish are not muktza, though on this matter Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled stringently (Orach Chaim 4:16).
Although this ruling is not agreed upon by all authorities (see, for instance, Orchos Shabbos 2:19:124), it seems that there is certainly room for leniency in merely petting an animal, which does not constitute fully moving a muktza item. Likewise, where the dog is in pain or suffering, the added clause of tzaar baalei chaim will permit moving it on Shabbos (see Shut Yabia Omer 5:26, who is stringent concerning dogs in general, but lenient where moving it is required to spare the animal pain; see more generally Mishnah Berurah 305:70).
Carrying on Shabbos
The Torah (Shemos 20:10) requires a person to allow his animals to rest on Shabbos and Yom Tov, just as he rests. This includes the prohibition against carrying in the public domain: just as a person must not carry in the public domain, so a person’s animal must not be allowed to carry something in the public domain. This raises the question of whether or not a dog may go into the public domain with a tag around his neck.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 305:1) rules that an animal must not enter the public domain—an area that is not enclosed by an eruv—while wearing decorative items, since these are worn for the benefit of the owner rather than for the animal’s benefit. The animal is carrying them for its owner’s sake. Furthermore, items worn for identification are also forbidden, since they are for the benefit of its owner (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 305:17).
Name tags for domesticated animals are a somewhat different story. In this case, the tags benefit the animal, ensuring that nobody will harm the animal or assume it to be a stray dog. Nonetheless, the Aruch Hashulchan (305:5) rules stringently, reasoning that all identification markers are forbidden. However, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (see Shemiras Shabbat Kehilchasa Chap. 27, note 33) ruled leniently on the matter, since tags are worn for the benefit of the dog so that they won’t be killed.
As for using a leash on Shabbos while walking a dog in the public domain, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 305:16) rules that the handle of the leash should not protrude more than a tefach from under the hand of the individual walking the animal; this would make it look as though the person is carrying the leash instead of merely holding on to the animal via the leash. In addition, the leash must be kept taught so that it shouldn’t hang close to the ground, appearing as an item the animal wears unnecessarily.
Another Shabbos aspect of keeping pets on Shabbos is the concern for trapping. For a domesticated and therefore wholly obedient animal, there is less concern for trapping. The concern arises where a dog (for instance) is not wholly domesticated and somewhat disobedient (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 316:12). In such cases, care must be taken to refrain from trapping the disobedient animal—restricting its freedom against its will. For instance, its leash should not be removed in an open space, for fear that reattaching the leash will be considered trapping. Likewise, upon entering the house the door should only be closed when the dog would not be able to escape the house, such as if the owner’s presence is blocking the way.
Bringing Guide Dogs into Shul
Can a blind person bring his guide dog into shul? This question is the subject of a well-known dispute between Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Breisch.
In Shut Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim 1:45) Rav Moshe permitted the admittance of a guide dog into the synagogue. His responsum states that his ruling is more easily applied in the Diaspora than in Israel, since the sacred status of synagogues in the Diaspora is considered temporary and conditional. However, Rav Moshe is clearly extremely attentive to the needs of the blind person who loses his independence without a guide dog.
For instance, he writes: “There is no better example of a situation of urgent need than this case, for if we do not allow this, the person will forever be excluded from communal prayer and from the public reading of the Torah and Megillas Esther, and there are also days on which his sorrow would be very great, such as the High Holidays and similar days when the community gathers together. This is great proof that we should allow a blind person whose guide dog must accompany him at all times to enter the synagogue to pray and listen to the Torah reading and the like.”
According to Rav Moshe it is possible that there is no problem in bringing the dog into shul, because the dog is not being admitted as a statement of disrespect or expression of frivolity, but rather to serve the needs of a worshiper. His conclusion is that the blind person should sit near the doorway (inside the building), in order not to confuse the worshipers.
Rabbi Breisch’s Stringent Ruling
In response to Rav Moshe’s ruling, Rabbi Yaakov Breisch (Shut Chelkas Yaakov, Orach Chaim 34) wrote that there is no room for leniency to bring a guide dog into shul.
Referring to a source cited by Rav Moshe concerning the admission of a donkey to a synagogue, he writes: “Who is to guarantee that the donkey will not defecate in the midst of prayers… when children play with it, and the dog will begin barking; aside from the dishonor and levity that will be involved, there is also the concern that a woman may miscarry [out of fear].”
Rabbi Breisch saw this ruling as involving a dangerous “slippery slope,” as he states: “In addition, and this is the main reason in my view… due to our many sins, which have led to such a weakening of Judaism, especially in these countries, if we open an opening the size of the eye of a needle, it will open a door as wide as the entrance to the Temple, and some “rabbi” will be found who will permit this, who will claim that he is relying on a great scholar, and will say that it has already been permitted to let a dog into the synagogue in cases of urgent need, and he, as a “rabbi,” will determine on his own what is considered an urgent matter, and, heaven forbid, it may result in a great desecration of the Name, since the Christians forbid the entrance of dogs to their places of worship, in contrast to the synagogue, where it would be permitted.”
Rather than using dogs, Rabbi Breisch suggested that a person who relies on a guide dog should rely on people for help: “It is hard to believe that he will not be able to find a solution, such as that someone will accompany him to the synagogue, at least on special occasions. And if there indeed is no other solution, he is considered to be under duress, and the Torah accordingly exempts him from the obligation of attending synagogue. And the main point for me is that in any event, on special occasions, the person will obviously be able to find someone to take him to the synagogue, and this should not be a reason to permit bringing a dog into the shul.”
It is interesting to reflect on the different approaches taken by Rabbis Feinstein and Breisch. Rabbi Breisch underscores the sanctity of the shul and the concern for its violation, while Rav Moshe emphasizes the special needs and sensitivities of the blind person. Although the person could be escorted into shul by another congregant, Rav Moshe ruled that maintaining his independence was sufficient cause to permit the entry of the dog into shul. Rav Moshe demonstrated a high degree of sensitivity to needs of the disabled.
We have seen that there are many halachos related to keeping dogs (and animals in general) as pets. These include halachos of feeding them, of handling them on Shabbos, of bringing dogs to shul—and others that this article has not addressed.
Beyond this, we have seen that some Poskim frown on keeping dogs generally, while others accept this as a legitimate possibility, and discuss only the strictly halachic details of maintaining a pet. Clearly, times and circumstances differ from place to place and from community to community, and it is incumbent on us to balance our personal needs and wishes with the standards of our communities. As the case of keeping dogs demonstrates, this balance often receives concrete expression in the realm of halacha.