Are you a dog person? In today’s world, where most of us are not farmers or shepherds, dogs are mostly kept as pets. But in the time of the Mishnah, dogs were man’s best friend for practical reasons – they got fed and in return helped with shepherding and guarding. But what if man’s best friend causes damage? Our Mishnah deals with just that question:
“a dog or a goat that jumped from a rooftop and broke vessels, their owners must pay the full cost of the damage because these animals are deemed forewarned.” (Bava Kamma 21b)
Canaan dog, the national dog of Israel
רז סופר, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Are dogs good or bad for the Jews? In the Bible, the dog is mostly seen as negative. Calling someone a dog is one of the worst insults. David calls himself a dead dog compared to King Saul (Samuel I 24:15) and Goliath mocks David for coming to fight him with just his slingshot and shepherd’s staff:
“And the Philistine called out to David, ‘Am I a dog that you come against me with sticks?’ ” (Samuel I 17:43)
Even today, one of few Hebrew insults (as opposed to the curses that come from Arabic or Yiddish) is to call someone kelev ben kelev, a dog the son of a dog.
Dogs are impure and you cannot use money from their sale to buy sacrifices (Devarim 23:19). They will eat anything and are given animals that have not been slaughtered properly (Shmot 22:30). They will even eat corpses, a particularly ignominious end that falls to Queen Jezebel, King Ahab’s evil wife:
“And God has also spoken concerning Jezebel: ‘The dogs shall devour Jezebel in the field of Jezreel.’ ” (Kings 1 21:23)
However, alongside all this bad press, we do hear about dogs who did not bark when the Israelites were leaving Egypt (Shmot 11:7) and about dogs who are loyal shepherds (Job 30:1). A possible sign that dogs were not only derided but also respected is that we see that the word kelev (or Kalev/Caleb) is used as a name, both in Biblical times (the good spy Caleb ben Yefuneh) and in Second Temple times (Rabbi Akiva’s wealthy father-in-law Kalba Savua).
By Rabbinic times, there was more appreciation that dogs could be useful, albeit potentially dangerous. Dogs could be kept as guards as long as they were tied up. (Mishnah Bava Kamma 7:7) If you lived in a frontier area, you were allowed to let your dog roam free at night since that was considered a place where invaders might attack.
“A person may not raise a dog unless it is tied with a chain. But he may raise a dog in a city that is close to the border and he should tie it during the day but may release it at night.” (Bava Kamma 83a)
There are also some statements that allude to the love and loyalty a dog has for its master. Rabbi Elazar tells us that a dog recognizes its master but a cat does not. (Horayot 13a) He attributes this to the fact that cats eat mice which makes them forgetful; cat owners might say that cats just don’t care about their owners. The Ben Yehoyada commentary on this passage includes a number of stories that demonstrate how loyal dogs are and he explains that this is inherent in the dog’s name: a kelev כלב is כולו לב, all heart. An even more interesting passage seems to attribute feelings and sensitivity to dogs:
“If the dogs are crying the Angel of Death has come to the city. If the dogs are playing, Elijah the prophet has come to the city.” (Bava Kamma 60b)
The dogs in a city sense pain and joy and react by barking or playing, they are attuned to the general feeling of the human population, a fact that dog lovers would be quick to affirm.
What accounts for the more positive attitude of the rabbis towards dogs? Yehiam Sorek in an article about dogs and the rabbis (https://www.hayadan.org.il/soreqdogs-031104) posits that it is connected to the dog culture of Greeks and Romans. As Jews became more exposed to Hellenism, they also were exposed to the Hellenistic penchant of keeping dogs for companionship and entertainment, and not only for practical purposes. Dogs do appear in many representations from Second Temple and later periods, from mosaic floors and wall paintings. They seem to have been part of everyday life.
Part of a floor mosaic from Caesarea
Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Dogs also had a darker side in ancient cultures, which is perhaps why Jewish mysticism sees them as a representation of evil. Both the Egyptians and the Greeks had a dog god who was connected to death and the afterlife. The Egyptian dog god Anubis was a protector of graves and escorted the dead to the underworld. He was also responsible for determining the weight of the deceased’s heart, the key to his gaining entrance to the next world:
Anubis weighing a heart
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In Greek mythology, the infamous three-headed hound Cerberus guarded the gates to the underworld. From Greece to burial caves in Bet Guvrin:
me, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons
to Cerberus’ modern incarnation, Fluffy, in the Harry Potter series, this was a very frightening dog.
We also have the bizarre phenomenon of thousands (!) of carefully buried dogs in various sites in the Near East, especially in Ashkelon. Was this part of a religious rite? A pet cemetery? No one is quite sure.
Dogs in Israel today are much more than just pets. They are highly trained guide dogs for the visually impaired, therapy animals for trauma and loyal IDF soldiers. The dogs of the Oketz unit of the IDF are trained to find explosive devices, saving many human lives in the process. Today dogs are being used to see if the terror tunnels in Gaza are booby trapped. Man’s best friend indeed!
Israel Defense Forces, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons