David A. Cohen

Let Bad Dogs (And Their Owners) Lie

While reading the news this morning, my eye was caught by an article citing a recent ruling by Rabbis in the town of Elad, entitled: “All dogs are bad and their owners accursed, Israeli city’s rabbis rule”. The ruling itself is, obviously, based on solid Halachik  ground, citing the Shulchan Aruch in Choshen Mishpat 409: “It is forbidden to raise a bad dog, unless it is restrained by chains of iron and confined by them. In outlying cities it is permitted to raise them and one must keep them tied up in the day and let them loose at night”. Rav Moshe Iserlish, whose rulings are binding for the Ashkenazi community, adds: “Some say, that today when we live among the non-Jewish nations it is permitted in all places, and one must look at the custom of the place. However, it is apparent that if it is a bad dog which poses a danger to people it may not be kept unless it is restrained with chains of iron” (Author’s translation).

“Danger” from bad dogs, according to the Talmud, may be due to risk of bite or fear from bark. The Talmud brings an account of a woman who miscarried after a dog barked at her in someone’s home. 

The Meirat Einayim (Rabbi Joshua ben Alexander HaCohen Falk, 1555-1614) explains that it’s OK to keep a dog which is tied up, because when people see that a dog is restrained, they will fear neither the dog’s bark nor its bite. 

This isn’t the place to go into the Halachik  problems involved in owning a dog (There is an excellent review in Hebrew, here), and I certainly do not want to second guess the prominent rabbis who signed on the ruling. But, I was wondering, why the Rabbis of Elad  saw the need to make this ruling. Why don’t they go public with a ruling saying it’s forbidden to take bribes? After all, bribery and corruption are forbidden by the Torah, and corruption is mentioned throughout the Bible as one of the reasons for the destruction of the Temple. So why didn’t the Rabbis come out with a ruling denouncing corruption after officials from the Elad municipality were arrested for taking bribes? Is raising a dog really worse than taking kickbacks for building permits? Similarly, why was there no rabbinic decree against sex offending when a doctor who practiced medicine in Elad was arrested for the sexual abuse of Elad children in April 2019?

I couldn’t help but see the rabbis’ decree about dogs in the light of the words of Micha, which were read in synagogues throughout Israel last Sabbath: “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micha, 6:8). As commentators point out: “Do justly” refers to the monetary system and to all commandments pertaining to interpersonal behavior, including incest. “Love Mercy” refers specifically to giving charity and helping others. “Walking Humbly with God” refers to matching beliefs to actions, without bragging about how righteous you are.  

I also couldn’t help thinking of the letters written by Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, collected in the book “community, covenant and commitment”. Rabbi Soloveitchik, an iconic figure in modern orthodox Zionism, saw himself primarily as a “teacher and an educator, but not as a rabbi”, and lamented an organized rabbinate that is focused on “passing laws rather than disseminating the spirit of Torah”. In 1960, in one of the letters he wrote explaining why he declined the proffered position of Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote that rabbis should not lead the community from the high and mighty seat of a government sponsored rabbinate, but rather from the seat of the educator and “spiritual” leader, in tune with the community they are leading

I’m not sure where owning a dog or walking it on a leash is a transgression of  any of the three areas mentioned by Micha. I am sure, though, that the job of a true spiritual leader is to minister to the spiritual well-being of the community, as well as teaching what is right and wrong according to Jewish law, and that rabbis should be close to and in tune with the needs of their community, as Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote so long ago.

There are over 475 thousand registered dogs in Israel. It seems to me though, that with violent crime on the rise in Israel, with the horrific cases of violence by pre-school teachers and sex crimes against children reported in the press, the corruption of government officials which is becoming such a prominent issue here,  that the officers of the chief rabbinate should be preaching “doing justly”, “loving mercy”, and “walking humbly with God”, and not going out of their way to alienate the owners of nearly half a million dogs. We, as a nation, have more serious problems to worry about than the potential perils of man’s best friend.

About the Author
David Cohen, PhD is an orthodox Jewish clinical criminologist with over 30 years experience. He moved to Israel in 1981 and served as a "foreign volunteer" in the Hesder program. For over 28 years he worked for the ministry of health as a risk-assessor and therapist for sex offenders. He now works as a part time therapist of people with intellectual and developmental disorders. David lives with his family in Gush Ezion.
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