The ancient Israelites didn’t think much of dogs, which is a shame because they do seem to have thought much about them. Think of an epithet you wouldn’t want to have hurled at you, and some prophet or psalmist seems to have hurled it at the nearest mutt. It’s enough to make a dog lover cry.
Here’s Rabbi Judah Elijah Schochet: “The dog is one of the few animals almost invariably spoken of in negative and derogatory terms [in Scripture]. There apparently was little personal relationship between biblical man and the dog. Dogs are described as being noisy (Psalms 59:7-14], greedy [Isaiah 56:11], stupid [Isaiah 56:10], filthy [Proverbs 26:11]… The term ‘dog’ is applied as an insult to humans [I Kings 22:38]. Furthermore, ‘dog’ appears to have been a derogatory designation for male prostitutes [Deuteronomy 23:19].”
To a dog lover, this ancient prejudice can’t be excused—but it can be explained. The Jews, newly freed from slavery in Egypt, needed guidance in how to live, especially in knowing by which stars to steer their spiritual lives. The Egyptians worshipped dogs (think Anubis) among a menagerie of deities. For Jews to do the same would deny the truth of monotheism. It would be rank ingratitude to the God to whom they owed their freedom. The dog of Scripture had to be put in its place, not for its sake, but for ours.
We Jews don’t let go of our traditions lightly, so it’s no surprise that the biblical prejudice against dogs continued into the Talmudic era and beyond. Dogs were called the most shameless of animals. Eating in the marketplace was eating like a dog. Dogs would bite the unwary or cause miscarriages. The Zohar equated dogs with Amalek. Master folklorist Howard Schwartz relates that when the Kabbalist Joseph della Reina sought to free the Messiah from the forces of evil, those forces—Ashmodei and Lilith—appeared to him as black dogs. When the demons killed him, he was reincarnated as a black dog himself and went mad.
There are reasons visceral as well as theological for the Jewish antipathy toward dogs. From the Crusades to the Pogroms to the Holocaust, the relationship between Jews and dogs mostly saw the former fleeing the business ends of the latter, set on them by anti-Semitic persecutors. If Jews have a racial memory of dogs, it’s not a happy one. No wonder a Yiddish proverb (repeat it with me now, Shtisel fans) sums up the relationship this way: “A Jew with a dog? Either it’s not a Jew or it’s not a dog.”
And yet, the Sages also allowed for a different, positive, view of dogs. It was a view made possible because, in the rabbinic era, animal worship was no longer a threat to Judaism. In the Jerusalem Talmud, a fable of Rabbi Meir relates that “after herdsmen had milked a cow, a snake came and drank of the milk, and a dog saw it drinking. When the herdsmen sat down to partake of the milk, the dog began to bark [warningly] at them, but they did not understand what this barking meant. Finally, the dog sprang forward, drank of the [venom-spattered] milk, and died. When the herdsmen buried him, they set a monument over him, which to this day is called the Dog’s Monument.” (Sefer Ha-Aggadah). So, the Talmud anticipates Western literature’s Greyfriar’s Bobby and A Dog of Flanders by 1,500 years.
The Rabbis also inserted the dog into the story of Cain and Abel. In Genesis Rabba, they discuss the nature of the Mark of Cain that God bestows on history’s first murderer. It’s a horn. It’s leprosy. No, says Rav; it’s a dog.
One can regard the dog as Cain’s protector and companion. But the Chofetz Chaim, as cited by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann, sees more: During the brothers’ fight, Abel pinned Cain to the ground, but relented when Cain begged for his life. The moment he was free, instead of showing gratitude to his brother, Cain struck. The Chofetz Chaim explains that “there is no animal on earth quite like the dog – that shows such love, appreciation, and devotion to its owner in exchange for little more than a few scraps… By giving him a dog, Hashem was giving [Cain] a constant reminder of his lack of hakaras ha-tov [gratitude].”
Dogs also have their place, and their reward, in the story of the Exodus from Egypt. When God informs Moses of the imminent tenth plague, the slaying of the first born, He says: “There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt such as there has never been and such as there shall never be again. But against all the Children of Israel, no dog shall whet its tongue, against neither man nor beast, so that you shall know that the Lord will have differentiated between Egypt and Israel.” (Exodus, 11:6-7)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could only conceive of a single dog doing nothing in the night-time, but Torah gives us an entire nation of them. Not a dog barks or howls against the Jews, signifying the tranquility they enjoy while the Egyptians suffer the horrors of the ultimate plague. Once the Jews gain their freedom, the dog is singled out for reward: “People of holiness shall you be to Me; you shall not eat flesh of an animal that was torn in the field; to the dog shall you throw it.” (Exodus 22:30-31)
The Sages say that treyfe meat wasn’t the dog’s only reward. In addition, God watches over dogs in return for their silence on that awful night. Even more, dogs will lead in singing God’s praises in the World to Come, according to the Yalkut Shimoni as cited by Rav Yissocher Frand. But why such extravagant riches simply for keeping quiet? Rav Frand cites Rav Mordechai Ezrachi that dogs were known for their brazenness. “Simply keeping quiet” represented “the ultimate self-improvement possible for that creature,” and well worth their reward. It’s a lesson in mussar for us as well.
While tradition urges us to learn from the dog, sometimes the education goes the other way. Rabbi Label Lam recounts the joke about a guy who claims his dog can do anything it’s commanded. His friend accepts the challenge, throws a stick across the yard, and tells the dog, “fetch!” The dog looks at him in disgust. “All day long people tell me what to do,” complains the canine. “Roll over! Jump! Down! Good dog, bad dog! Sit! Stay! Heel! I can’t take it anymore. I hate it. I wish I were never born!”
The astonished friend is dumbstruck before finally managing to say, “All I asked you to do was fetch.”
“Oh!” says the dog apologetically. “I thought you said ‘kvetch.’”