As a boy growing up in the foothills of Berkeley, my parents encouraged me to have pets. From guinea pigs to parakeets to even a pet chicken named Fwedwika, my home was full of little critters throughout most of my childhood. By encouraging me to be a caretaker for my pets, my parents taught me the meaning of responsibility, consistency and perhaps even love. So, I’ve often wondered if the Jewish religious scriptures supports animal activism and what exactly God would say if I posed the question, “Do You love dogs?”
Dogs are the only animals in the Torah that receive a reward for their actions. When the Jewish slaves flee Egypt, it states, “not one dog barked.” (Exodus 11:7) As a reward for that refrain, God said, “… and flesh torn in the field you shall not eat; you shall throw it to the dog[s].” (Exodus 22:30; Mechilta) However, God’s affection for animals doesn’t end with affable companions such as dogs. This affection even extends to insects. King David had to learn this lesson when he questioned the purpose of such “vile creatures” as spiders. Subsequently, God created an event whereupon a spider’s web saved his life, thereby impressing upon Judaism’s mightiest king that every creature has purpose (Midrash Alpha Beta Acheres d’Ben Sira 9).
The Talmud teaches that the reason the Almighty created animals before humans on the sixth day of creation was to teach humans humility, so much that “even a lowly gnat” may be more deserving of life (Sanhedrin 38a).
So, one may infer from here that God does indeed love dogs … and all the rest of His creatures, too. But does this manifest itself into practical animal activism or does it remain a more generalized and undefined value in Judaism?
Jewish law is replete with requirements for the caring of animals. Examples include laws prohibiting inflicting pain on animals (Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Rotzeah 13:9), requiring one to feed animals in a loving manner (Igg’rot Moshe, Even haEzer 4:92) and protecting animals from being overworked (Hoshen Mishpat 307:13). We see from these and more, the extensive lengths to which the Torah goes in order to ensure the proper care of animals. Even when one must slaughter an animal to feed one’s family, there are numerous Jewish laws set in place to guarantee that the animal’s death is quick and painless (Guide to the Perplexed III:48).
One insight we can glean from the Torah about why God may have made animals is that they were created to express the “glory of the Creator.” (Pirkei Avos 6:11) The sheer diversity and beauty of animals leads one to appreciate the Creator even more, thereby leading one to proclaim, “How great is Your work, O Lord.” (Psalm 92:5) One might also say that the Creator has placed us, the descendants of Adam and Eve, in His beautiful garden to be the “caretaker” of “God’s garden” and all the animals therein (Genesis 2:19-20).
Mankind is created last in the days of Creation because humans are the pinnacle of Creation; we are the beings created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). When we use our free will responsibly, acting with compassion and sensitivity, we become like God, as it says, “Just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate. Just as He is righteous, so should you be righteous.” (Midrash Sifre Deuteronomy 49) When we develop ourselves to be spiritually refined, we fully realize the title of “caretakers of the world,” of God’s beautiful world and all the animals in it.
Imagine what message it sends a child when parents teach that God wants all our animals to be fed before we feed ourselves (Talmud, Brachot 40a). Imagine what message it sends our child when parents teach that God watches us to see if we are being compassionate to the animals in our midst (Talmud, Bava Metzia 85a). And imagine what message we bequeath to our children when we say that to become truly righteous and spiritually fulfilled, we must cultivate a sensitivity towards animals, as it says “A righteous person knows the needs of the animal.” (Proverbs 12:10)
Perhaps this is why God specifically made Noah build an ark to save all the animals during the Flood. After all, God could have easily made a miracle where the animals were saved without Noah needing to slave away for 40 days and nights meticulously tending to the care of each animal in the ark and even sharing his own table with them (Malbim, Genesis 6:21). One could answer that this was precisely to highlight that the concept of being the “caretakers of the garden” didn’t end with Adam and Eve but is an essential responsibility of mankind for all time.
Additionally, one can also say that the way we treat animals is a reflection of the way we treat people. In the Torah, we observe the repeating story of how a loving shepherd is chosen by God to lead the spiritual flock of the Jewish people after previously demonstrating his dedication to a flock of sheep (Midrash, Shemot Rabah 2:2). A barometer for one’s sensitivity towards other people can be seen in how we treat the animals in our midst. This emphasis on caring for animals can be a way to further those feelings of sensitivity that may eventually lead to goodwill for all mankind.
There is a final fascinating perspective that the Torah is teaching us. Animals can serve as our teachers. There are God-given qualities inherent in the instinctual habits and mannerisms of the animals around us that can serve to inspire humans to achieve greater heights of spiritual fulfilment. For example, the very first law in the Code of Jewish Laws is, “Rabbi Yehuda ben Taima said, ‘Be as bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.’” (Avot 5:20) Poignantly, this is placed as the first law in a book of Jewish legalities. This idea is most evident in the statement of Rabbi Yochanan: “If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove and good manners from the rooster.” (Talmud, Eiruvin 100b) Perhaps we could also learn from a dog the power of devotion, loyalty and even having a positive attitude.
I will conclude with a teaching about man’s best friend, the dog. The notable 16th-century Jewish leader, the Maharsha, says that a dog is a creature of love. Hence, the Hebrew name for a dog is kelev, which is etymologically derived from the words kulo lev, or all heart (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, Chidushei Aggadot, Sanhedrin 97a). Remember that Adam and Eve were instructed by God to give all the animals of the world their Hebrew names (Genesis 2:19-20). When they made this personal connection with the beasts of the world, the names they chose were prophetically accurate so as to encapsulate the essence of each animal into a name that truly revealed its soul (Bereishit Rabbah 17:4). Thus, one may extrapolate from this that the Hebrew name for a dog was precisely chosen to be indicative of the loving soul of this marvelous creature.
So, yes, God loves dogs. And we should, too.
Rabbi Levi Welton is a writer and educator raised in Berkeley, Calif. A member of the Rabbinical Council of America, he graduated from the Machon Ariel Rabbinical Institute in 2005 and from Bellevue University in 2008 with an MA in education. Having served Jewish communities in San Francisco, Sydney and Montreal, he currently resides in New York and specializes in working with youth and young adults. This article was originally published by Aish Hatorah Resources and is distributed by Kaddish Connection Network.