For the sake of transparency, allow me to admit that I am an Orthodox rabbi who does own a pet dog. She is a truly wonderful creature: Tame, gentle, loving and tender, she seems to think that everyone on two legs is her best friend and avoids as much as possible the four-legged alternatives. Approaching 11 years in human terms of counting — great-grandmotherly by hers — she loves the finer things of life: lying on her favorite sofa, bed or area in the house, all extended members of our family and, of course, her Kibbles ’n Bits.
She is a black lab and radiates unconditional love, trust and total absolute faith in her household to do what is right for her and accede to her basic needs, which are very few indeed: Feed me, walk me, show affection to me and listen to me. No other relationship comes with such an easy list of responsibilities and at so cheap for the price.
Of course, there are always the party poopers: those who make the claim that dogs are muktzeh and therefore, a priori, are forbidden in a traditional Jewish household. I would respectfully counter that this is a total cop-out. For if there ever was a paradigm of a muktzeh living organism, then I would definitely include the human being, tainted as he or she is, with so many spiritual failings — lashon hara, hypocrisy, judging others before themselves, the list is endless.
So given all those unique qualities inherent in a pet dog and given the vacuum caused by its death, you would want to acknowledge its impact on your life by mourning its passing. I would have to say in all honesty, “Go for it.” I am certainly not suggesting the full menu of keriah, shiva, sheloshim and Kaddish. Rather, if a life has been lived and yours has been eminently enhanced because of that life — and has allowed you to bring out truly the best of your qualities toward that living entity — then absolutely, a certain measure of mourning is quite appropriate and, one might even say, religiously appropriate. For if, in the traditional sense, mourning a two-legged family member who has impacted you most positively and beautifully deserves nothing less than a total religious response in ritual and remembrance, then certainly the four-legged alternative deserves a meaningful ritual response too.
And if you ever needed a response to those who would pooh-pooh the close bonds of affection formed between owner and dog, then never be afraid to counter with the facts of how much time you spend walking the dog, which the latter instinctively rewards with a Jewish response of hakarat hatov with a feisty wagging of the tail. Remind those naysayers of the times you just chilled out talking to the dog and just knowing, by their response, how much they truly understood. And, most
important of all, never forget to mention the sensitivity of their hearts as they stared at you with those eyes that you shall never forget, long after they will have passed away.
And then confidently exclaim that if there ever was an example of a living object that showed so much Jewishness in its behavior, then how could anyone ever question the need to mourn the passing of such an animal? The rabbis tell us that we can learn so much from the animal world; from a loving pet, too, we can learn no less. In that regard, mourning would be most appropriate and meaningful.
Rabbi Chaim Landau serves as president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.