(Justin Tsucalas)

(Justin Tsucalas)

Purchasing or rescuing a sweet little puppy is a day of adulation. The kids have been begging for a dog for months, and even you look forward to the idea of snuggling up with a pup or having him fetch the newspaper in the morning.

But if you are a Torah observant Jew, as a pet owner, you’ll be regularly confronted with a wide variety of halachic issues. The first one, of course, is whether you should even own him.

There are many contradictory texts when it comes to owning a dog, explained Rabbi Howard Jachter, a prominent rabbi on the Rabbinical Council of America. Rabbi Jachter penned “Halachic Perspectives on Pets” for the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society in 1992. Those texts are for (or against) dog ownership for various reasons.

Rabbi Jachter said that most mainstream Jews hold by the “Shulchan Aruch,” the code of Jewish law. In there, it talks about Jews not being allowed to own “an evil dog.” He said that by evil, the text means either a dog that bites or barks loudly.

“If a dog is not a nuisance, the mainstream sources permit ownership,” said Rabbi Jachter.


“True,” he said, noting there is not a definitive list of acceptable dogs. He said dogs that are used for medical purposes (such as seeing eye dogs) or are necessary for companionship for the elderly are always permitted.

“Like everything else in life, good judgment goes a long way,” he said.

Assuming there’s a green light on your dog, kashrut comes into play. According to Rabbi Zvi Goldberg, kashrus administrator for the Star-K, you can feed your dog non-kosher food with no problem.

“Pets have no halachas. They didn’t get the Torah at Sinai; they don’t have to keep any rules at all,” Rabbi Goldberg said.

Well, sort of.

You can’t feed pets milk and meat mixed together or chametz on Pesach. There is a prohibition against a Jew deriving benefit from kosher meat and milk being mixed together. Read the label, said Rabbi Goldberg, and make sure the food does not contain beef and milk from a kosher species. Ingredients to watch for: whey and casein, both which are milk derivatives.

It’s that same prohibition of enjoyment/benefit that affects Pesach. Owners are not allowed to feed animals anything with leavened grains in it on the holiday. Of course, while many Ashkenazim will not eat kitniyot on Passover, their dogs may do so.

Rabbi Goldberg said the Star-K website has a list of acceptable dog foods for Pesach. Those foods are also acceptable throughout the year and contain no milk and meat mixtures.

Another issue: Shabbat.

“That’s tricky,” said Rabbi Jachter. “The most complicated one is trapping. You are not allowed to trap your animal.”

Who is going to do that anyway? Well, said the rabbi, it depends if you understand what it means to trap.

“If you have a frisky dog, the kind that if you open the door it will run out, by opening and closing the door to your home you are trapping the animal,” he explained. “You would have to walk into your home in such a way that it was always trapped.”

Huh? He said open the door only slightly, fill the gap between the door and the wall, and close the door immediately.

And while you’re squeezing through, be sure not to pet the pooch.

“The majority of opinions say you cannot pet an animal on Shabbat,” Rabbi Jachter said.

Another little known halachic challenge: spaying and neutering your dog.

“Neutering is generally forbidden, and one needs to speak to his rabbi about it,” said Rabbi Jachter, noting that some rabbis recommend giving the dog birth control shots.

Jon Kaplan of Pikesville is observant and owns a big dog named Buster. Kaplan said he was not religious when they purchased the mutt, and they made the decision to do so based on “growing up with dogs.”

“Dogs give you so much affection, and there is just this bonding,” said Kaplan.

But most importantly, Kaplan thinks owning a dog is a good religious lesson for his children, ages 10 and 7.

“I think it teaches them responsibility,” said Kaplan.

Rabbis Jachter and Goldberg think so, too.

Rabbi Jachter said animals teach children compassion, kindness and responsibility. Having a dog to care for can help them learn how to care for other people.

Of course, there are laws about caring for animals, too.

“Besides from just feeding [the dogs] acceptable foods, it is a halacha that you have to feed your pets before you eat,” explained Rabbi Goldberg. “Your animals have to be taken care of before you are taken care of.”

The concept of caring for one’s animals is known as Tsar ba’alei chayim and is noted in the Torah. One of Adam’s first responsibilities as a human being is to name the animals. Judaism places great stress on proper treatment of animals. Unnecessary cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden, and in many cases, animals are accorded the same sensitivity as human beings.

The laws relate not only to feeding animals first, but also to ritual slaughter; we are not permitted to kill an animal on the same day as its young and are commanded to send away a mother bird when taking the eggs because of the psychological distress it would cause the mother.

And there are others, too. Said Rabbi Jachter, it is a big responsibility.

“People need to weigh carefully whether it is a positive or negative thing to own an animal,” he said. “I don’t own one, but I have many family members who do.”

Dogs Most Likely To Bark When They Should Not Be Barking
Yorkshire Terrier
Cairn Terrier
Miniature Schnauzer
West Highland White Terrier
Fox Terrier

Source: “The Perfect Puppy: How to Choose Your Dog by Its Behavior” by Benjamin and Lynette Hart

BaWOOF Atah Hashem

It is arguably the most significant moment in a Jewish teenager’s life, marking adulthood, accountability and the ability to lead religious services.

The bar/bat mitzvah is a rite of passage for which boys and girls spend months (sometimes years) preparing. But is this something our furry friends can do too?

Enter the bark mitzvah®.

Some dog enthusiasts honor their canine companions with these pseudo-ceremonies to mark their 13th birthdays. Although 13 people years is late in a dog’s life, owners take no issue in dressing their pooches in tallit and yarmulke and holding a ceremony to bless them and mark the occasion.

Owings Mills resident Pam Frankle held a bark mitzvah® for her Yorkshire Terrier, Nacho, about five years ago. (Nacho has since passed away.) Her husband said the Shehecheyanu blessing, and they took photos of Nacho wearing his Jewish gear.

“When my son was bar mitzvahed, someone had given him a mini Torah scroll inside a Lucite box, and we did take a picture of the dog right next to it so it looks like the dog is reading the Torah,” Frankle said.

Much like the modern-day bar and bat mitzvah party, Nacho’s dog friends were invited to celebrate with him, and they went home with specially made dog toys, such as a camel that said “schlep” on it. There were two cakes — for the humans — one in the shape of a dog bone and one in the shape of a paw print.

Lee Day (left) celebrates at a recent bark mitzvah.® Day trademarked the name and travels around  the country performing these doggy ceremonies.

Lee Day (left) celebrates at a recent bark mitzvah.® Day trademarked the name and travels around the country performing these doggy ceremonies.

The bark mitzvah® was created in 1983, according to New Jersey-based pet entertainer Lee Day, who trademarked the term in 1986. She came up with the concept while joking with one of her clients, but then ran with the idea. She has since officiated at thousands of bark mitzvahs® around the world.

“It’s a blessing for the animals,” she said. “Every animal needs to be blessed.”

She estimates she has performed between 2,000 and 3,000 bark mitzvahs® and pet weddings. Day also runs a doggie dating service, but the animals must be spayed and neutered to participate.

In addition to blessing the animals, Day’s lavish ceremonies include dancing the Horah — the dogs are put on chairs and lifted in the air.

Day always brings her assistant, Rabbi Otis, a rescue dog that was found on the Long Island Expressway five years ago. Rabbi Otis has his own Facebook page.

Day has traveled all over the world and appeared on numerous television shows. She even bark mitzvahed® Joan Rivers’ dog; celebrities such as Betty White and Geraldo Rivera attended that one.

It sounds fun, but the question has to be asked: Is turning a time-honored, sacred tradition into puppy love sacrilege? Some rabbis are not too keen on the idea.

Rabbi Shaye Taub of Arugas Hab-osem, a Chasidic congregation on Park Heights Avenue, said that people who consider giving their dog a bark mitzvah® have lost sight of the real celebration and ceremony.

“I wouldn’t even call it a ceremony because it does take away from the
seriousness of a bar or even bat mitzvah,” he said “It becomes, for lack of a better term, a joke.”

At least one of his Reform counterparts agrees.

“A bar mitzvah is about coming of age in the Jewish community. It’s about attaining a level of responsibility,” said Rabbi Rhoda Silverman of Temple Emanuel in Reisterstown. “It’s not for our pets.”

She said the yarmulke, tallit and tzit tzit are symbols of God’s commandments to human beings, and applying those to pets doesn’t make sense.

“It’s a challenge to the integrity of Jewish tradition,” Silverman said.

Day doesn’t feel that she is desecrating tradition. She said those against the bark mitzvah® should lighten up.

“This is a blessing for the animals,” she said. “If you think the dog can read from the Torah, you’re out of your mind.”

Even those considering throwing bar mitzvah parties for their dogs don’t take it too seriously.

Pikesville resident Wendy Miller’s toy poodle, Coco, turns 13 this coming March. Having attended a friend’s doggy bar mitzvah recently, she brought up the idea of having one — “half-joking, half-serious,” she said.

“My husband would think I’d really lost it at that point,” she said with a laugh.

The bark mitzvah® doesn’t set off any red flags for Owings Mills animal advocate Marty Sitnick. As long as weather is taken into consideration when dressing a dog up, putting a costume on a pet and throwing it a party is far from abuse, he said.

“For many dogs, 13 years — human years — is a senior dog, and celebrating the dog’s life with some sort of festival sounds like a great idea to me,” he said.

The retired businessman is on the board of Adopt a Homeless Animal Rescue, is a former board member of the Baltimore Humane Society and trains shelter and rescue dogs pro bono.

“I would encourage anything that celebrates the lives of these companion animals,” Sitnick said. “It can only enhance the bond.”