Ask the rabbi

November 2, 2014 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi…Rabbi Raymond Apple answers questions on topics which may be of interest to you…
ANIMALS AS PETS

Q. Does Jewish law approve of having cats and dogs as pets?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. Animals feature regularly in Biblical literature – the story of the animals on Noah’s Ark is an example – but they were regarded as mostly meant for utilitarian purposes, e.g. horses to ride on  or pull a cart or chariot, oxen and donkeys to plough the ground, cows to give milk, and kosher animals, birds and fish for food.

Rarely do ancient records mention animals as pets, an exception being a pet dog in the Apocryphal story of Tobit. Isaiah 1 warns that sometimes animals show more loyalty to their owners than human beings do towards God.

The rabbis certainly knew that dogs were loyal (Hor. 13a) but they warned against having “a bad dog” in one’s house (Shab. 63a, BK 15a/b, 79b and 83a). Maimonides has a strict view. He bans any dog at all unless it is tied up by chains (Niz’kei Mammon 5:9), though others (e.g. Tur, Choshen Mishpat 409) only prohibit bad dogs.

The authorities discuss what constitutes a bad dog. It is not only whether the animal is liable to bite and hurt a human being, but whether its bark might scare a person, especially a pregnant woman (Rashi to BK 79a). The fear of dogs was obviously always a major issue, and some authorities limit the ownership of dogs to guard dogs which have a practical security purpose.

Antisemites like the Cossacks often used fierce dogs to intimidate and frighten the Jews. The result is that Jews with an Eastern European background are still scared of dogs to this day. Several of my Jerusalem neighbours walk their dogs in the street, but there are other neighbours who deliberately cross the street so as to keep away from the dogs.   One dog-walking neighbour passes our house regularly, and if it is Shabbat he tells me in Hebrew in a loud voice, “The dog doesn’t bite on Shabbat!” A certain rabbi I knew used to believe that the Jerusalem dogs are the reincarnation of the souls of departed rabbis.

Rabbinic views about cats are generally more lenient, though there was a fear that a wild or uncontrolled cat might cause injury to person or property. On the other hand, some Rabbis are said to have specially kept cats as pets in order to fulfil the ethical duty of feeding your animals before having your own meal.

911 AGUNOT

Q. What is the halachic status of the wives of men who died in the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA?

A. In Jewish law there is no presumption of death. On the contrary, there is a presumption of life. A person who was alive when last heard of is presumed to be still alive unless there is evidence of their death. If there is no evidence of death, their spouse is not deemed to be a widow or widower.

A woman whose husband is missing is an “agunah” (“chained” to the subsisting marriage) unless and until there is evidence that the husband is dead. But from Talmudic times onwards the rabbis applied every leniency in the case of agunot and frequently found ways of ruling that the wife could now enter into a new marriage, though if the original husband should turn up after she has remarried she cannot live with either the first or the second husband, despite the fact that she acted in good faith.

There was an urgent rabbinic endeavour to free agunot in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Ya’akov Jay Levinson, a former member of the Israeli police service’s victim identification unit, advised several of the rabbinic panels involved in the issue. In a very few cases, bodies were found. In a number of other cases in which no bodies were found, death was ascertained by comparing DNA samples with DNA found in the rubble of the towers.

Some of the other cases were resolved by determining that there was no way the men could have escaped from the floors where they were when the attack occurred. In one case, the man’s whereabouts were known because he telephoned his wife immediately after the attack. In another, the man’s computer was found, and the time stamps on some of the files proved that he had been in his office at the time of the attack.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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