As I peer down at her cotton-puff head, my sense of guilt sets in. Peeps, my bichon frise associate, has just taken a cocktail of three different medicines meant to keep her ticker ticking. Her eyes water, and her mouth turns downward, quivering slightly. It’s obvious she is not digging this new regimen. At 13, this lady has lived long enough to endure an onslaught of insults to her pot-bellied little being — epilepsy, cataracts, a successful surgery to rid her of cancer and, most recently, congestive heart failure.
Each time, Peeps mobilizes and makes room in her life for the difficulties these maladies present. Despite this nobility, I know she will someday leave this world of stealing cat food, lolling in the sun on her paw print pet bed and inhaling cooked string beans in unsalted chicken stock. (The latter is a substitute for her beloved salty pet store treats.)
In thinking about that fateful day and how to commemorate Peeps’s life, I am confronted with the fact that there is no Jewish roadmap for how to properly mourn pets, no universal law or tradition for how to close the circle of a pet’s life.
According to Ari Enkin, an Orthodox rabbi in Israel who has written several books on Jewish law, equating the loss of an animal with the loss of a human is inappropriate. Enkin recently discussed the question of whether, upon the death of a beloved pet, it is appropriate for a Jewish person to say “Baruch dayan ha’emet,” or “Blessed is the True Judge.” It is reflexively uttered by many Jews in response to death and tragedy.
Enkin said that some halachic authorities find precedence for doing so, but only in the context of financial loss; animals were often one’s only source of income in earlier times. A blind person, for example, might recite the blessing upon the passing of a guide dog, since such dogs are expensive to replace.
As a former yeshiva girl who instinctively turns to Jewish tradition for comfort in trying times, I found Enkin’s comments unsatisfying. There is, after all, a clear legacy of compassion for animals in the Torah. Deuteronomy tells us that a person is required to feed his animals before himself, and that one is obligated to relieve an animal’s suffering. The Talmud provides the precept of tza’ar ba’alei chaim — that it is prohibited to cause pain to animals. The term nefesh chaya, a living soul, was applied in Genesis to animals as well as to people.
Seeking continuity from where these laws leave off, I ultimately found that it is mostly Reform and Conservative rabbis who give more credence to the desire to mourn pets in a way that is distinctly Jewish.