How Dogs Went From Feared Enemy to Jew's Best Friend

People of Canaan Have Long History With Beasts of Canine

Kurt Hoffman

By Benjamin Ivry

Published July 09, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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‘If you are already a dog, at least do not be a pig.”

“A cantor in his old age barks like a dog and eats like a pig.”

“A wife is like a dog in the house.”

These and other Yiddish proverbs may be seen as objectionable today, but all reflect the complex and contradictory relationship between dogs and Jews. In the introduction to “A Jew’s Best Friend?: The Image of the Dog Throughout Jewish History,” a collection of essays, editors Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman and Rakefet Zalashik both admit to being dog lovers. But this does not lessen their scholarly objectivity.

SEND US FAMILY PHOTOS OR VIDEOS OF YOUR JEWISH POOCH AT dogs@forward.com. WE’LL FEATURE OUR FAVORITES ON THE FORWARD’S SITE.

Unlike the authors of such popular spoofs as “Yiddish for Dogs: Chutzpah, Feh!, Kibbitz, and More: Every Word Your Canine Needs to Know” or “How to Raise a Jewish Dog”. Ackerman-Lieberman and Zalashik follow the sobering precedent of Rabbi Judah Elijah Schochet’s “Animal Life in Jewish Tradition” and Kenneth Stow’s “Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters”, which offered litanies of negative images of Jews and dogs (and Jews as dogs) in scripture and the Middle Ages. As Rabbi Schochet explained, in ancient times dogs were excoriated for their noise (Psalms 59:7-14), greed (Isaiah 56:11), stupidity (Isaiah 56:10) and lack of hygiene (Proverbs 26:11). Calling a person a dog was an established insult (I Kings 22:38) and may have even been a slang term for male prostitutes (Deuteronomy 23:19).

In “A Jew’s Best Friend?” essayist Sophia Menache of the University of Haifa notes that in biblical times, wild and sometimes rabid dogs caused “widespread fear.” Menache quotes from the Babylonian Talmud, which offers advice about how to identify a mad dog: “Its mouth is open, its saliva dripping, its ears flap, its tail is hanging between its thighs, it walks on the edge of the road.” If such a canine merely brushes against anyone, the Talmud continues, he should “strip off his clothes and bury them for twelve months of a year. Then he should take them out and burn them in an oven, and scatter the ashes.”

Yet Joshua Schwartz, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University, notes in another chapter that Terumot, a tractate of the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud, depicts dogs as domestic protectors. In one tale, a dog is given an honorary place next to a visiting sage, who asks his host to explain. The latter says, “My master, I am repaying [the dog] for his goodness. Kidnappers came to the town, one of them came and wanted to take my wife, and the dog ate his testicles.”

This vignette does not imply that all dogs in ancient Judea were seen as avenging heroes. As Robert Rothstein of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observes in a chapter about dogs in Yiddish proverbs, “kelev,” the Hebrew word for dog, became such a common, everyday insult that it inspired ingenious variations in Yiddish. One such was to call someone a “fifty-second” (‘Er iz a tsvey-un-fuftsiker’) — from the sum of the numerical values of the Hebrew letters in ‘kelev,’ 40 + 10 + 2.

“Dogs were part of the Jewish environment in Eastern Europe, but they were not part of the family,” says Rothstein.


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