April 1st, 2015
RABBI SHMULY YANKLOWITZ
Today, the difference between a working animal and a pet is significant. It is quite common to have pets to give and receive affection. There has been a misunderstanding in some circles that observant Jews are in some way disallowed to have pets. This is not the case. The opposite is true: not only is it permitted to have a pet in Jewish law, but, according to Jewish values, it can be a positive act. When we care for pets, they imbue so much goodness in us: one can learn compassion from an animal, one can save an animal’s life, and one can add love to their home. Indeed, many people who are suffering, whether it be from disease or depression, can receive assistance from their while adding joy in their lives. Consider Ellen H. Whiteley’s The Healing Power of Pets:
Pets have the ability to stimulate their caregivers, in particular the elderly, giving people someone to take care of, someone to exercise with, and someone to help them heal from a physically or psychologically troubled past. Having a pet may help people achieve health goals, such as lowered blood pressure, or mental goals, such as decreased stress. There appears to be strong evidence that having a pet can help a person lead a longer, healthier life. In a study of 92 people hospitalized for coronary ailments, within a year 11 of the 29 without pets had died, compared to only 3 of the 52 who had pets. A recent study concluded that owning a pet can reduce the risk of a heart attack by 2% and that pets are better than medication in reducing blood pressure. Dogs which are trained to be guide dogs can help people with visual impairments.
While the intangibles a pet provides are for the good, the ancient rabbis seem to have discouraged pets initially, except to fulfill practical needs:
Just as (the rabbis) said that we may not raise small domesticated animals, so they also said that we may not raise small undomesticated animals either. Rabbi Yishmael says: We may raise miniature dogs, cats, monkeys, and bush weasels because they are used to cleanse the house of mice and worms (Bava Kamma 80a).
“Small domesticated animals” mentioned in the Gemara were grazing animals (like sheep) where the concern was with ruining the grass and vegetation. The concern was with damaging property. The Meiri further explained that since cats and weasels are to keep out rodents and that monkeys and “little dogs” are permitted because they do not damage the fields. From this passage, it is clear that there is not a problem with ownership of non-violent animals (Bava Kamma 15b, Choshen Mishpat 409:3).
But the keeping of a pet is still a complicated matter considering the stringent Jewish ritual rules, especially when seen in relationship with holidays and the Sabbath. If one has a pet, what is one’s relationship to be to their pet on Shabbat? As it happens, it is the traditional ruling that pets are muktzah and may not be handled on Shabbat (Shabbat 128b; S.A. 308:39; A.S. O.C. 108; M.B. 308: 39:146). Following this line of thought, pets have no utility on Shabbat and are thus considered muktzah by their very nature (muktza machmat gufam). It is this approach that has the most weight in halakhah.
But while this is the dominant view, there is significant ground to argue an opposite philosophical and legal approach, that pets may indeed have utility on Shabbat! Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (the Or Zarua) argued, as did other rabbis in the medieval period, that singing birds are not muktzah due to their pleasant sound and their beautiful appearance (Shailot u’teshuvot 81). Rav Moshe Feinstein argued that animals are not muktzah if “they are special for fun (pets)” (Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 5; 22:21, a Rav Tendler addition). Likewise, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach argued that seeing-eye dogs are not muktzah (Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 18:62) because they provide a crucial, utilitarian service to their owners.
While Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein recommended against handling pets on Shabbat, he also advises that “one need not admonish those who practice in accordance with the lenient opinion in this matter. Since this issue is embroiled in a dispute amongst the Rishonim and the logic of those who rule leniently is compelling” (Sheilot U’Teshuvot Meirosh Tzurim 38:6). Further, in this responsa, Rabbi Shmuel David argues that one who commonly moves his or her pets on Shabbat is like one who has prepared a rock prior or use on Shabbat. The pet is no longer considered muktzah because there has been a demonstrated, consistent relationship. Israeli authorities have also argued that a weekday relationship changes one’s Shabbat relationship.
Animals at risk of dying, and cases of animal suffering, are even more straightforward. Rav Ovadia Yosef argued that, one may pick up an animal not only for the pain of the owner, but one may even move an animal to reduce or prevent its suffering (Yabia Omer 5:26). After all, while muktzah is a rabbinic prohibition, tzaar baalei chaim (preventing pain of animals) is a biblical obligation.
One may choose to be stringent and be sure not pick up or move their dog (or other type of pet) on Shabbat if there is no need to, but if there is any distress or need for the animal, one certainly should help. And, in our time, there is adequate legal reasoning to allow for playing and affectionate holding since so many rely upon animal warmth and maintain demonstrative relationships with their pets. Considering the laws of Shabbat are invested in animal welfare, in the form that one may not work their animal, one is going above the letter of the law by expressing compassion for animals every day of the week.