By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
No one doubts that pitbulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds, and mastiffs are dangerous dogs and there should be laws enacted to ensure the safety of citizens. In the United States alone, 471 Americans were killed by dogs between 2004 and 2018. Almost 85 percent of these victims were killed by these four breeds alone. However, one is more than 10 times more likely to die in a plane crash than of a dog bite.
Do we forbid all dogs because of the more dangerous ones? Is there another reason to forbid all dogs? Do we forbid the barking but bite-less poodle?
Recently, it was reported that more than a dozen rabbis from the city of Elad issued an edict forbidding all dogs. It labeled all dogs bad, and warned residents that keeping them will make them accursed.
The edict contains the signatures of all the Sephardic rabbis in Elad and the city’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Malka. It states as follows:
“We have heard and have seen that lately, a serious phenomenon has spread in our city Elad, in which young boys and children walk around publicly with dogs. This is strictly forbidden, as explained in the Talmud and by the Rambam; anyone raising a dog is accursed and especially in our city where many women and children are afraid of dogs,” the anti-canine edict states.
The edict further stated, “The term ‘bad dog’ means ‘any dog, for it barks on whomever it does not know and because of its bark it is a bad dog even if it does not bite …”
The rabbi of neighboring Holon, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, son of Rav Ovadia Yosef, is quoted as writing: “I do not find any grounds for permitting any dog whatsoever in any manner.” The edict did allow for one exception: People who keep dogs for medical needs should appear before the local rabbinical court so it may rule on their matter.
Is It True?
But is what the Elad Edict states true according to halachah?
The Mishnah in Bava Kamma 79b discusses the prohibition in raising “the dog.” But to what does the Mishnah refer? Does it include the poodle?
Rashi gives us some insight. He writes that the reason it is forbidden is because it both bites and barks. He further explains that out of sheer fright, a pregnant woman can possibly miscarry on account of the bark.
Rabbi Yehoshua HaKohen Falk (1555–1614), author of the Smah (Choshen Mishpat 409:5) explains that Rashi is actually presenting two different reasons here. He writes that, according to Rashi, either reason alone would be sufficient to chain the dog. Thus, according to Rashi, the barking but bite-less poodle must be chained. This also seems to be the view of the Rambam (Nizkei Mammon 5:9), the Rif (B.K. 30), and the Rosh in their restatement of the Gemara’s rulings. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Rav Shulchan Aruch (Shemiras Guf V’HaNefesh) rules in accordance with the more stringent view.
The Gemara in Shabbos 63a writes that whoever raises a dangerous dog in his home prevents chesed from happening in his home. This is because those who seek tzedakah will refrain from soliciting at his house because they are afraid of the dog. The Maharsha on the Gemara in Shabbos actually changes the girsah wording of the Gemara and removes the modifying word “dangerous.”
The Lenient Poskim
The Hagaos Maimanius (Hilchos Rotzeiach 11:3) writes that it is permitted to raise a dog that is not rah, dangerous. The Tosfos Yom Tov in his commentary on the Mishnah remarks that the fact that the Mishnah uses the “definite article” — the dog — means that it refers only to a dangerous dog. The SMaG in Mitzvos 66 and 67 also presents the lenient view.
The language of the Tur Shulchan Aruch in Choshen Mishpat (409:6) also indicates a lenient view. He writes:
“It is forbidden to keep a dangerous dog unless it is chained. In a city that is next to the country’s border, it is permitted to keep it unchained during the day, but chained at night.”
The Shulchan Aruch 409:3 rules like the Tur.
The exception of keeping the dog chained refers only to dangerous dogs according to both the Yam Shel Shlomo and the Aruch HaShulchan. [It should be noted, however, that the Yam Shel Shlomo includes barking dogs as within the definition of dangerous.]
Thus, the Shulchan Aruch and the Tur both rule like the lenient opinion. The poodle is safe in terms of strict halachah! Halachah does allow for dogs that do not bite. The Elad poskim are being stringent beyond Shulchan Aruch.
The Rema adds an additional leniency. He writes that, nowadays, when we live among the gentiles, it is permitted according to all. The Vilna Gaon explains that antisemitism makes it similar to the border city discussed in the Talmud.
Fear of Heaven
There are two other factors, however, from a hashkafic point of view that, in this author’s opinion, should be taken into account. The introduction to the Shev Shmeitzah cites a G-d-fearing person who was found sleeping in an area where there might be a danger of wild animals. When asked why he slept there, he responded that he is embarrassed to be afraid of something other than fearing Hashem. The Shev Shmeitzah thus holds that the highest level of fearing Hashem is not to be afraid of anything other than Hashem.
Hashem put fear into the world as a protective measure for us. However, that fear should eventually be replaced with an intellectual fear, not an emotional one. In this author’s view, it is a chillul Hashem that Torah-observant Jews are afraid of dogs. It should be something that we overcome (granted, there are many more important things to work on, but still). If we create an edict banning dogs, we will never overcome this fear.
A second point is that there is a mitzvah to express hakaras ha’tov to dogs because they did not bark when we exited Mitzrayim. The Torah tells us to give them the non-kosher meat that we end up with as a reward. If we ban all dogs, how can we fulfill this gesture of hakaras ha’tov?
The ban should be repealed for all of the above reasons.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.