In a second season episode of the TV show Shtisel, a character is kicked out of a yeshiva for having a dog. Even though they are considered filthy creatures in the ultra-Orthodox community, a family member helps the young man take care of the pup. They try to find a new home for the animal but are charmed by the dog’s cuteness.
The funny and heartwarming storyline demonstrates the ambivalence of pets in Jewish tradition. In ancient and medieval times, Jewish farmers lived in close proximity to domesticated animals and surely developed bonds with them. In the modern period as the Jewish community became urbanized, the only reason for many to be near animal would be purely as a pet.
So why the aversion to animal companions in Judaism? The characters in Shtisel dismiss dogs as impure in the sense of being unkosher, but of course pet owners don’t eat their dogs. There is nothing in Jewish law against owning an unkosher animal as a pet. Instead, there are several possible reasons why pets are frowned upon.
The first is that dogs, in particular, have been associated in some instances with oppression. Vicious German Shepherds, for example, were used by the Nazis in concentration camps. The second is that a pet is a discretionary purchase that might be frowned upon by a frugal Jewish culture. Anyone with a pet knows that between food and vet expenses, the cost of caring for an animal can be high.
American Jews, however, have certainly adopted a great many pets, like their non-Jewish neighbors. In fact, they tend to give their animals Jewish names like Mazel and Latke. When my wife and I adopted a dog over twenty years ago, we ultimately named her Georgia, but I always thought that her Yiddish name was Golda. Our current dog Foxy came with her name, but she has been known to respond to Foxa’le.
If dogs can have Jewish names and celebrate their bark mitzvah, the big question this month is how are they to celebrate Passover? Sure, they will enjoy the scraps of brisket that fall off the Seder table (or maybe are slipped to the pooch by a guest), but do they have to keep kosher for Passover like the rest of the house? It turns out the answer is yes, sort of.
While during the year your pet can eat almost anything, including non-Kosher food like pork, on Passover there is a strict prohibition on having any chametz (bread products) in your house and deriving any benefit from them (for example feeding them to your animal). So, before the holiday one must remove any pet food that contains chametz.
While this may seem daunting, there are solutions. First, check and see if your pet’s food actually contains any chametz. If the ingredients don’t list wheat, barley, pasta, etc., the food is fine. You don’t have to worry about kitniyot (beans, corn, rice, etc.) because even those who refrain from eating kitniyot on Passover may feed it to their pets.
If your pet’s food does contain chametz, you can switch to a brand that doesn’t, although this might lead to unfortunate tummy problems for Fido. One suggestion is to slowly introduce the Passover food before the holiday so the pet gets used to it. A suboptimal solution is to “sell” your pet to a non-Jew on the holiday and let them take care of your animal. The standard text of the bill of sale I use to sell the community’s chametz before Passover does include a blanket provision for all animals, but you would have to give up your beloved pet for 8 days.
As linguistics professor Sarah Bunin Benor notes, Jews tend to follow their gentile neighbors. Ownership of pets in America has exploded over the years, particularly as human birthrates have fallen. We love our animals, especially this last year as we have gotten to spend even more time with them at home. They are a beloved part of the modern Jewish family; it’s only natural for them to share in our holidays.