It is well known that the biblical dietary laws prohibit the consumption of meat that has not been slaughtered according to the required procedures. In this connection, the Torah commands: “neither shall ye eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field.” So what may we do if we find ourselves in possession of such non-kosher meat? The text continues: “ye shall cast it to the dogs.”
Now, some readers might naively suppose that the expression “cast it to the dogs” is simply an idiomatic way of stating that the carrion is unfit for any human consumption and therefore has to be discarded. However, talmudic law inferred from this verse that it is permissible to derive benefit from non-kosher meat. Moreover, the Jewish commentators, convinced that every word in the Torah was chosen with perfect care and precision, were spurred to ask why dogs were singled out for mention as the beneficiaries of the disqualified meat rather than, say, cats.
From the perspective of the ancient rabbis, the principles of divine justice demanded that the canines must have done something worthy to merit this preferred treatment. They found such an instance in the last of the Egyptian plagues, when Moses reassured the Israelites that absolute security would prevail in their homes while the Egyptians were enduring the horrible deaths of their firstborn. The expression employed by the Torah is: “but against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue.” A midrashic tradition explained that the dogs, though they barked continually to hound the Egyptian oppressors while they were burying their dead, maintained a respectful silence for the Israelites. It was this simple act of pious restraint that earned the ancient dogs and their progeny a God-given right to discarded non-kosher meat.
Rabbi Meir Abulafia referred to that tradition in order to explain a statement in the Talmud that “the dog recognizes its master, but the cat does not recognize its master.” Rabbi Meir understood that the “master” being referred to was none other than the Master of the Universe, and that the canine species were endowed with a religious sensibility that found expression in their obedient behaviour during the Egyptian exodus.
Most of the commentators were not as willing as Rabbi Abulafia to ascribe spiritual virtues to simple mutts. They argued more prosaically that the “master” that the Talmud had in mind was the animal’s human owner. Rabbi Jacob Ibn Habib observed “This is the way of the world, that a dog recognizes a master and follows him wherever he goes in order to protect him. However, this is not so with cats.”
The nineteenth-century exegete Rabbi Henokh Zundel of Bialostok, in his Etz Yosef commentary to the Midrash, was puzzled why Rabbi Abulafia had proposed such a seemingly unlikely interpretation of the talmudic passage. He suggested that it was rooted in his personal observations that cats too are, after all, domesticated creatures who acknowledge their owners and remain attached to the homes of their masters. Perhaps it was this difficulty that impelled Rabbi Abulafia to apply the Talmud’s distinction between dogs and cats to the realm of religious devotion, rather than mere loyalty to a human owner.
For all his efforts to defend the existence of feline domesticity, Rabbi Henokh Zundel could not refrain from pointing out a decisive difference between the respective forms and degrees of allegiance that are manifested in the two species: When all is said and done, the cat’s primary loyalty is to a place rather than to a person. The truth of this assertion can be verified in cases where the master moves to a new dwelling. While a dog will faithfully follow its human to a different place of residence, the cat is just as likely to forsake the master and remain in the old environment to which it has grown accustomed.
Another commentator to the passage, Rabbi Jacob Reischer, took a different approach to describing the supposed spirituality of dogs. In his view, the distinguishing characteristic of dogs is their poverty—I suppose that his personal acquaintance with the species involved junkyard mutts rather than pampered thoroughbreds or lapdogs.
At any rate, Rabbi Reischer explained that there is nothing like poverty for maintaining a community’s constant awareness of their dependence on their Creator. This is a sentiment that can be supported from numerous quotations in the Bible and rabbinic works, where affluence is condemned as a factor that impedes piety. He cited an adage from the Talmud to the effect that “poverty is as becoming to Israel as a red strap on the neck of a white horse.” Owing to their shared predispositions towards poverty, Jews and dogs have therefore come to share a consciousness of their existential reliance on a higher power.
It is therefore fitting, says Rabbi Reischer, that the Pereḳ Shirah, an ancient work that identifies appropriate songs of praise to be recited by each of nature’s creatures, had dogs intoning the words of the Psalm, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.”
The interpretations that we have been discussing so far offer intriguing readings of the texts, along with some illuminating insights into canine, feline and human characters. Nevertheless, they all suffer from a major shortcoming: they quote the Talmud passage out of context and in an incomplete form.
The full text reads as follows:
Rabbi Eleazar ben Zadok’s disciples asked him: Why does a dog recognize its master while a cat does not recognize its master?
He said to them: Since a person who partakes of something from which a mouse has eaten suffers memory loss— how much more should this apply to one that actually eats the mouse!
Rabbi Eleazar thus focuses not so much on the canine virtues as on the feline diet. Mice were presumed to have poor memories on account of the food that they consumed; and the cats, because of the higher rung they occupy on the food chain, ingest an amnesiac ingredient whenever they gobble up their rodent snacks. This causes them to forget all sorts of things, not just the identities of their masters.
Rabbi Loeb of Prague, the Maharal, was one of the few commentators to cite the Talmud passage in its entirety. However, he too refused to accept it at its face value. The Maharal insisted that the cats’ memory problems are not the result of their appetite for mice; for if that were the case, then a cat who has not eaten mice should be immune, which does not seem to be the case.
Rather, the felines’ indiscriminate readiness to devour rodents is a symptom of their dismal spiritual state. Mice occupy one of the lowest rungs in the hierarchy of creation, and a being that would eat them has demonstrated thereby the perverse quality of its soul. Rabbi Loeb is careful to stress that what he is talking about has nothing to do with the animals’ intelligence, and that he is not accusing cats of stupidity. It is, rather, a matter of their spiritual makeup.
Thus, presumably, while we would be hard put arguing that dogs are smarter than cats, it is somewhat easier to credit them with fine moral qualities like loyalty and courage.