More faith leaders are performing blessings for dogs, cats, and G-d’s other creatures.
by Michael Croland
As Shabbat drew to a close on Saturday, May 8, about 20 members of Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, New Jersey, assembled for a traditional havdalah service to welcome the new week. Rather untraditionally, though, the ceremony occurred in the synagogue’s parking lot and was interrupted by six dogs barking, play-fighting, and rolling around in the grass.
“We celebrate the wonderful variety of animals in our lives,” said Rabbi Mark Kaiserman during the service, interspersing standard havdalah prayers with thanksgiving for animals. “The wonderful dogs and all their joy and energy, the amazing cats who rule us and are our masters, our gerbils and hamsters and bunny rabbits and fish, the birds that flap in the cages wishing they were free but loving to be with us, and from the ant farms and the earthworms to all of the animals that make our lives joyous, we celebrate them. … We celebrate each of them and all the joy they bring to us and thank G-d for the blessing that they provide our lives.”
The Reform synagogue’s fifth annual pet blessing attracted mostly families as well as dogs of different breeds and sizes. Attendees reacted differently depending on their species. Audrey Wolf, the guardian of a 3-year-old wire-haired hound mix named Lake, was excited just to celebrate having a dog. Wolf thought that the pet blessing was a richer experience with a dog present than it had been in previous years when she brought a picture of her goldfish. Cinder, an 8-year-old Australian shepherd, cuddled up to the rabbi warmly as he approached her to praise G-d for “all the beauty and joy and excitement [big dogs] bring to our lives.” Afterward, though, Cinder seemed to shake off any newfound religious connection by rolling around in the grass. She also lunged after the rabbi’s dog.
Jewish pet blessings, sometimes called blessing of the animals ceremonies, are not as common as their Christian counterparts. At the Christian ceremonies, priests often sprinkle holy water on animals—most often dogs—and bless them in the name of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Christian blessing of the animals events have grown increasingly popular throughout the U.S. in the last few decades and number in the hundreds, if not thousands, each year. In contrast, numerous rabbis and experts on the role of animals in religion are clueless about the mere existence of Jewish blessing of the animals rituals.
The first documented Jewish blessing of the animals occurred in 1997, when a rabbi in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, hosted an event that was inspired by one he had attended at an Episcopalian church. At least 23 synagogues or other Jewish organizations in 10 states—including Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and nondenominational congregations—have had their own blessing of the animals events. Most take place in the fall when Parshat Noach, the Torah portion about Noah’s ark, is read. Many originated when rabbis or cantors independently came up with the same idea, without any ties to a clear or widely publicized Jewish precedent.
When Kaiserman was working at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, in 2000, he thought it was “kind of silly” when his colleague, Rabbi Peter Berg, organized a Jewish blessing of the animals. Berg got sick with the flu, and Kaiserman had to officiate at the event. The fun, popular ceremony was a success, and it became an annual tradition at the Dallas synagogue. Kaiserman brought the ritual with him to New Jersey, where he has led—and his very friendly toy poodle, Quincy, has attended—pet blessings for five years. Kaiserman originally timed the event to coincide with Parshat Noach, but he now prefers to host it in the spring, when it will not get overshadowed by the cluster of Jewish holiday programming that takes place each autumn.
Although Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies generally ask G-d to bless the animals in attendance—and some Jewish ones do as well—Kaiserman’s ceremony takes a decidedly different approach. “In Judaism, we never bless a thing (a mezuzah, a shofar, challah, or a pet),” he explained. “We offer the blessing to G-d in appreciation for the animals.”
Cantor Evan Kent started an annual blessing of the animals at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California, in 2007. He had tried to do so earlier, but the former senior rabbi felt that a Jewish blessing of the animals would amount to avodah zara (idol worship). Kent said that the rabbi questioned how a synagogue could bless animals because they do not have souls. Kent said that although he does not contest the rabbi’s point about souls, his ritual allows the synagogue to “bless animals for the joys they give us in our lives.” Kent started the tradition when a new senior rabbi took over, and the event has attracted not just dogs but also turtles, mice, guinea pigs, fish, and a parrot.
“They may be influenced by the Christian blessing ceremonies, but for me, the blessing of our animals is an extension of the nissim b’chol yom, the litany of blessings that are recited every morning,” said Kent. “These recognize the miracles that occur for us each and every day—and the unconditional love our pets share with us is nothing short of miraculous.”
For the last four years, Cantor Rachelle Nelson of Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Florida, has officiated at blessing of the animals ceremonies around the time when Parshat Noach was read. She offered several examples of how the event is consistent with Jewish tradition, which she said places emphasis on “the love and care of animals.” She noted that the Torah discusses how beasts of burden must rest on Shabbat, how oxen should not be muzzled when threshing in corn fields, and how unlike species should not be yoked together. She also pointed to several examples in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) that prohibit causing animals any unnecessary suffering (tsa’ar ba’alei chayim).
For Nelson, the annual blessing of the animals is an opportunity to promote “awareness that we are all G-d’s creatures,” which should inform how we treat animals. She added, “I am proud to be part of a religion that not only supports kindness to creatures as well as the respect to the Earth, but demands that we live by our words.”
Michael Croland runs heebnvegan, a blog about Judaism and animal issues. He has won a Genesis Award from The Humane Society of the United States for his articles about animal protection.
You can read Michael’s account of the October St. Francis Blessing of the Animals at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Astoria and the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Midtown Manhattan here.