Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Jewish view of cats

While checking the traffic sources for this blog today, I noticed that somebody got here by searching  for "Jewish view of cats."  That's interesting, I thought to myself.  Is there a "Jewish view" of cats?  Are cats even "Jewish" at all?

Well, as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said of the Torah 2000 years ago:  "Turn it over and over, for everything is in it" (Pirkei Avot 5:22)  So I decided to do just that -- not just in the literal Torah (Five Books of Moses) but "Torah" in the broader sense, as all of Jewish learning.  Here are a few of the interesting things I found.

Lions and Tigers and Leopards -- Oh My!

The Torah itself does not mention house cats, although it does mention big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards. The Lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, lineage of King David.  In Genesis 49:9, Jacob blessed his son Judah with:

Judah is a young lion,  
on prey, my son, have you grown. 
He crounches, lies down like a lion, 
like the King of Beasts -- who dares arouse him?

the Lion of Judah
on the symbol of  Jerusalem
This verse, by the way, is how the idea of the lion as "King of Beasts" entered the English language.  Not only Jews but many other ancient peoples as well associated lions with royalty -- and many still do.

Lions also appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly beings attending God’s Presence.  To this day, lions are used in Jewish art and heraldry to represent the Jewish people.  The Hebrew for lion is Aryeh, which is also a common given name for Jewish men.

Leopards are mentioned in six places in Scripture: Song of Songs 4:8; Isaiah 11:6; Jeremiah 5:6; 13:23; Daniel 7:6; Hosea 13:7.  Tigers are mentioned only once -- in  Job 4:11.

No house cats in the Hebrew Scriptures

Sand Cat
But what about those cuddly purrballs we keep as pets nowadays?  My guess is that Jews first encountered small cats in Egypt, perhaps during the time of Joseph or Moses.  It is known that cats were already domesticated in the Middle East at that time.  When I was in Berlin in 1997 I visited the zoo there and saw Egyptian Sand Cats, an endangered species that look pretty much like ordinary tabbies.  I can easily imagine them as the ancestors of my own feline companions.

Then why are no cats mentioned in the Bible?  One theory is that, because cats were worshiped as gods by the Egyptians, they were purposely left out by Jewish writers because they were seen as idols.  But that doesn't make any sense, because the Egyptians worshiped a lot of other animals and birds that are mentioned.  So this remains a mystery.

But in the Talmud -- yes!

By the time we get to the Talmud (Greco-Roman period) there is mention of house cats who are honored as teachers of virtue.  We are told that if God had not given us the Torah, then we would have learned modesty from the cat.  (Eruvin 100b)  This is probably the most-often-quoted Jewish reference to cats -- and it is very positive.  Rashi, a major 9th-century commentator, interprets the cat's "modesty" as referring to her habit of burying her feces.  But other interpretations also exist, so feel free to develop your own.  For myself, I think her "modesty" is the reserved habit cats have of sitting back and observing things first.  They certainly don't come pouncing on strangers like some dogs do!

On the other hand, cats were believed to have bad memories because they ate mice!   In Tractate Horiot we read:

"The disciples of Rabbi Elazar ben Zadok asked: Why does the dog know his master, and the cat does not? and his answer was:  It is certain that he who eats from what is left by a mouse is apt to have a poor memory, so much the more so the cat that himself consumes the mouse."

Frankly, this is not all that "certain" nowadays, when we have a much better understanding of brain function.  It's just a silly superstition.  The same tractate also says you can lose your memory by eating the leftovers of the cats' food.  (Yuck!  Was it even kosher?  Not the mice, certainly.  Maybe it means kosher food nibbled by a cat?)  And yet, I did once hear a Jewish boy tell his younger brother not to pet the cat before he went to school or he would flunk his math test.  So it lives on as a superstition among children.

At any rate, we are not required to believe this.  In the 12th century, Maimonides, a major Jewish scholar who was also a physician, stated that when it came to science and medicine, the sages of old were limited in their knowledge to what was commonly known, and did not speak with "prophetic voice."  (Guide for the Perplexed.  See also my previous article, Voting for Darwin, Evolution, and Modern Science)

As for a cat "knowing her master," they certainly do recognize their human companions.  But unlike dogs, cats don't obey commands very well -- as any cat owner can tell you.  So there is some truth in the idea that they do not know or obey a "master" -- but eating mice doesn't cause it.  A cat is simply made differently than a dog.  (Note: Some older translations rendered it as a cat "not knowing God" instead of "master" -- probably because God is "master of the universe"  (Ribbono shel Olam) but that makes no sense.  Why would a dog obey God but a cat not?  Both are God's creations.)

Black cats, witches, and Jews

This is Nightshade, a black cat who lived with us
until she passed away in 2013.  She crossed my path
every day with no ill effects LOL!
Many cultures have superstitions about cats, such as, "If a black cat crosses your path, it brings bad luck." Judaism forbids such beliefs because it violates the prohibition against looking for omens (Leviticus 19:26).  As Jewish comedian Groucho Marx once said, "If a black cat crosses your path, it means the animal is going somewhere."

During the Middle Ages, when Christians were seeing cats as the familar spirits of witches, Jews were much more practical.  I remember reading somewhere that the reason Europeans were so superstitious about cats was because cats were not native to that part of the world, so they were seen as something strange and threatening.  Well, if Jews had already encountered cats in ancient Egypt, maybe that is why we were not superstitious about them.  Cats were sometimes reviled for eating baby chicks, but they were not seen as anything but cats.  (Even today I keep my mother hens with new chicks in big cages until the chicks are older.  A cat is a cat is a cat...)

So, in contrast to medieval Christians who were killing all the cats as demons, Jews kept them around to hunt rodents and protect the holy books from mice.  To this day, Torah scrolls are made of parchment, and books back then were all bound in leather with glues made from animal hides, which made them very tempting for rodents to chew.  So it was common to have a shul katze (synagogue cat) to protect the congregation's library.

The Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) does say that one may kill an "evil cat" if it harms children.  This is not about cats-as-demons, though.  An "evil cat" (khatul ra) would presumably be a vicious feral cat, or maybe a rabid one.  In general, Jewish Law forbids keeping any animal that is dangerous, and Talmudic references to "evil dogs" are all about dogs that bite or attack.  So there is no injunction to get rid of cats in general as "evil."  Among the medieval Jews, they flourished.

The ancient Jewish text, Perek Shirah  (The Song of the Universe), in which everything in Creation is singing a song to God, includes both lions and house cats. The cat is portrayed as singing, "I pursued my foes and overtook them, and did not return until they were destroyed" (Psalm 18:38.)  Which is a pretty good description of a stalking cat.   Perek Shirah fell out of use in modern times, but has recently been re-discovered by Jewish environmentalists and ecology groups.  It is also popular among Breslover Hasidim, because it was a favorite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Keeping cats helped control the rats that carried the Black Plague, so the Jewish communities of Europe were not as badly devastated as the Christian communities.  (In addition, Jews do not eat rats, but in medieval times the gentiles often did.)  Unfortunately, since nobody back then knew how the Plague was spread, this difference just reinforced the idea that Jews were witches with demon cats who had brought the Plague as a curse on the Christians -- resulting in a lot of innocent Jews and cats being cruelly put to death.

Jews and cats in modern times

A lot of Jews nowadays have cats.  Generally speaking, Jewish attitudes toward cats are more positive than toward dogs.    Among Orthodox Jews, cats are more common than dogs because there is a cultural phobia about dogs, based on bad experiences in past history, when dogs were used to track down and attack Jews.  I have been told by elderly Jews from Eastern Europe that the first thing they heard before a pogrom (attack on the Jewish community) was the dogs howling in the distance before the peasants with pitchforks showed up to sack the town.  So dogs barking is a scary sound to a lot of Jews.  Nazis also used dogs to track and attack Jews.  So although non-Orthodox Jews often have dogs, they are not very common among more traditional communities. (However, I do have three of them along with my eight cats.)

Unfortunately, Israel is overrun with feral cats.  Legend has it that the British introduced cats into Palestine to control rats.  I do wonder about this story -- why would the British have had to introduce them, since cats are mentioned in the Talmud, indicating they were around already in ancient times?  Were they later killed off as demons by the Christian Crusaders?  Who knows?   At any rate, they did their job of rat control but the cat population has now exploded.  There is a Jewish  organization, Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (C.H.A.I.) that offers spay-neuter services and education.  It was founded by an American Jew, Nina Natelson, who was appalled by all the hungry stray cats she saw in Jerusalem and wanted to do something about it.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe and animal toys

Yes, the giraffe is kosher, but Jews don't
eats giraffe meat, because it is not known
where on the neck to make the cut
to slaughter it. Which is just as well.
The Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson (d. 1994), leader of Chabad Hasidism, was opposed to Jewish children playing with toys or pictures in the shape of non-kosher species of animals.  (A cat is not kosher.)  He wrote: "Because what one sees leaves lasting impressions, especially on young children, the toys that a child plays with, and the pictures that he looks at, should not be of impure animals."

"Impure" (tameh) meaning animals that could not be eaten in a kosher home and/or offered as sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple.  He believed that playing with such toys would somehow damage the child's innocent soul, or lead him/her to idolatry.  (By worshiping animals?)

The objection was triggered originally by a cartoon mouse named Mendel (in a popular Jewish children's magazine called Olomeinu, "Our World"that the Rebbe found offensive because it personified a mouse  -- an animal he saw as "unclean" -- as a Jew (read more...)   In general, he objected to cartoons and books that personified animals in human roles.

Mendel the Mouse
The Rebbe expanded his ruling to include all non-kosher species (unless directly connected to illustrating Torah texts) and it became a general prohibition among his followers that continues to this day.  Unfortunately, this includes cartoon cats like Garfield and Daniel Tiger, as well as stuffed animals like teddy bears and other animal-shaped toys,  Some people take this idea about "seeing" non-kosher animals to extremes and won't even visit the zoo. 

This is an unfortunately narrow view of nature, but it is not mainstream Judaism!  It is not even typical Orthodox Judaism.  Breslover Hasidim, who are more in tune with God's creation than Lubavitchers, have no such prohibition.  Neither do other branches of Judaism. (See In defense of unkosher animal toys, San Diego Jewish Press, January 8, 2012.)  Personally, I think it has produced a whole generation of Chabad Jews with a serious case of "nature deficit disorder" (read my blog post on that.)  If you can't learn about the different kinds of animals in our world, how can you appreciate God's creation?

Cats in Jewish children's books

Cats do appear in Jewish children's literature, such as the award-winning book, Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco, featured on Reading Rainbow.  It's about an elderly Jewish woman who is given a kitten by an African American boy named Larnel who lives in her building.  The cat has no tail, so she names her Tush ("bottom").  Caring for the cat together, the woman and boy become good friends, and find common themes in their two cultures.  When Tush gets out of the house one day, the whole neighborhood helps look for her.  She is found and returned -- and eventually has kittens, making Mrs. Katz a happy "Bubbe" (grandmother in Yiddish.).

My all-time favorite Jewish cat book is Appleblossom by Shulamith Levey Oppenheim.  In this delightful tale, an eight-year-old boy named Naftali and  his mother want a cat but his father does not -- and Papa's decision rules.  Well, not really.  The boy meets a stray female cat and names her Appleblossom.  The cat talks to the boy (and who is to say not?  After all, King Solomon is said to have understood the language of animals), and she wants very much to be his cat.  So together they plan, and Appleblossom comes up with a clever way to wins the heart of Papa on the eve of Passover.  A great classic that should be in every cat lover's library.

*  *  *


How did I miss this one?  A well-known Mishnah exhorts us to "be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven." (Pirkei Avot 5:23).  That is certainly a positive use of big cat metaphors for how to serve God! 

*  *  *

Regarding the name Aryeh (Lion) the diminutive is Ari.  There was a great Torah scholar and mystic known as the "Holy Ari"  (Holy Lion) -- Rabbi Isaac Luria (16th century.)  His philosophical system is the basis for Lurianic kabbalah, a major form of Jewish mysticism that strongly influenced Hasidism.

*  *  *

Regarding Mendel the Mouse (discussed above), I suppose the Lubavitcher Rebbe would also have objected to the award-winning graphic novel, Maus by Art Spiegelman, where Jews during the Holocaust are portrayed as mice and the Nazis are cats.  I have never read anywhere that the Rebbe was familiar with this book, and since it appeared only shortly before the Rebbe had a debilitating stroke in March of 1992, I rather doubt he read it.  But it does seem to fall into the parameters of the Chabad prohibition.

Still, it is another example of cats used as metaphors in a Jewish context -- this time negatively -- so it deserves a mention here.  However, this is not really a commentary on the nature of cats per se.   Spiegelman used these animal metaphors to emphasize the predator-prey relationship between  Germans and Jews during the Nazi regime.  This is a common technique in political cartooning.  Maus has proven to be an excellent educational tool about the Holocaust for young people, and is often used in schools, both Jewish and not.

*  *  *

"Der Furrer" -- a kitler
owned by Sandy Weinberg
And speaking of Nazis, Adolf Hitler absolutely hated cats.  I'm pretty sure the feeling was mutual; cats have better taste when it comes to trusting humans.  

On the other hand, there is a weird website called Cats that look like Hitler with pictures of, well, cats that supposedly look like Hitler -- called "kitlers."  Perhaps the greatest irony of all:  a hated dictator is now being parodied by the very animals he would have hated in real life.  And parody, as we all know, is a very Jewish form of humor!

So nu -- are these cats reincarnations of  Jewish comedians?  Even in his lifetime, Hitler was lampooned and ridiculed on stage.  So much so, that one of the first things he did when he came to power was to shut down all the cabarets.  What a sourpuss.  So maybe the cats are finally getting the last laugh.

I care for a cat colony on my hobby farm.  People keep dumping them in the woods, and when they show up, I spay/neuter and vaccinate them.  This gets expensive on my limited income, so of you would like to help, go to:

The graphic I used for years on eBay.  These kittens are,
of course, long ago adopted out to forever homes,
after which their mother, Chayah Cat, was spayed. 


travelightly said...

You have given me great resources with this post. Very well done. Thanks!

Yonassan Gershom said...

Thank you! (Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr)

Anonymous said...

Hi Yonassan, Matti Epstein from Lexington here...I sent a personal message in July on your Facebook page per your instructions-- would love to hear from you-- hope all is well.

I left my contact info there.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Matti, I almost never go to Facebook anymore. All I have out here in rural MN is a VERY SLOW dialup at home that times me out of FB, so I can only get on when I'm in town. I'm reluctant to put my contact info online here because I was getting harassed and I really because I can't keep up with it all -- I'm not much of a social media person -- but my phone number is the same as it has always been all these years....

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Anonymous said...

Cats have a quieter companionship with their humans. Have you noticed that they don't always announce themselves, but just seem to be near where you are.

They don't obviously follow you around but just happen to be where you are. Then if they are not feeling companionable, can dissapear so completely.

I am begining to thik we have misinterpreted meow, actually it is pay attention to me NOW.


Anonymous said...

OK, so I'm almost a year late to this, but I can't believe you missed the great graphic novel, The Rabbi's Cat. It's about a Rabbi in Algeria in the 1930's and his cat who can talk to him. There's an animated movie of it too, it's a great story of north African Judaism in the early 1900's.


Yonassan Gershom said...

Hllary: Well, I can't know everything LOL! Never heard of this novel or movie but I most certainly will track it down. Thank you for the heads up!

Andres Genovez said...

Greetings Yonassan Gershom,

Your words light up my day, I feel pretty sad for ignorant people mixing Cats with Evil, One day I had to argue with someone, and I told that person just as you say about the Black Plague, if we left ignorance may someday it destroy us all.

Hashem's wisdom guide us to those who seek with pure heart and respect all of his creation even more defenseless beings.

Shalom from Ecuador

Carla da Silva (Netherlands) said...

Thank you for this interesting blog, I found it when searching for cats and humility. When reading that Hitler hated cats I thought of the poem Mort aux chats by Peter Porter, which -if you don't know it- you would very likely appreciate. Cats as a metaphor for Jews, or for any scapegoated minority actually. I discussed it in my literature class recently and I wish had seen your blog earlier.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Thank you for the poetry tip. I was not familiar with Mort aux Chats but looked it up. I can read French so read the original as well as the translation. What a powerful statement about prejudice. Feel free to use my blog in future discussions :)

KateGladstone said...

"The disciples of Rabbi Elazar ben Zadok asked: Why does the dog know his master, and the cat does not? and his answer was: It is certain that he who eats from what is left by a mouse is apt to have a poor memory, so much the more so the cat that himself consumes the mouse."

The old superstition (in many countries and cultures) that people will lose their memory if they eat what a mouse has nibbled _just_ _may_ reflect the fact that a very early symptom of Alzheimer's is that the person ceases to notice small details (such as ceasing to notice whether a piece of food, or a food-container, has been damaged in some way). This is especially seen in the person'/ failing to notice the state/content/condition of the food that he or she is eating. So ... a person with early Alzheimer's will often not notice the signs of mice-infestation/damage (particularly in food), and this could easily be noticed by family/friends/neighbors before anyone noticed the later and more obvious symptom (deteriorating memory). Therefore, if someone first observes that "Grandpa is carelessly eating some cheese that a mouse nibbled on," and then — a few months or years later — observes that "Grandpa is having trouble remembering things any more, it would be easy (but erroneous) to conclude that the memory loss was caused by eating the mouse-damaged food (when actually here we have just two separate symptoms —?an early one and a later one — not cause and effect).

"The same tractate also says you can lose your memory by eating the leftovers of the cats' food. (Yuck! Was it even kosher? Not the mice, certainly. Maybe it means kosher food nibbled by a cat?)"

This would have the same explanation: Alzheimer's-related carelessness of food often results in the person eating things that he or she would never have eaten before.

"And yet, I did once hear a Jewish boy tell his younger brother not to pet the cat before he went to school or he would flunk his math test. So it lives on as a superstition among children."

According to my (late) paternal grandma (Jewish, born in Warsaw in 1900), the usual expression for "stupidity" among Jews in her locale and generation (in both the Polish and the Yiddish languages) was "having a cat head" — it was believed that cats were stupid (compared with humans) and that the stupidity could indeed "rub off" on people who played with cats too often.

KateGladstone said...

"Appleblossom" is by Shulamith Levey (not Levi) Oppenheim.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Thank you for this interesting addition to this discussion. Your theories seem completely plausible. Many superstitions have roots in events that are erroneously linked as cause & effect.

Re: Having a "cat head" meaning stupidity, cats are actually quite intelligent, but their skills are in different areas. Not good at solving mazes like rats or learning tricks like dogs, but very good at stalking prey & getting out of closed spaces.

Yonassan Gershom said...

You are correct, Kate. will fix this typo next time I'm on my laptop. For some reason the Edit screen does not work on my phone.