Jews Adopt Blessing of the Animals Ceremonies and Make Them Their Own
On a cold, windy day during the holiday of Passover this past April, about 20 dogs and their human family members gathered outside the JCC in Bridgewater, N.J. Robin Nafshi, a Reform rabbi, led a blessing of the animals ceremony that focused on compassionate Jewish teachings about animals.
At least 21 synagogues or other Jewish groups in 10 states have held blessing of the animals ceremonies, with rabbis (and at least one cantor) coming face to muzzle with a wide swath of the animal kingdom, including many animals that Jews do not consider kosher to eat. Although dogs and cats are the most common attendees, clergy have also recited blessings for livestock (goats and sheep), small mammals (hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, and ferrets), birds (parrots, ducks, and geese), reptiles (snakes and turtles), amphibians (frogs), fish (goldfish), shellfish (hermit crabs), and insects (at least one cricket and one millipede). Some organizers of these events have based their practices on Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies.
Rabbi Nafshi created her service, which featured lessons about animals from the Jewish tradition, responsive readings, and prayers in behalf of the animals. The program noted how Jews should not keep animals for whom they cannot provide proper care, must relieve animals of burdens that are too heavy, and must break the laws of Shabbat if an animal needs to be saved. Rabbi Nafshi’s sentiments were largely captured in the following prayer, which she read aloud: “Blessed are You, Holy Source, Maker of all living creatures. On the fifth and sixth days of creation, You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. We ask You to bless these animals; enable them to live fully in praise to Your Name. May we always praise You for all Your beauty in creation. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, for all of your creatures!”
Rabbi Nafshi prepared specific blessings for dogs, cats, and goats, but the goats’ owner thought the event was on a different day and no cats showed up either. “May God make you like Caleb, the loyal one,” said Rabbi Nafshi to the dogs in Hebrew. She also blessed the goats and cats in absentia, praying for them to be “like the goats of Jacob, the prosperous ones,” and “like the lion of Judah, the strong one.”
Irene Lieberman attended the ceremony with her 14-year-old “beagle baby,” Laces. Laces has battled cancer and slowed down in the last year, and Lieberman welcomed Rabbi Nafshi’s blessing amid Laces’ late-life struggle.
“The timing of the blessing was perfect,” said Lieberman. “I’m not sure if she understood or benefited from the prayer. But I felt more hopeful about being able to love my dog as long as she is with me.”
No one can be certain that animals fully grasp the meaning of blessing of the animals ceremonies. Some animal guardians, however, see the ceremonies as opportunities to connect to their faith.
Eileen Schwalb, a vegetarian and the proud mother of 5-year-old dachshund Max, has read everything she could find about Jewish teachings regarding compassion for animals. She said that Rabbi Nafshi’s blessing of the animals was a unique opportunity to bring her studies “alive” and combine her love for animals with her love for Judaism.
“It was powerful to include Max in my Jewish life,” said Schwalb. “He is very much part of my Jewish life at home. Max responds to the name Rabbi Kerry Olitzky [the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute]. When I say that name, he knows to get in our special spot for quiet reading of meditations.”
Schwalb said that she and Max are part of a “strong dog community,” but it was nice to have a “Jewish dog community.” She noted that many members of her synagogue bring their dogs to tashlich, an outdoor ceremony that takes place on Rosh Hashanah, but Rabbi Nafshi’s blessing of the animals was “specifically for animals.” She added, “Max and I attend many dog-friendly events, but it was incredible to attend a Jewish ceremony. I felt more connected to my Judaism.”
In 1998, Michael Rosen, a National Jewish Book Award–winning author, set out to research Jews’ responses to Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies. The result was the 2000 young adult novel The Blessing of the Animals, in which a Jewish boy named Jared debated whether to get his dog, Shayna, blessed at a nearby church. Jewish perspectives included in the book, which Rosen said were based entirely on his library research and consultations with four rabbis, included urging Jared not to participate in the Christian ceremony, suggesting he get as many blessings as he could, and telling him to think about how dogs are blessings in and of themselves. Ultimately, Jared affirmed his Jewish identity by skipping the church’s religious ceremony but attending the community potluck afterward. At its core, The Blessing of the Animals is a poignant tale about growing up Jewish in melting-pot America and reacting to a popular Christian custom.
In Rosen’s thorough, moving, and compelling story of varied Jewish perspectives, there is only one angle missing: a Jewish blessing of the animals ceremony.
When contacted for this article, Rosen said that he had never heard of such a thing. “This is news to me,” said Rosen, who frequently meets with Jewish educators and uses his blessing of the animals story in his presentations. “None of the rabbis to whom I spoke suggested that Jews had such a ceremony. … All that I understand I honestly expressed in the book.”
Indeed, Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies are new, obscure, and fairly unknown. Jewish Vegetarians of North America president Richard Schwartz, who has written widely about animal issues in Judaism, said he had never heard of a Jewish blessing of the animals. Christine Gutleben, director of Faith Outreach for The Humane Society of the United States, said that in her nearly three years on the job, she had not heard of a single one either.
Rather than deal with Jared’s struggle over whether Jews should go to Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies, various synagogues and other Jewish organizations have borrowed from Christian practice and created their own blessing ceremonies.
Many Catholic and Episcopalian churches celebrate the compassionate teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, by blessing animals on or near October 4, a feast day in his honor. Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies have likely taken place throughout Christian history, according to the 2008 book Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition, by Laura Hobgood-Oster. She estimated that “hundreds, if not thousands” of blessing ceremonies in at least 40 states occur each year. Hobgood-Oster wrote that the number of Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies has increased “dramatically” in the last two decades. She suggested that this boom was “most likely inspired” by the highly publicized annual spectacle at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopalian church in New York City.
In 1996, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom witnessed the ceremony at St. John the Divine. The following year, at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa., the Conservative rabbi conducted the first documented Jewish blessing of the animals. “Some 75 synagogue members … turned out to seek the rabbi’s blessing on their winged, finned, four-legged, or no-legged pets (this last a snake),” noted a 1997 article in The Jerusalem Post. Rabbi Rosenbloom declined to comment for this article.
While all Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies appear to be at least indirectly influenced by their Christian predecessors, Jewish organizers of blessing ceremonies differ on how directly Christianity has shaped Jewish practice.
“The blessings ceremony is entirely borrowed from Christian practices,” said Rabbi Michael Resnick of Temple Emanu-El in Palm Beach, Fla. Rabbi Resnick, who was ordained as a Conservative rabbi, has never attended a Christian blessing of the animals. In preparing his first blessing ceremony in October, he relied on “a few services online,” such as “God, Bless the Animals,” a Christian-oriented “nondenominational Internet prayer ministry.” He simply eliminated New Testament references and added Jewish teachings.
“Jews have regularly borrowed from others. I feel no shame!” Rabbi Resnick said. “I think attracting people to religious [services] is a shared goal for all faiths in our country. If someone has found something that works, why recreate the wheel? As the Mishnah says, ‘Who is wise? One who learns from everybody.’”
Rabbi Lawrence Silverman denied that the four blessing of the animals ceremonies he has conducted at a Reform synagogue in Plymouth, Mass., were founded in Christian practice. “I base our ceremony on Jewish sources,” he said. “I am not acquainted with any ‘Christian blessing’ that might be an equivalent.”
Other rabbis tried to distance themselves from the Christian ceremonies while acknowledging that they came first. Rabbi Nafshi said that she attended a Christian blessing ceremony many years ago, but she did not remember specific content and did not base her ceremony on Christian practice.
Rabbi Peter Berg first organized a blessing of the animals at a Reform synagogue in Dallas in 2000. He explained, “Yes, [it is] influenced from Christianity in that churches do it. However, the precedent for caring for animals and offering blessings dates back to the Hebrew Scriptures.”
Although these rabbis may disagree on a conceptual level, Christian practice certainly gave the idea to them or their congregants. “A group of parents were talking about how much they loved their dogs. One joked that the church down the street blesses dogs and wished we did it. So, we did,” said Rabbi Berg. Three other rabbis, including Rabbi Silverman, and a cantor also noted that they started having blessing of the animals ceremonies following requests from congregants.
All sources interviewed for this article agreed that there was no organized movement calling for Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies. All but two agreed that Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies are not taking place on a significantly larger scale than the 21 examples found in research for this article. (See Sidebar.) Although some rabbis, like Rosenbloom, based their ceremonies directly on Christian practice, others relied on word of mouth to follow Jewish precedent.
Rosenbloom’s ceremony inspired his friend Rabbi Charles Sherman to start an annual tradition at a Conservative synagogue in Syracuse, N.Y., shortly afterward. When he hosted blessing of the animals ceremonies in Dallas, Rabbi Berg worked with Rabbi Mark Kaiserman. When Rabbi Kaiserman transferred to a Reform synagogue in New Jersey, he initiated a blessing of the animals there. Rabbi Nafshi was familiar with Rabbi Kaiserman’s ceremony and consulted him in preparing her own, but she denied that his ceremony was a determining factor in her decision to organize a blessing of the animals.
While he was in Philadelphia studying at the Reconstructionist movement’s seminary, Rabbi Josh Snyder inspired Rabbi Leonard Gordon to have a blessing of the animals at his nearby Conservative synagogue. Rabbi Snyder now works as the director of Hillel at Goucher College in Baltimore, where he has helped lead an interfaith blessing of the animals. Rabbi Gordon has continued the tradition in Rabbi Snyder’s absence, and he credited Rabbi Snyder for “teaching [him] the importance of animal companions in people’s lives.”
Rabbi Snyder’s influence has been felt on a larger level. At least three rabbis interviewed for this article based their blessing of the animals prayers on articles Rabbi Snyder wrote for the Web site Ritualwell.org. Rabbi Snyder’s main article reflected on various time frames when the ceremony could occur and offered specific prayers that could be used. Rabbi Snyder said that the Internet has enabled people to connect with each other in new ways, facilitating the growth of the ritual as a Jewish practice.
As one might expect from a ritual lacking a coherent movement or origin, not all blessing of the animals ceremonies were created equal.
At least 10 Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies took place around Shabbat Noach in the fall, when the Torah story of Noah is read. “This [Torah portion] is the first example of how important it is to treat animals with respect and love. A key Jewish value is tza’ar ba’alei chayim, not causing pain to any living creature,” explained Rabbi Ellen Wolintz-Fields, who hosted a blessing of the animals at her Conservative synagogue in New Jersey in October. Rabbi Sherman, of Syracuse, dresses up as Noah to add a fun, Purim-like flair to the ceremony.
Rabbi Nafshi chose to hold her ceremony on the Sunday of the eight-day Passover holiday in April. “During Passover, we remember the paschal lamb that was sacrificed in order for the Israelites to be freed from Egypt,” she explained. “We chose that time of year to express our love and appreciation for all the animals in our lives who give us so much.”
This year, Rabbi Linda Holtzman led a blessing of the animals on October 4, the feast day of St. Francis, because it was a joint event with a church group that leases space from her Reconstructionist synagogue in Philadelphia. In past years, she had had it on the Sunday in between the Shabbat when the story of creation is read and Shabbat Noach.
Rabbi Kaiserman chose to have his ceremony on a random spring day so that the weather would be nice.
Of course, the content of each ceremony varies as well. At least two ceremonies included readings from Perek Shirah (A Chapter of Song), an ancient Jewish text praising different elements of the natural world. At least two featured a kaddish (mourner’s prayer) for deceased companion animals, and at least two included a misheberach (prayer for healing). One officiating rabbi gave animals Hebrew names. One synagogue hosted a parade with animals as well as an animal trivia contest. Guardians at one ceremony were asked to state their companion animals’ age, gender, and talents. And although Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City has invited animals to attend its ceremony in past years, on Shabbat Noach this year, guardians were instead encouraged to take ribbons to tie to their companion animals’ cages or collars when they got home.
Some blessing of the animals events also had what Rabbi Kaiserman called a “social justice” dimension. He said, “We’ve promoted adoption of pets from area shelters. We had guide dogs for the blind come one year to educate—and maybe inspire someone to join in.” At least two events featured collection of pet food for a local animal shelter or pet food pantry.
Creating a new Jewish practice has not gone without some hooting and howling.
Perhaps the most obvious objection is that the ceremony is “a creative Jewish spin on what otherwise sounds like a decidedly goyishe shtik,” in the words of a 1997 Jerusalem Post opinion piece criticizing Rabbi Rosenbloom’s first blessing of the animals.
“[Our cantor] had wanted to do this ceremony for many years to coincide with the reading of [the Torah portion of] Noah, but the former senior rabbi felt the ceremony felt too Christian somehow,” said Rabbi Zoë Klein of Temple Isaiah, a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles. “When I became senior [rabbi], we started it.”
In a syndicated column earlier this month, Rabbi Marc Gellman explained that Jews do not bless animals because they do not have souls. “Faith is about boundaries as much as openness,” Gellman, a Reform rabbi, wrote. He did not mention that any Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies have taken place, and he did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
However, several rabbis explained their blessing ceremonies in a manner consistent with Rabbi Gellman’s view of animals. Rabbi Janet Offel, who led a blessing of the animals on Shabbat Noach at a Reform synagogue in Woodland Hills, Calif., created her own kaddish for animals rather than using the traditional mourning prayer for humans. In introducing the prayer, she said, “It is important that we remain cognizant of the boundaries that do exist as a part of the natural world—raising up and honoring our creature companions without debasing the responsibilities, benefits, and privileges that come with being human.”
Whereas animals at Christian ceremonies are the recipients of blessings in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Jewish blessings serve a different function, said Rabbi Kaiserman. He explained, “In Judaism we never bless a thing (a mezuzah, a shofar, challah, or a pet). We offer the blessing to God in appreciation for the animals.”
Bill Speidel, an active member of Temple Israel in Norfolk, Va., advocated for a blessing of the animals at his Conservative synagogue, but it never came to fruition. “Synagogue leaders were concerned that if an animal had an accident and if so, according to Jewish law, it couldn’t be cleaned on Shabbat, so the mess would have to sit an entire day until the cleaning staff came in,” he said. Synagogues that hold their ceremonies on Sundays do not face this problem.
“We did not have an animal blessing. … Mostly this is to keep those allergens out of the building as much as possible but also for the risks to people and other pets from improperly restrained animals,” added Leslie Bradner, Temple Israel’s executive director.
Throughout Western history, humans have used animals for food, labor, and other uses. Humans’ close relationships with some animals as “pets,” at least on a large scale, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Although Judaism has a longstanding tradition of compassion for animals, dogs and cats have typically been mentioned in terms of their usefulness for specific tasks. Sixty-two percent of U.S. households have companion animals, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2009/2010 National Pet Owners Survey. For some non-Orthodox Jews, effectively reaching out to a nation of animal lovers means going beyond ancient Jewish texts.
“When you think that at another age and time, the only animals going into the temple were those that were left on the altar—we have really come a long way!” said Barbara Schulman, who attended Rabbi Wolintz-Fields’ blessing of the animals with her mixed-breed dog, Brindle.
Rabbi Snyder said that creating rituals catering to American Jews’ love for companion animals is part of a larger context of changing religious practice, at least in the Reconstructionist movement. He noted that Reconstructionists have created new rituals for having a miscarriage, voting for the first time, and losing one’s virginity. While he is not sure whether blessing of the animals ceremonies are growing significantly, he does think there is a rising trend in recognizing the relationship between people and companion animals.
For Rabbi Snyder, who was a veterinary student prior to going to rabbinical school, animals and religion are related. He said that working at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem might have been the most spiritual experience he had in Israel. “I found my own spirituality connection through my connection to animals,” he said.
Rabbi Resnick said he “was surprised at the amount of pastoral care” he did at his blessing of the animals. The event provided a unique opportunity to console a woman who felt guilty after her dog died while she was away and another attendee whose dog was nearing death. “The pets were simply a vehicle to reach the emotional core of some of the people,” he said.
Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies represent these sentiments and should be viewed in a larger context. In her 2007 book Blessing of the Animals, Diana Guerrero devoted a chapter to obscure species-specific Jewish blessing ceremonies, such as “bark mitzvahs” and “meow mitzvahs.” These ceremonies are not always led by religious leaders and do not necessarily take place in religious settings. Guerrero explained that the species-specific blessings, which apparently began in the early 1980s, are often cheeky affairs that have been controversial in the Jewish community. Rabbi Resnick and Rabbi Berg explicitly noted that their blessing of the animals ceremonies were not “bark mitzvahs,” which they called “ridiculous” and “offensive,” respectively.
Guerrero did not know of many non-species-specific blessing of the animals in Judaism, although her book and her blog mention one each. Nevertheless, whether with “bark mitzvahs” or blessing of the animals ceremonies, in Judaism or otherwise, Guerrero believes that people of faith are viewing animals in new ways that differ from the working dog, hunting dog, and guard dog roles that they were limited to previously. “Animals are moving from those utilitarian roles into family member roles,” she said.
“Animals touch people at a very deep place … just like spirituality touches people at a very deep place,” she added. “When you combine the two, it’s even stronger.”