Rabbis are asked a large variety of questions. We field questions as diverse as the proper way to observe Shabbos, to the Kosher status of food, to how best to educate children, to where to purchase a Mezuzah, and on and on. Over the years I have been asked on several occasions if there is a proper way to mourn a beloved family pet that has died. I remember the first time I was asked this question I was taken aback. In response I hemmed and hawed and asked for some time to check on the correct answer.
We, in Judaism, do not have specific prayers or mourning practices for pets. Why not? Those who have family pets can attest to the fact that a beloved dog or cat can seem like part of the family. The unbridled love and loyalty displayed by a tail-wagging dog or the comfort offered by a snuggling-purring cat can be downright therapeutic. In fact, animal therapy is a growing area of treatment of numerous human maladies. Pets have demonstrated incredible levels of what-can-only-be-described as heroism. So why don’t we pray over a dead pet? Why is a mourning death ritual not described in our sources? Is there something affirmative that can be done?
Before answering it behooves us to try to better understand how Judaism views an animal. As we know from the story of Genesis animals are creations of G-d. In fact, animals were created before humankind. We are commanded in very strong terms not to be cruel to animals. One of the seven Noahide laws, which are considered universal in that they are commanded to all humanity, states that the children of Noah (all of humanity) may not eat the limb from a living animal, which many explain includes being cruel to animals. The Code of Jewish Law, based upon the Talmud even directs us to learn certain character traits from animals; for instance hard work, cleanliness, and discretion, all as modeled by different species.
We can go even further. In Lurianic Kabbalah we find the notion that everything that exists does so by virtue of a divine spark – a G-dly energy as it were - found within it. We typically call this divine spark a soul. If not for a particular vivifying energy, that being, whatever it may be (inanimate, plant, animal, or human) would simply not exist. It is somewhat analogous to electricity within a lightbulb. If the electrical current is cut off the light goes out instantaneously. If the divine spark is removed, existence - also known as life - ceases.
From this explanation we see that our beloved pets indeed have souls. However, it is of critical importance to understand that the soul is radically different than that of a human. It is of extreme importance that we do not fall into the trap of viewing an animal’s life or death as tragic as significant as a human’s life and death. We see today the consequences of this lack of understanding, whereas many people have stated that when given the choice between rescuing a beloved pet or stranger from drowning, they would choose the pet. That is a moral failure of epic proportions.
At the same time, however, denying or even ignoring the death of a loving pet is unpalatable to the millions of people who have had their quality of life enhanced by a pet.
In the best tradition of the Baal Shem Tov, who enjoined us to learn from everything that happens and employ it in our service of G-d, we can indeed find ways to appropriately react to the death of a pet. May I suggest that the ‘mourner’ can take a careful inventory of what the pet did that helped make life better, and then make an honest attempt to try and make life better for another human being in a similar way. If one’s pet dog always greeted the owner with a wagging tail (eg. unbridled joy) try and emulate that when meeting with friends etc.
The best part about pets is that they were receptacles of love by their human owners, teaching their owners how to bestow love – even on lower beings. And that is a grand lesson that can always come in handy!