Can one sit shivah for a dear friend that happens to be an animal?

January 29, 2009
Follow The JC on Twitter

Question: Can one sit shivah for a dear friend that happens to be an animal? My old horse has died at the age of 29. He was a faithful companion who won me many rosettes in shows, and I want to know how I can mark his passing.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

The simple answer to your question is that there is no Jewish mourning ritual for an animal. There is nothing to stop you from taking time out of your ordinary schedule to reflect on your loss but you mustn’t confuse this with the religious nature of a shivah ritual.

Judaism has great compassion for animals. It sees them as sensitive beings and God’s creatures. It does not however see them as intelligent beings. That is to say they do not have the ability to make critical choices about how they live their lives.

Animals behave instinctively. The sheep is docile and the wolf is aggressive. Neither chooses to behave in a particular way; it is just how they are wired. Since they are incapable of making critical choices the terms good or bad are inapplicable. A sheep is not good and a wolf is not bad, as such terms only have meaning when they are the result of clear choices. It is for this reason that the Torah does not consider animals responsible for their behaviour; instead it is their masters who always bear responsibility.

A human being, on the other hand, does possess the Godlike gift of critical choice. We may be wired with certain tendencies; some of us may be naturally aggressive while others are naturally passive. Yet we are free to make our own choices as to how we behave.

Being born with a natural negative tendency does not mean that one is condemned to negative behaviour throughout their life. This quality of critical free choice is what the Torah refers to when it describes man as being made in God’s image. It is in recognition of this quality that Jewish law prescribes the unique burial and mourning rituals.
Behind these rituals is the idea that a divine soul, once housed in the physical body, has now departed. One of the most meaningful features of the mourning ritual is the recital of Kaddish with its opening phrase, Magnified and sanctified may His great name be. According to the Chasidic masters, the loss of a human life diminishes the glory of the Almighty Himself and so Kaddish is our attempt to restore some of that lost glory.

God’s glory is manifest in all of His creation; in the cosmos, in the physical beauty of nature and in wildlife. Yet nowhere is this more apparent than in the lives of human beings, as the Psalmist says: For you have made him a little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honour.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Some people reading this question will scoff at it, while others will understand totally. It reflects the fact that there are many Jews whose relationship with their pets is so strong that they treat them as a fully-fledged member of the family.

Those pets end up exerting an enormous influence on the lives of their owners: planning their diary around being back in time to let the dog out, or finding a holiday flat that takes animals, or making sure they book not only the plane but also the cattery.

Moreover, I suspect the significance of pets is increasing. Families are living further away from each other. For those for whom the support of nearby relatives has disappeared, pets have become an extra source of warmth.

In addition, many people are living alone - whether through bereavement, choice or divorce. But most of us still have needs that a pet can provide: because of them the house is not empty, they help give structure to our day through feeding times and walks, and we certainly talk to them freely and quite often get some sort of reply.

It means that when a pet dies, it is not just a nuisance, like the washing machine packing up, but instead it is a major blow, and after many years of cameraderie together, we feel a real sense of bereavement. We are hit by many of the emotions that swell up when we lose a person, with tears, pain and even guilt.

Of course, when a person dies, there is a funeral and a whole system of mourning. Jews are conditioned to grieve in a certain way and the loss of a beloved pet without any such rituals can be doubly upsetting.

For this reason, one of the many innovations in the new Reform prayer book, which was published last year, is recognition of our feelings about animals. It includes a prayer on losing a pet which refers to the years of loyalty and companionship that we have enjoyed, and all the moments of happiness we have shared.

The two main purposes of Jewish funeral and shivah rituals is to acknowledge the character of the deceased and to be helpful to the mourners. There is no reason, therefore, why you cannot say a prayer, light a candle or hold a service for a close pet. It may not be necessary halachically, but it can be appropriate emotionally.

    Last updated: 6:37pm, March 11 2009