Unpacking the Iggerot: Pups in the Pews

Moshe Kurtz Tradition Online | May 23, 2024

Read more about “Unpacking the Iggerot” and see the archive of all past columns.

Who Let the Dogs In? The Propriety of Pups in the Pews / Iggerot Moshe, O.H., vol. 1, #45

Summarizing the Iggerot

In one of the iconic questions presented in Iggerot Moshe by R. Pinchas M. Teitz (the legendary rabbi of Elizabeth, NJ), R. Moshe Feinstein confronts the propriety of permitting a service animal into the sanctuary of a synagogue. The scenario posed in 1953 is rather straightforward: A blind man would like to attend services, but requires his service dog to guide him. What is the attitude of our tradition vis-a-vis animals in our hallowed sanctums? R. Feinstein’s main proof-text is the following passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 3:3):

Rebbi Immi commanded to the teachers, if a person comes to you who is dirtied by study, accept him and his donkey and his implements. Rebbi Berekhia went to the synagogue of Bet-Shean. He saw a man washing his hands and feet from its pail. He told him, it is forbidden to you. On the next day this man saw Rebbi Berakhia washing his hands and feet from its pail. He said to him, Rabbi, to you it is permitted and to me it is forbidden? He answered him, yes. He asked, why? He said to him, so says Rebbi Joshua ben Levi: synagogues and houses of study are for the sages and their students.

He infers from this passage that the presence of a donkey should be no worse than eating, drinking, or napping in a house of study. A Torah scholar is permitted to engage in these acts since the study hall is his second home. However, even a Torah scholar is not permitted to engage in activity that would objectively denigrate the dignity of this sacred space. Accordingly, R. Feinstein posits that the presence of an animal in the study hall poses no inherent disrespect, putting it in the same category as eating, drinking, or napping.

R. Feinstein then proceeds to extrapolate from a study hall to a synagogue. He initially points out that already in the Talmud it was understood that the synagogues built outside the Land of Israel were constructed with an implicit stipulation that they would be multi-purpose as opposed to those within the Land of Israel which were exclusively designated for prayer services. R. Feinstein further argues that the contemporary practice has shifted (see Rashi on Shabbat 10b) and now allows for non-mitzva activities to take place in the synagogue, even under typical circumstances. Interestingly, he identifies three tiers to demonstrate this point:

(1) “Le-tzorekh mitzva ketzat” (for somewhat of a mitzva)—We can observe how many shuls will hold seuda shlishit in the building, even though people could have well sufficed with eating at home (after midday).

(2) “She’ain barur she-yesh ba-zeh inyan mitzvah” (when it is unclear whether there is any element of mitzva)—Such as a meal celebrating a groom or a bar mitzva, many synagogues still permit it to take place.

(3) “Davar ha-reshut mamash” (a completely a-religious activity)—Such as the practice of hasidim to hold yahrzeit feasts in their places of prayer.

These all appear to refer to shteibelach-type synagogues in which all functions take place in the same room.

In light of the wide latitude for general activities within the synagogue, R. Feinstein argues that the presence of an animal should certainly not run afoul of any halakhic considerations. In his opinion, a dog is no worse than a donkey. In fact, this particular dog is actually making a positive contribution by facilitating his owner’s ability to perform the mitzva of praying with the community.

Moreover, this scenario constitutes a she’at ha-dehak, exigent circumstances. For if this blind individual were not permitted to enter with his animal we would effectively be barring him from ever participating in communal prayer for all the days of his life! Due to the confluence of pressing ritual and psychological factors, R. Feinstein permits a blind person to attend prayers with his service dog; he recommends that this individual sit with the dog toward the back of the room to mitigate any potential disturbance that could result from the uncommon presence of an animal.

At the end of the responsum, R. Feinstein also cites a passage in Berakhot (62a) which suggests that Abaye’s lamb would accompany him inside the study hall. We will not address the challenges to this proof, as even R. Feinstein himself notes that his reading is not unequivocally convincing.

Connecting the Iggerot

While R. Feinstein saw the need to accommodate a service animal, it remains less clear what his attitude was to overall pet ownership for the sake of recreation and general companionship. Mesorat Moshe (vol. 3, p. 111) records a stringent ruling of R. Feinstein regarding tags worn by dogs on Shabbat and its implications for carrying outside an eruv on Shabbat. In the same volume (p. 131), R. Feinstein reportedly ruled that a family may not give their pet dog to a non-Jew to watch over Pesach if it will be fed hametz (unless they temporarily sell the dog to the non-Jew, akin to the general sale of hametz). In Iggerot Moshe (O.H. 4:16 and O.H. 5:22) R. Feinstein addresses the Shabbat implications for owning fish and birds. In a noteworthy choice of words, he invokes the term “pets” (פעטס) in his amusingly iconic inclination of transliteration.

It is notable that in none of the above cases did R. Feinstein opt to editorialize and chastise the owner for keeping a pet dog in the first place. We can surmise that he maintained a neutral approach to innocuous pet ownership and accepted it as part of modern American reality. (See also Mesorat Moshe, vol. 4, p. 475, regarding an amusing play on words about the word “mutt” and the name “Motty” and R. Feinstein’s tacit approval of dog ownership.)

Challenges to the Iggerot

Like many of the remarkable responsa we choose to unpack in this series, there is unsurprisingly a significant mass of reception literature. For our purposes we will outline four particular challenges posed in 1965 by R. Yaakov Breich in Responsa Helkat Ya’akov (O.H., #34,) and R. Yitzchak Abadi in Responsa Or Yitzhak (vol. 2, O.H., #51).

(1) Translation: R. Feinstein primarily relies on his reading of the Jerusalem Talmud which stated that “if a person comes to you who is dirtied by study, accept him and his donkey and his implements.” The Aramiac word for “his donkey” here is hamreih. However, this translation can be challenged. R. Breich suggests that it may actually refer to the donkey-driver, and R. Abadi renders the term as referring to “wine.”

(2) Reading Between the Lines: R. Feinstein assumes that this donkey actually entered the study hall. R. Abadi counters that even if we grant that the Gemara is actually referring to a donkey, perhaps it only entered the courtyard outside of the study hall, rather than entering the building proper.

(3) The Extrapolation to Dogs: R. Feinstein infers from the Gemara that the presence of a donkey is no worse than that of food or beverage. He then posits that the presence of a dog is tantamount to a donkey. This premise is challenged by R. Breich on a fundamental level; he marshals several sources that suggest that dogs are categorically more problematic than the average animal. The most iconic source, perhaps, is a verse in Deuteronomy (23:19): “Do not bring a harlot’s fee or payment for a dog to the house of the Lord your God, in fulfillment of any vow; because the Lord your God’s abominations are even for both of them.”

On a practical level, R. Abadi is not convinced by R. Feinstein’s assumption that as long as the owner and dog remain in the back of the shul it would pose no disturbance. Even if the service animal remains silent, its mere presence will almost certainly pose a distraction to those who have gathered to pray.

(4) Extenuating Circumstances?: R. Feinstein sets up our scenario as a zero-sum game—if we do not allow this individual to enter with his service animal he would never be able to attend communal prayers. But why could he not simply leave his animal outside while members of the synagogue aid him with finding a seat? In fact, the Sefer Ma’aneh le-Iggerot argues that based on the principle of arvut, that all Jews are spiritual guarantors for each other, it is incumbent upon the congregation to preserve the sanctity of the synagogue and also ensure that this blind individual can still participate in prayer.

R. Breich also argues that this is not a proper application of the principle of sha’at ha-dehak. Firstly, he expresses similar misgivings regarding the necessity to enter with a service animal as opposed to members of the congregants assisting this person upon entering the building.

R. Breich further contends that such a dispensation would engender a slippery slope. He suggests that some “rabbi” (presumably of the liberal denominations, which, like R. Feinstein, he transliterates to contrast with an “authentic rav”) will remark the Orthodox “have already permitted this in extenuating circumstances” and they will flippantly extrapolate it to far less pressing scenarios.

Moreover, R. Breich cites Magen Avraham (244:8) and exclaims that it would constitute a desecration of God’s Name for Jews to permit an animal to enter their sanctuaries when the Christians would never consider such a thing within their own houses of worship. It is unconscionable that we should adopt lower standards, he suggests, then concludes with scathing words of rebuke against R. Feinstein:

And in the multitude of our sins, not only are we incapable of setting proper boundaries, but we ourselves are the ones who breach them! He who is a God-fearing expositor of Jewish law is required to introspect as to the gravity of responsibility he accepts upon himself when issuing this ruling. And even see the enthusiastic words in the introduction to the Iggerot Moshe (O.H., vol. 1) regarding what it means to be from among the God-fearing expositors of Jewish law. And it is in reference to matters such as this it is stated “wise men be careful with your own words.”

In this evidently no-holds-barred polemic R. Breich sought to undermine R. Feinstein not only intellectually, but personally, by deliberately citing R. Feinstein’s own words against him. For R. Breich, this was not a localized question about how we should approach dogs, but about protecting the integrity of the synagogue and the Jewish way of life from the threat of the secular Jewish American experience.

Reflecting on the Iggerot

  1. Dr. Harel Gordon (HaRav Moshe Feinstein: Hanhaga Hilkhatit be-Olam Mishtane, 219-225) is sensitive to this very point and endeavors to contextualize R. Feinstein’s responsum within the broader backdrop of the American synagogue. R. Feinstein faced a reality in which liberal advocates, such as Mordecai Kaplan, propounded that every shul should have a pool. The American synagogue was not strictly a beit ha-kenesset, a sanctum dedicated exclusively for prayer and ritual functions, but also incorporated elements more commonly associated with a JCC. This tension is reflected in another responsum in Iggerot Moshe (O.H., vol. 4, # 35) in which R. Feinstein was asked to opine on the status of a synagogue’s social hall. On the one hand, he rules that there is no inherent sanctity, but he nonetheless condemns using it for the playing of cards and bingo (which, in truth, he views as problematic in any context).

Perhaps it is with this background that we can appreciate R. Breich’s impassioned opposition to R. Feinstein’s permissive ruling. For R. Breich, creating such accommodations in the synagogue would result in a complete capitulation. While no doubt R. Feinstein shared similar concerns, he was comfortable with offering a localized dispensation without fear of compromising the broader integrity of the synagogue. Perhaps it was this degree of nuance and balance—knowing when and when not to draw a firm line—which distinguished R. Feinstein from many of his peers.

While an understanding of the sociological backdrop can be illuminating, it likely only tells us part of the story. As we have noted, many of R. Feinstein’s contemporaries were faced with the same reality, yet they did not arrive at an identical conclusion. There is a recurring question in the study of R. Feinstein’s Iggerot, and for responsa in general—regarding how much weight we should grant to the effect of sociology on the halakhic decision-making. Clearly, it is a factor. However, one must also be cautious so as not to myopically reduce nuanced halakhic analyses to mere products of their current culture. Oftentimes, the answer lies somewhere in between.

Endnote: As noted above, one of the contentions against R. Feinstein’s ruling was that he did not consider the possibility of simply leaving the dog outside while members of the synagogue assist the blind individual with finding a seat. After I had initially drafted this piece, I interviewed R. Dan Margulies who, in addition to having done significant research on this topic, also has practical experience with training a service dog. He pointed out that service animals are professionalized, highly trained, and are fundamentally different from pets. They do not run the same risk of posing a sudden disturbance and they cannot simply be separated from the person whom they are trained to assist at any given moment. This reality clearly supports R. Feinstein’s position and reveals that some of the challenges to it were possibly predicated on a lack of understanding of the nature of service animals. Moreover, many of the challengers to R. Feinstein’s ruling saw the scope of the halakhic question as pertaining strictly to the nature of dogs in shul. R. Feinstein, however, understood that this was as much a question about accessibility for a blind person as it was about his dog. Rather than writing off the plight of a blind person on the technical grounds that he might be exempt from the mitzvot at hand, R. Feinstein took the person’s psychological and spiritual well-being into account and ultimately delivered a landmark ruling.

For further reading on the sociology of the “shul with a pool,” see Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism (in particular 238-240). For more on the topic of service animals in the synagogue, see Petihat ha-Iggerot (45-49) and R. Chaim Jachter’s “Halachic Perspectives on Pets,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 23 (Spring, 1992).

Moshe Kurtz serves as the Assistant Rabbi of Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT, is the author of Challenging Assumptions, and hosts the Shu”T First, Ask Questions Later.

Leave a Reply