How Blessing Our Pets Brought Holiness to Our Community

October 30, 2019Cantor Evan Kent

Before making aliyah aliyahעֲלִיָּה"Going up." The honor of being called to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading. Also refers to immigration to Israel, to "make aliyah" to Israel; plural: aliyot. Lit. "Ascent." six years ago, my husband, Rabbi Donald Goor, was the senior rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA, and I was the cantor at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, CA. As a two-clergy couple, we faced our share of challenges – every Shabbat. In Don’s congregation, Friday night services began at 8 p.m., and in mine, they usually began at 6:15 p.m., which meant we rarely celebrated Shabbat together.

Although our cats – Toolie the octogenarian, and Merlin, whom we’d adopted in the hopes of giving Toolie a little spring in her step – always greeted me when I wandered home from the synagogue, mostly I ate Shabbat dinner alone, but only after I’d recited the blessings over the candles, wine, and challah I had set out on the dining room table earlier in the day.

One Friday night, as usual, I came home to the cries of the cats waiting to be fed and the challah, wine, and candles on the table. With the cats fed, I lit the candles and sang the blessings. When I looked up, Merlin was in the chair at the opposite end of the table, staring at me, his paws resting on the table.

“What is it Merlin? What do you want?”

No answer.

“Challah? Merlin, do you want challah?"

Seemingly bored, Merlin replied with a yawn.

Regardless, I gave him a piece of challah, which he devoured – except for the raisins.

“What do you want, kitten? More food?”

No answer, just more blank stares.      

“How about a blessing, Merlin?”

On Friday nights, it’s customary for parents to bless their children. Of course, I didn’t want to mock in any way the ancient blessing or diminish the power a parent’s blessing can have for a child. Instead, as I cradled Merlin’s little head in my hands, I improvised this blessing:

“May you be blessed to be all the cat that you are capable of, and may you always know you have a warm safe home with plenty of food and a comfortable place to sleep.”

And then Toolie, jealous of the attention Merlin was getting, pressed her head against my leg. Gently, given her age and frailty, I picked her up, and I blessed her as well:

“May your remaining days be filled with love and comfort and no pain. And may you always have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep.”

Blessing Merlin and Toolie reminded me that as an undergraduate student, I had seen a “Blessing of the Animals” ceremony on the steps of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. It was a magnificent event that included not only plenty of cats and dogs, but also rabbits, pythons, and even a camel. As I ate, it occurred to me that, like the cathedral, perhaps we should bless all our community’s animals – creating a sacred moment, not only for congregants, but also for the animals we care for and love.

And so it was that the rabbis at Temple Isaiah and I created our own “Blessing of the Animals” ceremony that coincided with this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach.

The ceremony began with a few rounds of “Hinei Mah Tov,” (“How Good it Is for People to Dwell Together”), and a few choruses of “Rise and Shine,” celebrating the adventure of Noah and the animals aboard the ark. Then, pet owners held their pets and recited this blessing, acknowledging the special place our animals have in our lives and the responsibility we have toward our feathered, furry, and scaled family members:

May we now bless [animal’s name],
by appreciating his/her beauty as a part of nature
May we bless this animal with Noah-like protection
From all that might harm him/her
May we be like Adam and Eve,
Speak to this creature of Yours
With kindness and affection,
May we never treat this creature as a dumb animal,
But rather strive to learn its language
And to be a student to all the secrets it knows.
May Your abundant blessing rest upon this creature
Who will be a companion for us in the journey of life.

Although there were no camels, an assortment of snakes, iguanas, dogs of all sizes, caged rodents, and a couple of cats (in their crates) all were present.

In addition to the actual blessing for the animals, congregants had an opportunity to "ooh" and "ahh" over each other’s pets – strengthening their connections to each other. What’s more, we provided space for animal rights organizations to explain their causes, while local pet adoption agencies brought a few cats and dogs seeking new homes. Pet food companies sent samples, and a local pet store donated treats to engage the animals while they waited for their blessing.

Yes, a few people criticized the event, telling me it “felt wrong,” and a few clergy colleagues agreed, saying it was avodah Zarah (“foreign worship” or idolatry). But overall, our "Blessing of the Animals" was a success and continued for many years.

As for Toolie and Merlin, they stayed home – no doubt dreaming about Shabbat, when they’d each receive their own weekly blessing and a small piece of challah to go with it.

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