Unidentified child with dog, Vilna, ca. 1905. Photograph by Serebrine. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the


The word dog is used as a derogatory term in numerous biblical texts (Ps. 22: 17; 59:7, 15). The Talmud poses numerous restrictions on owning dogs, including “keeping them on a chain” (Bava kama 7:7), and also not owning angry dogs (15:2). While the Talmud, Shulḥan ‘arukh, and other Jewish sources disagree on what counts as an “angry dog” (one that bites, attacks, or barks), it is generally agreed that Jews are not supposed to own dogs that intimidate other people.

The everyday attitude of Jews toward dogs was certainly informed by these texts. In Yiddish, one word for “dog,” is kelev (as in Hebrew); this term also means “bad.” Yiddish folk sayings often portray the dog as the embodiment of evil. A typical example states that a kargn ruft men a khazir un a shlekhtn a hunt (a greedy man is called “a pig” and a bad one “a dog”). One of the most offensive insults in Yiddish is du bist a hunt mit di oyern (you are a dog with ears), which means that one is a person who lacks moral values and thus is a “real dog.” Some superstitions suggest that dogs can be disguised as dybbuks (demons) that can possess bodies of humans, and because of this, some Jews call their pet dogs by their enemies’ names.

Spice box. Wrocław, first half of the 19th century. Silver: wrought, cast, engraved. A spice box in the shape of a dog. Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev. Photograph by Dmytro Klochko. (MIDU Inv Nr DM-7390. Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev)

Yiddish anecdotes ridicule the lack of Jewish familiarity with dogs. A joke from 1913 tells of a Jewish entrepreneur who saw how a woman paid 200 marks for a small cultivated dog; consequently, the businessman decided to buy a wagonload of large dogs, thinking they would sell better because they were as “big as calves.” (Collection of Zimman Family, Letter 103, 30 August 1913) In his memoirs of interwar Poland, Mayer Kirshenblatt, a dog owner, suggests that he was a nonconformist, because Jews did not generally own dogs. At the same time, some Jews worked as dogcatchers (while also breeding dogs). Dogcatchers are described in Yiddish literature—for example, by the poet Menke Katz (1906–1991)—and in memoirs.

Perhaps the most powerful image of a dog in Jewish literature was created by Shemu’el Yosef Agnon. His novel, Temol shilshom (Only Yesterday; 1945), features a stray dog named Balak, on whom the protagonist Yitsḥak Kummer writes the words “mad” and “dog” and who, by the end of the novel indeed becomes a “mad dog,” biting Yitsḥak to death.

The image of the dog represents numerous anxieties, some associated with the migration of Westernized Jews to Mandate Palestine. Fear of dogs was frequently considered to be a Jewish characteristic by gentile neighbors. Memoirs of shtetl residents of Poland in the mid-1800s suggest that some landowners used dogs to threaten Jews who visited them. Moreover, Jews were often called “dogs” by antisemites, including leaders of the Catholic church. Yet perhaps the most profound and justified Jewish fear of dogs derives from the experience of the Holocaust. Numerous accounts reveal that dogs were used to intimidate and kill Jews in the Treblinka death camp, as well as in many ghettos and other camps. Dogs were trained to find hideouts of Jews who were trying to escape the ghettos and camps. The cultural memory of this negative experience is perhaps another reason that observant families continue not to possess dogs in their households.

Suggested Reading

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Only Yesterday, trans. Barbara Harshav (Princeton, 2000); Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust (Berkeley, 2007). Selected memoirs: jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Kamenets/kam029.html; jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Stawiski/sta043.html; jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Stawiski/sta173.html.