Growing up with cats, I learned some valuable lessons. Unlike dogs, you have to earn cats’ affection over a long period of time – but once they’ve finally warmed up, you feel like you’ve earned their trust. Cats are fun to watch. Leonardo da Vinci was right when he said that “even the smallest feline is a masterpiece”.
Judaism has a lot to say about cats, from antiquity to the present day. To celebrate International Cat Day, August 8, 2022, here are eight Jewish facts about cats you probably didn’t know.
Cats were revered in ancient Egypt
Egyptian goddess Bastet
When the ancient Israelites abandoned slavery in Egypt, they also abandoned the idolatrous lifestyles of the Egyptians. Cats were an integral part of the Egyptian polytheistic cult. The Egyptian goddess Bastet is believed to be the daughter of Ra, the sun god, and was depicted in the form of a cat.
The Egyptians wore cat amulets and offered bronze cat statues as religious offerings. Huge cemeteries of mummified cats have been discovered in Egypt; the ancient Egyptians were also often buried with statues and mummies of real cats.
Jews have been keeping cats since ancient times
The Talmud describes cats living in Jewish homes in ancient times. They were particularly valued for their ability to hunt snakes and keep residents safe. The Jewish sage Rav Pappa was thought to have advised against entering houses where there were no cats at night, for fear of accidentally stepping on a snake (Talmud Pesachim 112b:10).
Elsewhere, the Talmud notes that dreaming of a cat can be a sign of change. In some contexts, the dream may indicate that good things will happen to the dreamer; in others it is thought to denote something negative (Talmud Berachot 56b:18).
Teaching cat modesty
Every cat owner knows how neat and demanding our feline friends can be. Their neat qualities were recognized by the great sage Rabbi Yohanan who noted that we can learn many good traits from animals. He advised that “Even if the Torah had not been given, we would still have learned the modesty of the cat…” (Talmud Eruvin 11b:29). Something to think about the next time you watch your cat obsessively groom herself and her litter box.
Take care of pets and feed them first
Having a cat – or any other pet, for that matter – is a big responsibility. King Solomon, said to be the wisest of all men, said, “A righteous man considers the life of his animals” (Proverbs 12:10). According to Jewish law, before buying a pet, we must first ensure that we can afford to provide for the animal’s needs for food, shelter and medical care. If you can’t, don’t buy it. (Jerusalem Talmud, Ketubot 4:8)
Jewish law states that you must feed your pet before you feed (Talmud Gittin 62, Berachot 40a). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) advised us to develop extra sensitivity when it comes to our pets and suggested that we not even taste a bite of food before making sure our pets are fed.
Cats inspire us as fierce hunters
King David wrote the Perek Chirah, the Song of the Universe, which celebrates the beauty of the inhabitants of the earth. According to this beautiful poem, every creation is part of the vast and majestic scheme of the Divine. When it comes to cats, King David singled out their magnificent hunting abilities. A cat sings: “I pursued my enemies, I overtook them, and I did not return until they were destroyed” (Psalms 18:38). It’s a moving image, using the instantly recognizable example of a cat stalking its prey to inspire us to similar bravery in battle.
Cats stimulate our human need to love
According to Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953), many of us think poorly of love. Love does not lead to giving. It’s the opposite: by giving, we come to love.
Rabbi Dessler used the example of parents giving to our children. The love a parent has for his child is greater than the love a child has for a parent because parents are constantly giving to him, taking care of them, feeding and clothing them, soothing their worries and watching over them. Giving generates love.
In fact, the Hebrew word for love, ahava, alludes to this relationship. The root of ahava is Ha, meaning “to give”. The more we give, the more affection we feel for others.
The giving nature of the relationship is no less true when it comes to pets. Caring for pets and receiving their affection in return helps satisfy the basic human desire to connect and give.
2 million cats in Israel
Anyone who has ever walked down a street in Israel knows that cats are as common as squirrels and rabbits in America. It dates back to the days of British rule, when British soldiers imported cats to the Holy Land to help control rodent populations. Since then, the cat population in Israel has increased.
Today, Israel is home to more than 2 million cats, many of which live wild in cities and towns. Israel’s warm climate, combined with the generosity of many Israelis who often feed street cats, has allowed the cat population to thrive.
Israeli Feline Innovation
Given the popularity of cats in Israel, it’s no surprise that the Start-Up Nation has seen some impressive inventions to help pet owners care for their cats. Take PetPace, an Israeli invention that was named Israel’s Most Promising Startup in 2015. It uses a smart collar to monitor a cat’s pulse, breathing, calories, activity levels, and movement.
Israeli artist Ruth Kedar, who designed the Google logo, also designed a smart litter box that tells cat owners when the litter needs to be changed. Another Israeli startup, CatGenie, even invented a self-changing litter box.