Civic Duty

For C.S., for many reasons.

John Grisham lays down the law:

The Feds:

The law was quite simple: Every citizen owes to society the duty of giving testimony to aid in the enforcement of the law. And, a witness is not excused from testifying because of his fear of reprisal threatening his and / or his family’s lives. It was black letter law, as they say, carved in stone over the years by hundreds of judges and justices. No exceptions. No exemptions. No loopholes for scared little boys. Roy and Wally had read dozens of cases. Many were copied and highlighted and thrown about on the table. The kid would have to talk.1

The Defense:

In one corner of the small den above the garage, Reggie flipped through a thick book under a lamp. It was midnight, but she couldn’t sleep, so she curled under a quilt and sipped tea while reading a book Clint had found titled Reluctant Witnesses. As far as law books go, it was quite thin. But the law was quite clear: Every witness has a duty to come forth and assist those authorities investigating a crime. A witness cannot refuse to testify on the grounds that he or she feels threatened. The vast majority of the cases cited in the book dealt with organized crime. Seems the Mafia has historically frowned on its people schmoozing with the cops, and has often threatened wives and children. The Supreme Court has said more than once that wives and children be damned. A witness must talk.2

Attorney and Client:

“Well, it’s very simple. We’ll have a hearing before Judge Harry Roosevelt in a few minutes, in his courtroom, that may last a couple of hours. The U.S. attorney and the FBI are claiming that you possess important information, and I think we can expect them to ask the judge to make you talk.”

“Can the judge make me talk?”

Reggie was speaking very slowly and carefully. He was an eleven-year-old child, a smart one with plenty of street sense, but she’d seen many like him and knew that at this moment he was nothing but a scared little boy. He might hear her words, and he might not. Or, he might hear what he wanted to hear, so she had to be careful.

“No one can make you talk.”


“But the judge can put you back in the same little room if you don’t talk.”

“Back in jail!”

“That’s right.”

“I don’t understand. I haven’t done a damned thing wrong, and I’m in jail. I just don’t understand this.”

“It’s very simple. If, and I emphasize the word if, Judge Roosevelt instructs you to answer certain questions, and if you refuse, then he can hold you in contempt of court for not answering, for disobeying him. Now, I’ve never known an eleven-year-old kid to be held in contempt, but if you were an adult and you refused to answer the judge’s questions, then you’d go to jail for contempt.”

“But I’m a kid.”

“Yes, but I don’t think he’ll allow you to go free if you refuse to answer the questions. You see, Mark, the law is very clear in this area. A person who has knowledge of information crucial to a criminal investigation cannot withhold this information because he feels threatened. In other words, you can’t keep quiet because you’re afraid of what might happen to you or your family.”

“That’s a stupid law.”

“I don’t really agree with it either, but that’s not important. It is the law, and there are no exceptions, not even for kids.”

“So I get thrown in jail for contempt?”

“It’s very possible.” …

Mark breathed deeply and stared at her hand on his knee. “Can I just take the Fifth Amendment?”

“No. It won’t work, Mark. I’ve already thought about it. The questions will not be asked to incriminate you. They will be asked for the purpose of gathering information you may have.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t blame you. Listen to me carefully, Mark. I’ll try to explain it. They want to know what Jerome Clifford told you before he died. They will ask you some very specific questions about the events immediately before the suicide. They will ask you what, if anything, Clifford told you about Senator Boyette. Understand? You had nothing to do with it. And, you had nothing to do with the suicide of Jerome Clifford. You broke no laws, okay? You’re not a suspect in any crime or wrongdoing. Your answers cannot incriminate you. So, you cannot hide under the protection of the Fifth Amendment.” She paused and watched him closely. “Understand?”

“You’re here because they think you know something valuable, and because, as I stated, every person has a duty to assist law enforcement officials in the course of their investigation.”

“I still say it’s a stupid law.”

“Maybe so. But we can’t change it today.”3

Judge and Witness:

There was a pause as Harry waited to see if he was finished. “Is that all he said?” …

“What do you mean?” Mark asked, stalling.

“Did Mr. Clifford say anything else?” …

“Mark, I asked you if Mr. Clifford said anything else.”

“Like what?”

“Like, did he mention anything about Senator Boyd Boyette?”


Harry flashed a sweet little smile, then it was gone. “Mark, did Mr. Clifford mention anything about a case of his in New Orleans involving a Mr. Barry Muldanno or the late Senator Boyd Boyette?” …

“I don’t think I want to answer that question,” he said, staring at the floor, …

“Mark, look at me,” Harry said like a gentle grandfather. “I want you to answer the question. Did Mr. Clifford mention Barry Muldanno or Boyd Boyette?”

“Can I take the Fifth Amendment?”


“Why not? It applies to kids, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but not in this situation. You’re not implicated in the death of Senator Boyette. You’re not implicated in any crime.”

“Then why did you put me in jail?”

“I’m going to send you back there if you don’t answer my questions.”

“I take the Fifth Amendment anyway.”

They were glaring at each other, witness and judge, and the witness blinked first. His eyes watered and he sniffed twice. He bit his lip, fighting hard not to cry. He clenched the armrests and squeezed until his knuckles were white. Tears dropped onto his cheeks, but he kept staring up into the dark eyes of the Honorable Harry Roosevelt.

The tears of an innocent little boy. Harry turned to his side and pulled a tissue from a drawer under the bench. His eyes were wet too. …

“Mark, I don’t like to do this, but you must answer my questions. If you refuse, then you’re in contempt of court. Do you understand this?”

“Yes sir. Reggie explained it to me.” …

“Did Mr. Clifford mention the name Barry Muldanno to you?”

“Take the Fifth.”

“Did Mr. Clifford mention the name Boyd Boyette to you?”

“Take the Fifth.”

“Did Mr. Clifford say anything about the murder of Boyd Boyette?”

“Take the Fifth.”

“Did Mr. Clifford say anything about the present location of the body of Boyd Boyette?”

“Take the Fifth.”

Harry removed his reading glasses for the tenth time and rubbed his face. “You can’t take the Fifth, Mark.”

“I just did.”

“I’m ordering you to answer these questions.”

“Yes sir. I’m sorry.”

Harry took out a pen and began writing.

“Your Honor,” Mark said. “I respect you and what you’re trying to do. But I cannot answer these questions because I’m afraid of what might happen to me or my family.”

“I understand, Mark, but the law does not allow private citizens to withhold information that might be crucial to a criminal investigation. I’m following the law, not picking on you. I’m holding you in contempt. I’m not angry with you, but you leave me no choice. I’m ordering you to return to the Juvenile Detention Center, where you will remain as long as you’re in contempt.”4

We are presented with two questions:

  1. Is a witness obligated to testify in aid of a criminal investigation or prosecution?
  2. If so, does this requirement hold even in the presence of a substantial risk to the witness or others?

We can answer the first question in the affirmative; although there is apparently no direct, explicit Biblical or Talmudic injunction to this effect, Rambam and Sefer Ha’Hinuch do declare such an obligation, and I am aware of no dissenting view:

העד מצווה להעיד בבית דין בכל עדות שיודע. בין בעדות שיחייב בה את חבירו בין בעדות שיזכהו בו. והוא שיתבענו להעיד בדיני ממונות שנאמר והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם לא יגיד ונשא עונו:

היה העד חכם גדול והיה בבית דין פחות ממנו בחכמה. הואיל ואין כבודו שילך לפניהם עשה של כבוד תורה עדיף ויש לו להמנע. במה דברים אמורים בעדות ממון. אבל בעדות שמפריש בה מן האיסור וכן בעדות נפשות או מכות הולך ומעיד שנאמר אין חכמה ואין תבונה לנגד ה’. כל מקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב:5

המצוה הקע”ח

הציווי שנצטווינו למסור עדות לפני הדיינים על כל מה שאנו יודעים, בין שיש בכך משום אבוד למי שמעידים עליו, או הצלת זה שמעידים לו בממונו או בנפשו, חייבים אנו להעיד על כל זה ולהודיע לדיינים מה שראינו או שמענו.

וכבר הביאו ע”ה ראיתם על חיוב העדות ממה שאמר יתעלה: “והוא עד או ראה או ידע” (שם ה, א). והעובר על מצווה זו- והוא הכובש עדותו – חטאו גדול.

.והוא אמרו יתעלה: “אם לוא יגיד ונשא עונו” (שם). וזהו דבר כללי.

אך אם העדות שכבשה היא עדות ממון ונשבע עליה העד תוך כבישתה – חייב קורבן עולה ויורד, כמו שבאר הכתוב (שם שם, ה-י) ולפי התנאים הנזכרים בשבועות.

וכבר נתבארנו דיני מצווה זו בסנהדרין ובשבועות.6

להגיד העדות בפני הדיינין בכל מה שנדעהו בין שיתחייב בעדות מיתה או ממון המועד עליו, או שיהיה הצלתו בממונו או בנפשו, שנאמר והוא עד או ראה או ידע או לא יגיד ונשא עונו, בכל ענין חובה עלינו להגיד העדות לפני הבית דין.

ואולם חילוק יש בין דיני ממונות לדיני נפשות ושאר איסורין שבתורה, שבדיני ממונות אין אדם חייב להעיד עליהם מעצמו אלא אם כן יתבענו בעל הדבר או בית דין, ובדיני נפשות ובעדות שאר איסורין שבתורה כגון שראה אחד שעבר על איסור, וכן בעידות נפשות כגון שראה מי שהרג חבירו, או בעדות מכות שהכה האחד את חבירו, בכל זה חייב אדם לבוא מעצמו ולהגיד העידות לפני הבית דין כדי לבער הרע ולהפריש בני אדם מאיסור.

משרשי המצוה לפי שיש במצוה זו תועלת גדולה לבני אדם, אין צריך להאריך בהם, כי ידועים הדברים לכל רואי השמש. …

והעובר עליה ולא העיד בדיני ממונות כשתבעוהו לעדות בעל דבר או בית דין, או בדיני נפשות ומכות ובאיסורין של תורה מעצמו, בטל עשה וענשו גדול מאד, כי בכח העדות יתקיימו הישובים, על כן נכתב בו אם לא יגיד ונשא עונו.7

While I am not aware of any discussion of our second question, I assume that the threshold for exemption due to risk of harm is the same as for other commandments, and it would seem, therefore, that one would not be required to testify against a prominent Mafioso where there exists a serious threat of lethal reprisal.

  1. John Grisham, The Client, pp. 257-258. []
  2. Ibid. pp. 261-262. []
  3. Ibid. 322-326. []
  4. Ibid. pp. 357-361. []
  5. יד החזקה, עדות א:א-ב – קשר []
  6. ספר המצוות (מהדורת קפאח) עשין קע”ח – קשר []
  7. ספר החינוך (מוסד הרב קוק [מהדורה רביעית]: ירושלים תש”ך), מצוה ק”כ [ובדפוסים אחרים: קכ”ב] “מצות עדות” עמוד קפא – קשר []

Persians and Their Imperium: At World's End

For C.S., who recently remarked on the blog’s literary eclecticism.

Warning – spoiler alert! This post reveals critical plot points of Isaac Asimov’s classic science-fiction masterpiece, The Foundation Trilogy.

The riddle:

Seldon said, “… It is enough for the moment that you know that a scientific refuge will be established on Terminus. And another will be established at the other end of the Galaxy, let us say,” and he smiled, “at Star’s End. …”1

“But this I can tell you: Terminus and its companion Foundation at the other end of the Galaxy are the seeds of the Renascence and the future founders of the Second Galactic Empire. …”2

The Answer That Satisfied

The Epiphany

And then something else occurred to Arcadia, something that had been stirring and moving at the base of her brain ever since the flight began – something that forever killed the fourteen in her.

And she knew that she must escape.

That above all. Though they located every conspirator on the Foundation; though they caught her own father; she could not, dared not, risk a warning. She could not risk her own life – not in the slightest – for the entire realm of Terminus. She was the most important person in the Galaxy. She was the only important person in the Galaxy.

She knew that even as she stood before the ticket-machine and wondered where to go.

Because in all the Galaxy, she and she alone, except for they, themselves, knew the location of the Second Foundation.3

The Message

“One other thing.”


“Would you tell him something from me?”


“I want to whisper it to you.”

He leaned his plump cheek toward her, and the little whispered sound passed from one to the other.

“Pappa’s eyes were round. “That’s what you want me to say? But it doesn’t make sense.”

“He’ll know what you mean. Just say I sent it and that I said he would know what it means. And you say it exactly the way I told you. No different. You won’t forget it?”

“How can I forget it? Five little words. Look – “

“No, no.” She hopped up and down in the intensity of her feelings. “Don’t repeat it. Don’t ever repeat it to anyone. Forget all about it except to my father. Promise me.”

Pappa shrugged again. “I promise! All right.”

“All right,” she said, mournfully, and as he passed down the drive towhere the air taxi waited to take him to the spaceport, she wondered if she had signed his death warrant. She wondered if she would ever see him again.

She scarcely dared to walk into the house again to face the good, kind Momma. Maybe when it was all over, she had better kill herself for what she had done to them.4

Star’s End?

Turbor seemed stunned. “Then it’s all over. Great Seldon, it’s all over.”

“Well,” said Darell, “not exactly.”

“How, not exactly? Is there something more?”

“Yes, we haven’t located the Second Foundation yet!”

“What,” roared Anthor, “are you trying to say – “

“Yes, I am. Kalgan is not the Second Foundation.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s easy,” grunted Darell. “You see I happen to know where the Second Foundation really is.”

Turbor laughed suddenly – laughed in huge, windy gusts that bounced ringingly off the walls and died in gasps. He shook his head, weakly, and said, “Great Galaxy, this goes on all night. One after another, we put up our straw men to be knocked down. We have fun, but we don’t get anywhere. Space! Maybe all planets are the Second Foundation. Maybe they have no planet, just key men spread out on all the planets. And what does it matter, since Darell says we have the perfect defense?”

Darel smiled without humor. “The perfect defense is not enough, Turbor. Even my Mental Static device is only something that keeps us in the same place. We cannot remain forever with our fists doubled, frantically staring in all directions for the unknown enemy. We must know not only how to win, but whom to defeat. And there is a specific world on which the enemy exists.”

“Get to the point,” said Anthor wearily. “What’s your information?”

“Arcadia,” said Darell, “sent me a message, and until I got it, I never saw the obvious. I probably would never have seen the obvious. Yet it was a simple message that went: ‘A circle has no end.’ Do you see?”

“No,” said Anthor, stubbornly, and he spoke, quite obviously, for the others.

“A circle has no end,” repeated Munn, thoughtfully, and his forehead furrowed.

“Well,” said Darell, impatiently, “it was clear to me – What is the one absolute fact we know about the Second Foundation, eh? I’ll tell you! We know that Hari Seldon located it at the opposite end of the Galaxy. Homir Munn theorized that Seldon lied about the existence of the Foundation. Pelleas Anthor theorized that Seldon had told the truth that far, but lied about the location of the Foundation. But I tell you that Hari Seldon lied in no particular; that he told the absolute truth.

But, what is the other end? The Galaxy is a flat, lens-shaped object. A cross-section along the flatness of it is a circle, and a circle has no end – as Arcadia realized. We – we, the First Foundation – are located on Terminus at the rim of that circle. We are at an end of the Galaxy, by definition. Now follow the rim of that circle and find the other end. Follow it, follow it, follow it, and you will find no other end. You will merely come back to your starting point

“And there you will find the Second Foundation.

“There?” repeated Anthor. “Do you mean here?

“Yes, I mean here!” cried Darell, energetically. “Why, where else could it possibly be? …”5

[Bolding added.]

There’s nothing new under the sun(s); here’s the thirteenth century Provençal translator, exegete, Maimonidean-scientist-philosopher and physician Rav Moshe ibn Tibbon, as cited by the sixteenth century Safedian Kabbalist, poet and exegete Rav Shlomo Alkabez:

מהודו ועד כוש רב ושמואל חד אמר הודו בסוף העולם וכוש בסוף העולם וחד אמר הודו וכוש גבי הדדי הוו קיימי כשם שמלך על הודו וכוש כך מלך מסוף העולם ועד סופו

כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר כי הוא רודה בכל עבר הנהר מתפסח ועד עזה רב ושמואל חד אמר תפסח בסוף העולם ועזה בסוף העולם וחד אמר תפסח ועזה בהדי הדדי הוו קיימי כשם שמלך על תפסח ועל עזה כך מלך על כל העולם כולו6

כתב הר”ר משה ן’ תיבון ז”ל בספר פאה וז”ל יש לתמוה מה להם לחלוק על זה ומה לשקר במקום עדים יחקרו וידעו. וכן במחלוקת תפסח ועזה. והאמת כי לא נחלקו על זה. אבל דעת שניהם שהם בהדי הדדי אבל במשמעות איך כלל כל העולם בהם הם חולקים חד אמר כשם שמלך מהודו ועד כוש כך מלך על כל העולם. וחד אמר הודו בסוף כי דבר ידוע כי הארץ כדוריית ואין סוף לכדור כי אם במקום אשר יתחיל ממנו עכ”ל

וכוונת דבריו כי אם הודו הוא ההתחלה כוש הוא הסוף ושתיהן בהדי הדדי קיימי

וכן מצאתי במדרש לקח טוב לר’ טוביה בר אליעזר ז”ל מהודו ועד כוש רב ושמואל וכו’ והיאך אתה מקיים דברי שניהם אלא כך פירוש הדבר. ביחד היו עומדים אלא כאדם שיוצא מהודו והולך למזרח אל כוש והולך וסובב לדרום עד שחוזר להודו אצל כוש. מגיד שכל העולם היה תחת ממשלתו ע”כ

והא לך צורה להבין דבריהם [לא העתקתיה; עיין שם בספר]7

[Bolding added.] The citation from ibn Tibbon is from a work which has apparently never been published but remains extant in manuscript, the Sefer Peah, “an allegorical commentary to Aggadic passages, which explains them allegorically, to defend them from the charges of the Christians that Hazal believed in corporeality and similar things”.

Update: Eliezer Brodt informs me that the Sefer Peah has finally been printed last year, along with several other works of Ibn Tibbon, from manuscript, and that it does indeed contain the above excerpt.

  1. Foundation, Part I: The Psychohistorians Chapter 1 p. 35. []
  2. Ibid. p. 74. []
  3. Second Foundation, Part II Search By the Foundation Chapter 14: Anxiety, p. 153. []
  4. Ibid. Chapter 18: Ghost Of A World, pp. 186-187. []
  5. Ibid. Chapter 20: “I know” / Chapter 21: The Answer That Satisfied, pp. 209-211. []
  6. מגילה יא. – קשר []
  7. מנות הלוי: (ויניציאה ה’שמה) עמוד כד. – קשר, (נ.י. תשי”ד) עמוד כה: – קשר []

Buckbeak in the Dock

For C.S., who provided me with the volume from which our opening case study is drawn.

Buckbeak and His Defense Team

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the obnoxious and supercilious Draco Malfoy foolishly and boorishly insults Buckbeak the hippogriff, and instantly receives his richly deserved comeuppance:

Trotting toward them were a dozen of the most bizarre creatures Harry had ever seen. They had the bodies, hind legs, and tails of horses, but the front legs, wings, and heads of what seemed to be giant eagles, with cruel, steel-colored beaks and large, brilliantly orange eyes. The talons on their front legs were half a foot long and deadly looking. …

“Now, firs’ thing yeh gotta know abou’ hippogriffs is, they’re proud,” said Hagrid. “Easily offended, hippogriffs are. Don’t never insult one, ’cause it might be the last thing yeh do.”

Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle weren’t listening; they were talking in an undertone and Harry had a nasty feeling they were plotting how best to disrupt the lesson. …

“This is very easy,” Malfoy drawled, loud enough for Harry to hear him. “I knew it must have been, if Potter could do it … I bet you’re not dangerous at all, are you?” he said, to the hippogriff. “Are you, you great ugly brute?”

It happened in a flash of steely talons; Malfoy let out a high-pitched scream and next moment, Hagrid was wrestling Buckbeak back into his collar as he strained to get at Malfoy, who lay curled in the grass, blood blossoming over his robes.

“I’m dying!” Malfoy yelled as the class panicked. “I’m dying, look at me! It’s killed me!”

“Yer not dyin’!” said Hagrid, who had gone very white. “Someone help me – gotta get him outta here -”1

Hagrid subsequently receives a letter, informing him that the school governors have referred the incident to the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures:

However, we must register our concern about the hippogriff in question. We have decided to uphold the official complaint of Mr. Lucius Malfoy, and this matter will therefore be taken to the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures. The hearing will take place on April 20th, and we ask you to present yourself and your hippogriff at the Committee’s offices in London on that date. In the meantime, the hippogriff should be kept tethered and isolated. …

“You’ll have to put up a good strong defense, Hagrid,” said Hermione, sitting down and laying a hand on Hagrid’s massive forearm. “I’m sure you can prove Buckbeak is safe.” …

“Listen, Hagrid,” [Harry] said, “you can’t give up. Hermione’s right, you just need a good defense. You can call us as witnesses -”

“I’m sure I’ve read about a case of hippogriff-baiting,” said Hermione thoughtfully, “where the hippogriff got off. I’ll look it up for you, Hagrid, and see exactly what happened.”2

The trio embarks upon some legal research on Buckbeak’s behalf:

Though Harry had by no means forgotten about Black, he couldn’t brood constantly on revenge if he wanted to help Hagrid win his case against the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures. He, Ron, and Hermione went to the library the next day and returned to the empty common room laden with books that might help prepare a defense for Buckbeak. The three of them sat in front of the roaring fire slowly turning the pages of dusty volumes about famous cases of marauding beasts, speaking occasionally when they ran across something relevant.

“Here’s something … there was a case in 1722 … but the hippogriff was convicted – ugh, look what they did to it, that’s disgusting -”

“This might help, look – a manticore savaged someone in 1296, and they let the manticore off – oh – no, that was only because everyone was too scared to go near it …”3

They lose the case, and Buckbeak is sentenced to death;4 Ron undertakes to prepare the appeal:

Ron had taken over responsibility for Buckbeaks’ appeal. When he wasn’t doing his own work, he was poring over enormously thick volumes with names like The Handbook of Hippogriff Psychology and Fowl or Foul? A Study of Hippogriff Brutality.5

Unfortunately, they lose the appeal, too,6 but we cannot divulge Buckbeak’s ultimate fate without spoiling the novel’s dénouement.7

שור הנסקל

The law of שור הנסקל clearly would not apply in this particular case, since they are limited to lethal attacks, and not attempted murder, let alone mere assault with intent to injure. But let us counterfactually assume that Buckbeak had actually killed Draco; would the extenuating factor of Draco’s gross provocation yield a valid defense? I am not aware of any discussion of such a mitigating consideration in the law the שור הנסקל itself, but Halachah does contain the possibility of a “כי יחם לבבו” defense for the (human) perpetrator of an assault or tort, as we have discussed some two and a half years ago.

כלב רע

We have heretofore considered the applicability of the law of שור הנסקל, but another question presents itself: is Hagrid really permitted to maintain “interesting creatures”8 who pose a threat to humans? The primary locus here is the Talmudic opposition to the raising of “evil dogs”:

אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש ואמרי לה אמר רב אסי אמר ( ריש לקיש) ואמרי לה אמר רבי אבא אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש כל המגדל כלב רע בתוך ביתו מונע חסד מתוך ביתו שנאמר למס מרעהו חסד שכן בלשון יונית קורין לכלב למס

רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר אף פורק ממנו יראת שמים שנאמר ויראת שקי יעזוב

ההיא איתתא דעיילא לההוא ביתא למיפא נבח בה כלבא איתעקר ולדה אמר לה מרי דביתא לא תידחלי דשקילי ניביה ושקילין טופריה אמרה ליה שקולא טיבותיך ושדיא אחיזרי כבר נד ולד9

והשתא דאמרת פלגא נזקא קנסא האי כלבא דאכל אימרי ושונרא דאכלה תרנגולא משונה הוא ולא מגבינן בבבל והני מילי ברברבי אבל בזוטרי אורחיה הוא ואי תפס לא מפקינן מיניה ואי אמר קבעו לי זימנא דאזלינא לארעא דישראל קבעינן ליה ואי לא אזיל משמתינן ליה ובין כך ובין כך משמתינן ליה עד דמסלק הזיקא מדרבי נתן דתניא רבי נתן אומר מניין שלא יגדל אדם כלב רע בתוך ביתו ואל יעמיד סולם רעוע בתוך ביתו ת”ל לא תשים דמים בביתך:10

מתני’ אין מגדלין בהמה דקה בא”י אבל מגדלין בסוריא ובמדברות של ארץ ישראל אין מגדלין תרנגולין בירושלים מפני הקדשים ולא כהנים בארץ ישראל מפני הטהרות אין מגדלין חזירין בכל מקום לא יגדל אדם את הכלב אלא אם כן היה קשור בשלשלת …11

תנו רבנן לא יגדל אדם את הכלב אלא אם כן קשור בשלשלת אבל מגדל הוא בעיר הסמוכה לספר וקושרו ביום ומתירו בלילה תניא רבי אליעזר הגדול אומר המגדל כלבים כמגדל חזירים למאי נפקא מינה למיקם עליה בארור אמר רב יוסף בר מניומי אמר רב נחמן בבל כעיר הסמוכה לספר דמי תרגמה נהרדעא דריש ר’ דוסתאי דמן בירי

ובנחה יאמר שובה ה’ רבבות אלפי ישראל ללמדך שאין שכינה שורה על ישראל פחות משני אלפים ושני רבבות חסר אחת והיתה אשה מעוברת ביניהם וראויה להשלים ונבח בה כלב והפילה נמצא זה גורם לשכינה שתסתלק מישראל ההיא איתתא דעלת למיפא בההוא ביתא נבח בה כלבא אמר לה מריה לא תיסתפי מיניה שקולי ניביה אמרה ליה שקילי טיבותיך ושדיא אחיזרי כבר נד ולד:12

Rambam’s codification:

וכן אסרו חכמים לגדל חזירים בכל מקום. ולא את הכלב אלא אם כן היה קשור בשלשלת. אבל מגדל הוא כלבים בעיר הסמוכה לספר. ביום קושרו ובלילה מתירו. ואמרו חכמים ארור מגדל כלבים וחזירים מפני שהיזקן מרובה ומצוי:13

One of the earliest authorities on record as having raised the question of the noncompliance of common practice with these texts is the sixteenth century Italian Rav Yehoshua Boaz, who suggests that the precarious situation of the Jews amidst their non-Jewish neighbors legitimizes the custom of maintaining even unchained dogs:

ביום קושרו בלילה מתירו פעמים רבות תמהתי מהיכן נהגו לגדל כלבים ונראה דשמא דוקא בעיר הסמוכה לספר ביום שאינן יראין קושרו אבל בלילה שצריכין שמור יתרה מתירו ואנן שדרין ביניהם אפילו ביום מתירין בעיר הסמוכה לספר כלילה דמי כי היכי דעיר הסמוכה לספר מתירין בלילה הכי נמי לדידן אפילו ביום. הגהות:14

Maharshal rejects this, arguing that this is an overstatement of the danger, and moreover, we simply cannot allow conduct dangerous to the public welfare, security concerns notwithstanding:

ואם כן פלא בעיני, על מה נוהגין עכשיו שמגדלים. … ובחידושי מרדכי מצאתי הטעם, … ולא נהירא כלל, חדא, דעינינו רואות דאין אנו צריכין שימור יותר ביום. אף על פי שאנו דרים ביניהם, לעניין שיצילו אותנו הכלבים, יותר מעיר הסמוכה לספר. ועוד נהי דאיכא חששא טובא האידנא, וצריכה יותר שימור. מכל מקום אינה נראה להתיר כלבים, דאיכא השמת דמים בביתך, וסכנת נפשות. מחמת חששא דשימור ממון. ולא אמרו חכמים אלא ומתירו בלילה, כלומר בזמן שאין אנשים מצויים, וליכא השמת דמים בביתך שכיח כלל. מה שאין כן ביום.15

Instead, he proposes that the prohibition is only against “evil dogs” (properly defined), but nevertheless concludes that although this is the basis for the prevailing custom, it is not compelling, and a God-fearing individual should be somewhat more stringent:

ונראה דדוקא כלב רע קאמר מתניתין, אבל בסתם כלבים לא איירי, דדוקא כלב רע אסור, משום דר’ נתן, … אבל כלב שאינו רע מותר לגדל. … [ועיין שם שפלפל בזה, וסיים:]

ועל זה סמכו לנהוג היתר. ומכל מקום מהאי ליכא דחייה כל כך. דדילמא האי איירי בכלבא כופרי’ דהיינו כלבים קטנים ונבחי או כלבים גדולים שרגילים לצוד עמהם שגם כן אין רגילים להזיק. … ואף דמתניתין איייר בכלב רע היינו סתם כלב שהוא מנבח על כל מי שאינו מכיר. ומחמת נביחתו הוא קרוי רע אף שאינו נושך כמו שאפרש. לכן כל איש ירא שמים לא יגדל כלב אלא כלבים כופרים. וכה”ג שמשונים בצורתם שהם עומדין לצוד עמהם. או לנוי בבית. אבל סתם כלב לא אף שאינו נושך. מכל מקום אסור משום שהוא מנבח. והאשה מפלת מיראתו. … וכן מביא מעשה דתלמוד בסוגיא זו. שאחד היה שקול לשיני הכלב. והיה מנבח באשה מעוברת והפילה מיראתו. דלא ידעה ששקל לשיניו לאשמועינן שאין היתר לכלב כשהוא מנבח אלא בקשירה.

Rabbi Howard Jachter has an excellent summary of the literature on the topic:

I. The Propriety of Owning Pets

The halachic literature indicates that it has been common practice among Ashkenazic Jews over the past several centuries to own non-farm animals, especially dogs. Rabbinic authorities have debated the propriety and permissibility of this practice. Their positions depend to a great extent on how they harmonize seemingly contradictory talmudic texts which appear in tractate Baba Kama. The Talmud (Baba Kama 15b) cites Rabbi Natan who asserts that one who raises an “evil dog” in his home violates the biblical prohibition “Do not place blood in your home” (Deuteronomy 22:8). The implication is that it is permissible to raise a dog in one’s home provided that the creature is not an “evil dog”. Rabbi Yishmael, in fact, permits one to raise a type of dog known as kofri dogs (Rashi: small dogs or large hunting dogs which do no harm) since they help eliminate rodents (Baba Kama 80a).

On the other hand, the Talmud (Baba Kama 79b) writes that one is forbidden to own a dog unless it is securely chained (if the dog is securely chained it will neither do any damage nor frighten anyone with its bark). Moreover, the rabbis of the Talmud (Baba Kama 83a) pronounced a curse upon one who owns dogs. These statements seem to apply to all dogs.

Rambam (Hilchot Nizkei Mammon 5:9), in fact, rules that it is forbidden to raise any dog unless it is secured by chains “since dogs frequently cause considerable damage,” Rambam apparently believes that Rabbi Yishmael’s permissive ruling is contradicted by the Mishanah and Gemara of Baba Kama 79b and 83a, respectively. Rabbi Yishmael accordingly would be the sole authority who permits raising kofri dogs, and thus Rambam believes that the consensus of opinion among talmudic authorities rejects his view.

Most Rishonim, however, including Smag, Yeraim, Tur, and Hagahot Maimoniyot disagree with Rambam and limit this prohibition to “evil dogs.” These authorities believe that the statements that appear on Baba Kama 79b and 83a are limited to “evil dogs”.

Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 409:3) rules in accordance with the opinions which limit the prohibition to an “evil dog”. The Achronim almost without exception accept these opinions as well. Rabbi Yaakov Emden appears to be the lone authority who believes one is forbidden to own any type of dog.

The question, though, is how to define an “evil dog”. Rashi (explaining why the Mishnah (Baba Kama 79b) forbids raising a dog unless it is chained) writes “it bites and it barks, thereby causing pregnant women to miscarry.” Rashi can be interpreted in one of two ways (since he uses the Hebrew letter vav which sometimes means “and ” and sometimes means “or”). The first possibility is that an evil dog is one that both bites and barks, and the second possibility is that it is one that either bites or barks. Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo Baba Kama 7:45) is inclined to adopt the second possibility and suggests that a dog is considered to be “evil” if it barks, even if it does not bite. The reason for this, the Talmud recounts, is that a dog’s bark may cause a woman to miscarry, the Talmud (Baba Kama 83a), in fact, records two incidents of women who miscarried because they were frightened by dogs. Therefore, Rabbi Luria suggests that the only dogs one may own are the kofri dogs that Rabbi Yishmael explicitly asserts are permitted. Rabbi Luria seems to indicate that one is permitted to own these dogs even if they bark. Apparently, since people are aware that these dogs are not harmful, they know that they need not fear these dogs’ bark.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Luria limits his ruling to “God-fearing individuals” and concludes his discussion by station “therefore, we must excuse the Jewish people (i.e., those who own dogs which bark but do not bite) but praised is one who is careful [to limit his ownership to kofri type dogs] and blessings should be conferred upon him.” The implication is that there is some halachic justification for those Jews who own dogs who bark but do not bite. The justification seems to be based on an interpretation of Rashi’s description of an “evil dog” as one which both bites and barks. Accordingly, only a dog which bites would frighten a woman with its bark and possibly cause a miscarriage.

Shulchan Aruch Harav (Hilchot Shmirat Guf V’nefesh, number three) adopts a similar, albeit somewhat more firm, stance on this issue. He notes that Jews commonly own dogs that bark but do not bite and that some authorities justify the practice by limiting the definition of an evil dog to one that bites. Shulchan Aruch Harav asserts, however, that this view is rejected by the consensus of halachic authorities and that the category of “evil dogs” includes those dogs which bark even though they do not bite. Therefore, he concludes that “all God-fearing Jews should be certain to keep their dogs that bark tied up in iron chains while people are awake, even if their dogs merely bark but do not bite. On the other hand, Knesset Hagedola (Choshen Mishpat 409:4) notes that common practice among Jews is not to accept the stringent view of Yam Shel Shlomo and Shulchan Aruch Harav. He indicates that the custom is to own dogs which bark as long as they do not bite.

Although Knesset Hagedola writes that common practice among observant Jews is not to follow the opinion of Yam Shel Shlomo, it appears proper to follow the latter’s opinion. First Shulchan Aruch Harav, which is recognized as a major halachic work, supports Rabbi Luria’s position. Second, the Talmud considers a dog’s fearsome bark to be a public nuisance. Hence, if one chooses to own a dog, one should be certain not only that the dog does not bite, but also that the creature does not frighten people with its bark. However, if one finds it absolutely necessary to raise a dog that may cause harm (for protection, for example), one must be certain that the animal is tied up securely at times when it may do damage either with its bite or its bark.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Sheilat Yaavetz, number 17) adds a further restriction to the type of dog one may own. He writes that one is permitted to own a dog if the creature serves an economic or protective purpose. However, he strongly condemns ownership of a dog as a pet as being a waste of time and precisely the [abhorrent] behavior of the uncircumcised.”

Nevertheless, Rabbi Emden does not marshal sources to support this position and appears to constitute a minority view. Shulchan Aruch and most authorities limit the talmudic prohibition to ownership of “evil dogs”. The clear implication is that one may own a dog for any reason, provided it is not an evil dog. Moreover, the Talmud indicates that Jews used various animals for recreational purposes. The Mishnah (Shabbat 90b) relates that children used to play with a certain type of locust. The Talmud (Baba Batra 20a) tells of a certain type of bird known as “kalanita”, which can be used by a child to play. These two passages seem to demonstrate that the Mishnah has no objections to keeping animals for enjoyment contrary to the position of Rabbi Emden. Rabbi Emden might respond that these passages do not discuss dogs and do not prove that one may keep a dog as a pet. Rabbi Emden might agree that one may own a pet which does not require much attention. Perhaps he believes that only keeping a dog as pet mimics “the abhorrent behavior of the uncircumcised.”

Our discussion regarding dogs appears to apply to ownership of other animals as well. Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 261:1) rules that one may kill an “evil cat” which harms children. Once again the rule is limited to an “evil” animal. The general principle according to most authorities is that one may own a pet provided that the animal does not pose a danger to people or property.

[See the paper for the notes and sources.]

Here is another good discussion of the topic, and here are some less scholarly treatments of the issue (and others concerning animal ownership by Jews).

  1. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, pp. 116-118. []
  2. Ibid. pp. 218-219. []
  3. Ibid. pp. 221-222. []
  4. Ibid. pp. 290-292 []
  5. Ibid. p. 300. []
  6. Ibid. pp. 325-331. []
  7. Ibid. pp. 396-415. []
  8. “Yeh don’ know them gargoyles at the Committee fer the Disposal o’ Dangerous Creatures!” choked Hagrid, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “They’ve got it in fer interestin’ creatures!” …
    Harry, Ron, and Hermione looked at one another. They had never seen eye to eye with Hagrid about what he called “interesting creatures” and other people called “terrifying monsters.” On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be any particular harm in Buckbeak. In fact, by Hagrid’s usual standards, he was positively cute. – Ibid pp. 218-219. []
  9. שבת סג.-: – קשר []
  10. בבא קמא טו: – קשר, ועיין שם מו. []
  11. שם עט: – קשר []
  12. שם פג. – קשר []
  13. יד החזקה, נזיקין, נזקי ממון ה:ט – קשר []
  14. שלטי גבורים על המרדכי פרק מרובה []
  15. ים של שלמה בבא קמא פרק מרובה סימן מה – קשר []