Mishpatim: For The Dogs

Three Types of Animals
 What does it mean to be holy?

Table for Five: Mishpatim

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.

– Ex. 23:30


David Porush, Student, Teacher, Writer at davidporush.com

You’re in desperate straits. You’re hungry and lost enough to shoo away jackals and eat what they’ve left behind. It’s a good metaphor: don’t succumb to your ravening instincts. Or maybe, become a vegetarian. But if we take it literally, it’s a crystallization of the Jewish ethic, a summary of Torah in one line: To be holy, don’t be a carnivorous beast. Leave it for the dogs. The epic of the Hebrews looks like a glorious experiment in domesticating the human animal, taming our savage nature. The Talmud tells us, “Man is forever wild.” When Esau pressures Jacob with his family and flock to go down with him and his army to barbarous Seir, Jacob begs off. “Milord knows how tender are my charges. They would perish alongside your roughriders.”

Darwin’s nature is “red in tooth and claw,” favoring cunning and violence. The Hebrews, by contrast, select for an invisible gene, sensitivity. Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau … Divine tampering to evolve the morally fit. They learn that survival of their soul means leaving blood lust to the predators in favor of recognizing the inner life of others. The reward is a Promised Land, a sweet civilization, a utopia where laws demand you treat everyone as a relative because indeed they are.

Blood is what defines family attachment. It’s not for eating with your muzzle to the ground like a beast. It’s the gift of the Jews to the world: civilization founded on a gentle heart.


Yehudit Garmaise, Reporter, Parsha Teacher

Rashi explains that “People of holiness shall you be unto me,” is not a command, but a promise that is conditional upon fulfillment of the commandment not to eat, “flesh torn by beasts in the field.”

While most of us have not considered eating mauled animals, this commandment is one of the parsha’s 53 mitzvot that command us to do things that may or may not have been intuitive to all people. The shocking need for a commandment, such as “Thou shall not eat roadkill,” underlines that, on our own, we cannot best determine how to live.

“We are not allowed to make up concepts of right and wrong for ourselves,” writes Rabbi David Feinstein. “However reasonable our own ideas may seem to us, only the Torah’s sense of right and wrong is correct.”

Although secular society beats us silly with the idea that individuals are free to create their own moralities, “The goal of Torah Jews,” Rabbi David Feinstein, zt”l, tells us, “is to align our thinking with that of the Torah.”

Rabbanit Yemima Mizrahi tells us that the word mitzvah shares a root with the word, tzevet, which means team.

By giving us 613 mitzvahs, Hashem is telling us, “I want to work with you, but you must put in the effort [to learn the Torah way],” she said. “Then, the shefa [abundance] will pour down from above.”

Only by teaming up with Torah, can Jews sense and express the holy souls that Hashem gives us.


Rabbi Michael Barclay, Senior Rabbi, Temple Ner Simcha, NerSimcha.org

Much more than a practical instruction, this verse holds one of the most important teachings on how to truly act as a Jew. God tells us not to be scavengers and live off the scraps left in the field, but to be holy people unto Him. What does it mean to be holy?

Holiness is based on faith. On knowing that God will always take care of us, even in the most challenging times. We can demonstrate that faith most easily in our dietary habits, and the injunction in this verse can bring faith and holiness to our consciousness.

There are three types of animals: predators, scavengers, and grazers. Only grazers are kosher, and it is an ethical statement that we are committed to acting like grazers and receiving God’s sustenance as opposed to preying upon others or scavenging their leftovers. We are clearly taught here that rather than scavenging, we are to have faith and eat what God provides for us…both literally and metaphorically. In so doing, we make the basic need of eating into a holy activity. It becomes a reminder that through acting in faith in the most basic activity, we can achieve a holiness to God in all activities.

Judaism teaches that through making the most base action of eating into a conscious action of faith, we increase our holiness and conscious relationship with God. May we all remember that this teaching only begins with our diet, and that every activity in our life needs to become a statement of faith in the Divine: a commitment to receiving God’s blessings and never settling for the scraps that belong to the dogs.


Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Rav Beit Sefer Pressman and author of Recovery in the Torah

Dog owners love watching their dog chow down on those scraps that have no other use. Unless of course it’s an expensive kosher steak that you’re about to cook and the dog jumps up to grab it. After the initial image of a dog eating meat in a glorious fashion, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Midrash which explains that the meat was thrown to the dogs since they were quiet when we left Egypt, hence they were rewarded with treifah [unkosher meat].

Our tradition is replete with sources that deal with Hakarat Ha’Tov, or gratitude. From daily prayer expressing gratitude to Hashem, including saying blessings for almost everything that we benefit from, to the story of King David praising his enemy for teaching him one thing. Research shows that gratitude is connected with greater happiness. In the addiction recovery world, there is something known as an attitude of gratitude, which is finding gratitude in all the components of your life.

There’s an idea that a person must make 100 blessings each day and the Midrash says every breath we take, we should express gratitude. These two steps imbue us with a constant reminder that everything that we are doing has an ultimate source and a multitude of helpers along the way. If the simple task of not barking while the Jews left Egypt was noted by God, imagine how much light we can fill in the world by expressing gratitude to those around us. Go ahead and try it.


Ilana Wilner, Judaic Studies Teacher & Israel Guidance/ Ramaz Upper School

This chapter ends with the commandment to not eat meat torn by other animals; instead you should give this meat to the dog. The word for dog in the text is written in singular form- “give it to the dog”. The text sounds like it should be given to a specific dog. According to Ibn Ezra the dog in this verse is the one who guarded the flock. If a predator gets past the guard dog and mauls one of the flock, that animal cannot be eaten by us, but should be given to the dog. Kind of like rewarding the dog for his failure. Malbim picks up on this and adds that the dog was successful, partially, for at least saving something, and something of value the dog gets as a reward. “Throw it to the dogs” becomes not an expression of disgust but a positive imperative: the dog deserves this. According to the Malbim, the dog is given the reward in order for humans to learn ethics and to know the ways of God. From this mankind should see the divine imperative to feed the dog as a reminder of the divine justice that humans ourselves face.

For me, this commandment will hopefully train us to recognize the work of others – animal or human – whose work supports us but whose diligence we may sometimes take for granted. Don’t take it for granted, says the Torah: make sure to thank the dog for even partial successes.


With thanks to David Porush, Yehudit Garmaise, Rabbi Michael Barclay, Rabbi Chaim Tureff, and Ilana Wilner.

Image: Kat Smith

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