About 20 dogs, a pair of tarantulas, one very brave cat and a horse called Dolly assembled outside Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Nov. 5 for a rather unconventional service. About 30 humans joined them as well.
In the popular imagination, it’s hard to disassociate the story of Noah from imagery of animal upon animal streaming into the ark. So, after reading Noach, the Torah portion that tells of the flood, Beth El summoned an honest-to-God menagerie for its annual Blessing of Animals ceremony.
This tradition, while young and somewhat rare, isn’t entirely unheard of. Many Christian communities observe a similar occasion on Oct. 4, the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. Indeed, the Jewish Blessing of Animals began just 20 years ago when a Pennsylvania rabbi created a Jewish version after encountering the ceremony at St. John the Divine, an Episcopalian cathedral in New York.
Last weekend in Berkeley, the animals — human and non-human — gathered across the driveway from the main building under a stand of oaks. The ground was covered in a layer of hay.
Humans sat in a circle of metal folding chairs. The tarantulas stayed in their respective terraria. The cat was held protectively in a lap. Dogs sat in their humans’ laps, ran around outside the circle, or, in the case of what I assume were the more spiritual dogs in attendance, milled about attentively inside the circle. George the Boston terrier was absolutely transfixed by Dolly the horse, straining at his leash in the horse’s direction the entire time. The horse was too busy snacking on the lawn to notice.
Rabbi Reuben Zellman and his dog pal Otis led the proceedings. Zellman began by drawing the connection to Noach. “Our animal companions can be with us for many years. Our tradition says don’t forget to care for and love all of God’s creations,” he said.
Otis made a bit of a ruckus for a moment. “It’s always the rabbi’s dog,” joked Zellman.
We sang the closing line of Psalm 150 a few times through. “Let everything that breathes praise God!” was the translation in the service packet.
We also recited a few verses from the ancient text Perek Shirah, which lists verses of the Bible said by various animals. The single cat in attendance, tentatively tolerating the situation, was held aloft like Simba by a young girl as we read from our packets the verse said by cats: “Even should you rise as high as eagles, place your nest among the stars, even from there I’ll pluck you down, declares The Cunning One” (Obadiah 1:4).
There was a moment of silence for the dear departed. Zellman noted that Beth El began this observance at the suggestion of a member who wished there was an occasion for remembering fallen pets.
People took turns mentioning the names of their lost companions: Strawberry the dog. Maximus the cat. An unnamed rat. “Rudy, my furshert [a play on the Yiddish beshert, one’s true love] and beloved service dog.” A dog who had died just days before. One woman mentioned the long-lost dogs she had in the Soviet Union 40 years ago. I surprised myself by getting involved, mentioning Sophie, my family’s old golden retriever. Off to the side, Dolly snorted about some lost equine relation.
I came expecting to find a harmlessly frivolous ritual, and so was surprised at the feelings it conjured up within me. The depth of emotion in our relationships with animal companions can open us up to more empathy for all the creatures with whom we share this planet, Rabbi Zellman said. I thought of my weakness for sad dogs; they make me sadder than anything else in the world. This ceremony gave me a new way to think of that great empathy, as a connection to all of creation. We recognize so many deeply felt occasions and relationships through Jewish ritual — so why not this?
The proceedings culminated in the actual blessing of the animals. People brought their animals up, one by one, for blessings from Rabbi Zellman or Rabbi Margie Jacobs. The tarantulas were more cognizant than others of the biblical symbolism, approaching Zellman two-by-two.
Each animal received a personalized, extemporaneous blessing. Zellman tenderly leaned in toward the tarantulas, saying: “I bet people are afraid of you sometimes. But I hope you will be blessed to have them see what magnificent creatures you are even as they may be a little afraid.”
When Zellman blessed Inky, a terrier mutt, the event officially became interfaith; Inky and his human, Kit, are members of First Congregational Church, which, after a recent fire, has been holding services at Beth El.
The true climax was the blessing of Dolly the horse, of course. Rabbis Zellman and Jacobs laid their hands upon Dolly, a very gentle and subdued creature. She was blessed for her calm demeanor and athleticism, before tenderly nuzzling her human.
As things started to break up, the girl with the tarantulas announced that anyone who wanted was free to come up and touch them. That was my cue to leave.