I love dogs and cats. During my lifetime I have had many dogs and cats as pets. Yet there are two things I never understood about dogs and cats.
First, why do dogs greet people warmly with joyful jumping and tail wagging, while cats greet people like they are doing you a favor; coolly with regal restraint? Second, why are dogs and cats usually not good friends? Why do they fight like dogs and cats?
When I read an old Hebrew legend from the Alphabet of Ben Sira I found the answer. A long time ago, in the days of Adam and Eve, cats and dogs were good friends and they used to hunt together. Then there came a time of great famine. There were very few animals to hunt, and only enough food for one of them to eat. The dog and the cat were hungry all the time. The dog told the cat to go live with humans and eat the food in their houses. The dog would live outside and hunt. That way both the dog and the cat would have enough to eat.
The cat agreed and proposed that they each promise that from now on all cats would live in homes, and all dogs would live in the wild. The dog agreed. The cat went to live in a house with Adam and Eve. In the barn and in the house there were lots of mice and rats for the cat to eat, so both the cat and the people were happy.
The dog went to stay with his cousin the wolf and offered to be a watchdog. During the night the dog heard the sound of a bear walking about. He woke up the wolf, who told the dog to go chase away the bear. The dog tried, but he was much smaller than the bear and he had to flee for his life.
The dog then went to stay with other animals. But the small animals like hamsters, meerkats and moles lived in underground tunnels that the dog was to big to fit inside, and bigger animals like deer and elk didn’t need a watchdog because they had big ears and could hear better than the dog could. Then the dog noticed that humans have small ears so he went to Adam and Eve and offered to be their watchdog. During the night when he heard something outside the dog would bark and Adam would take his spear and go chase the animal away. Adam liked having a watchdog. Every day Eve fed the dog table scraps. The dog was very happy.
However, the cat objected to the dog staying with people because the dog and cat had made a promise, and the dog was now breaking the deal. The dog admitted breaking his promise but argued that they both could live with humans, because humans had enough food for both dogs and cats. The cat didn’t agree. The cat was hurt and angry; so the cat left Eve’s house and went to live in Egypt, a land where there were no dogs.
There was lots of grain in Egypt, and therefore lots of mice and rats who love to eat grain. The Egyptians were very happy to have cats live with them so the cats could get rid of the mice and rats. They liked the cats so much they began to worship cats. The Egyptians called the cat Goddess: Bastet. The Egyptians made a rule that anyone who killed a cat would be put to death. When a cat died it’s body was turned into a mummy, and placed in special cat cemeteries throughout Egypt. There were statues of the cat Goddess Bastet all over Egypt. Ever since that time cats started to think of themselves as aristocats. Cats became stuck up, regal and cool towards humans, even those who feed and hug them.
Many years later Abraham and Sarah visited Egypt. They saw all the statues of the cat goddess Bastet. Abraham thought that worshipping a statue of a cat was ridiculous. But the Egyptians also worshipped several other animals; Horus the hawk God, Hathor the cow Goddess, Sobek the crocodile God, and the sun God Re in the form of a scarab beetle. Sarah thought that worshipping a beetle was the silliest thing she could imagine, until she learned that the Egyptians also worshipped their king Pharaoh, who they believed was the Divine son of the God Amun-Re. Sarah had met the king Pharaoh and she knew that he was not the Son of God. Sarah felt believing a human was God, or the Son of God, was even worse than worshipping a cat or a hawk. It was an insult to God, who had given humans the ability to think and pray.
Abraham and Sarah left Egypt and returned to the Land of Israel where they never allowed into their home, statues of any animal or person that other people worshipped. Abraham and Sarah’s descendants learned never to pray before an animal or a human being, but to pray only to God alone. Cats stayed cool and regal while dogs remained warm and very friendly. Even with their very different personalities some dogs and cats learned to live together, without fighting like cats and dogs.
After 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City Calif. Allen Maller retired in 2006. He is the editor of a series of High Holy Days prayer books; the author of a book on Jewish mysticism, “God, Sex and Kabbalah”; and the husband since 1966 of Judy Coopersmith. Visit his website at http://www.rabbimaller.com for more information.