The Role of Animals in Judaism and Bible

In ancient Judaism, animals played important roles in both daily life and worship. It makes sense as the ancient Israelites relied on agriculture and animal husbandry for a living, and they were in constant contact with a wide range of animals.

The relationship to Animals in Ancient Israel

The majority of ancient Israel's interactions with animals were of a commercial nature. It took much longer for people to adopt dogs and cats as domestic pets. Livestock was considered a symbol of prosperity and wealth in ancient Jewish society. In Judaism, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all portrayed as prosperous shepherds. One kind of money that was frequently used in trade and commerce was livestock.

The Role of Animals in Judaism and Bible: The relationship to the nature in ancient Israel was multifaceted
The relationship to the natural world in ancient Israel was multifaceted

Many animals had symbolic meanings in ancient Judaism.

Jews frequently employ animals, especially sheep, as symbols in their writings and scriptures. The people of Israel are frequently portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as God's flock, and God is frequently described as a shepherd overseeing and guarding his people. A common and recurring symbol in ancient Jewish literature and theology is the shepherd, who looks after the flock.

Lambs are symbolic of innocence and were used in Passover rituals. Doves symbolize purity and were used in offerings. The Hebrew Bible often uses animal symbolism to convey moral lessons and spiritual truths such as in the The Book of Exodus, where the image of the golden calf is used as warning against idolatry and the worship of material wealth. 

Animal Motifs in Ancient Jewish Art: Ancient mosaic depicting birds in a synagogue
Ancient mosaic depicting birds in a synagogue

There are several instances of compassionate, considerate, and respectful treatment of animals throughout ancient Jewish history. Although there aren't many specific references to animals like dogs and cats, these instances highlight the greater ideas of animal welfare that are part of Judaism. Here are a few instances drawn from early Jewish history:

Jewish law, as outlined in the Torah and later rabbinic literature, contains numerous provisions concerning the humane treatment of animals. For example, the prohibition against causing unnecessary suffering to animals (Tza'ar Ba'alei Chayim) is a fundamental principle in Jewish ethics. This principle is derived from verses such as Deuteronomy 25:4, which states, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain," emphasizing the importance of allowing animals to partake in the fruits of their labor.

In another instance (1 Samuel 17:34-37), when David recounts his experiences as a shepherd to King Saul, he speaks of rescuing his father's sheep from the mouths of lions and bears. This demonstrates David's deep care and bravery in protecting his father's flock, highlighting the bond between a shepherd and his animals.

The laws (Leviticus 25:1-7 concerning the Sabbatical Year (Shmita) and the Jubilee Year (Yovel) demonstrate concern for the welfare of animals. During the Sabbatical Year, fields are left fallow, and produce is freely available to humans and animals alike. This practice ensures that both people and animals have access to food and resources, promoting equity and sustainability.

Dogs and Cats

In ancient Jewish civilization, dogs were more significant than cats, but both had a relatively minor significance. Dogs are mentioned more frequently in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) than cats, which are hardly mentioned at all. However, compared to other animals, mentions of dogs are not as common. It is evident from this that owning dogs and cats as house pets was uncommon.

Dog and rabbit depicted on the floor of an ancient synagogue
Dog and rabbit depicted on the floor of an ancient synagogue

Although the Bible does not contain direct references to cats comparable to those of dogs, their presence in ancient Jewish communities can be inferred from historical and archaeological evidence. On the other hand, dogs are mentioned in a number of settings, primarily in relation to their use as household animals that perform tasks like hunting and guarding.


In ancient Jewish communities, dogs were often employed as livestock protectors. Dogs were prized because of their loyalty and protective nature. While they aren't discussed in great detail in religious literature, archeological discoveries seem to indicate their existence. Dogs were commonly used by shepherds to assist them in their tasks, guarding sheep from wolves and other predators. Dogs were also valued for their vigilant temperament.


The discovery of cat bones in settlements, such as Tel Beer Sheva suggests that they may have played a role in keeping homes and granaries free from vermin, thus safeguarding food supplies. In Talmudic literature and later Jewish writings, cats are occasionally mentioned, especially when discussing cleanliness and hygiene. The Talmud explains how cats can be kept in the house and how they protect food supplies from mice and rats. However, unlike ancient Egypt, where cats were revered, there is no evidence of such reverence in ancient Jewish culture. Despite not being prominently featured in ancient Jewish texts, archaeological evidence suggests that cats were present in ancient settlements.

Animal Welfare in Ancient Israel

The Bible does not contain many direct references to dogs and cats. The most common mentions of animals concern livestock. The Hebrew Bible contains several verses that emphasize the value of having compassion, caring for, and taking care of animals. These verses can be used as a guide to treating all animals with respect.

According to ancient Jewish tradition, the first man, David, gave names to every animal
According to ancient Jewish tradition, the first man, David, gave names to every animal

Here are a few examples:

Proverbs 12:10 (NIV): "The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel." The value of treating animals with kindness and consideration is emphasized in this verse.

Genesis 1:25 (NIV): "God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good."This verse highlights the inherent goodness of all creatures in God's creation, reinforcing the idea that animals deserve to be treated with respect.

Psalm 145:9 (NIV): "The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made."This verse underscores God's compassion for all of his creation, including animals, suggesting that our treatment of animals should mirror God's own care and compassion.

Job 12:7-10 (NIV): "But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind."

These verses highlight the interconnectedness of all life and affirm the divine providence over every creature's life. It suggests that animals possess value, deserving of our consideration.

The Sabbath Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11) to observe the Sabbath includes a provision for rest not only for humans but also for animals: "but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns." This injunction demonstrates concern for the well-being of animals and acknowledges their need for rest and respite.


The ancient Israelite economy and daily life were greatly influenced by fishing, particularly for communities located near the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean Sea, and other bodies of water. 

The Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) was a primary fishing area in ancient Israel. Fishing was a major industry in several fishing villages in the region, such as Capernaum and Bethsaida. To catch fish in the lake's waters, fishermen employed various methods such as nets, hooks, and traps. 

Fishing was common on the lakes of Galilee and Tiberias in ancient Israel
Fishing was common on the lakes of Galilee and Tiberias in ancient Israel

Fishing was usually a family job that was passed down from generation to generation. Often, fishermen would work in small boats, either individually or in groups, and cast their nets or lines into the water to catch fish. Several fishermen, including Peter, Andrew, James, and John, were among Jesus' disciples, reflecting the importance of fishing in the region. The Sea of Galilee had an abundance of fish species, including tilapia (St. Peter's fish), catfish, carp, and sardines. For ancient Jewish towns who lived close to huge bodies of water, like the Sea of Galilee, fishing was a primary food supply. However, large amounts of fish were also transported into Jerusalem. A large portion of the people in ancient Galille relied on fishing for their livelihood, and fish was an important part of their food and religious practices.

The Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias or Lake Kinneret, is home to several species of fish, such as tilapia, barbel, and St. Peter's fish
The Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias or Lake Kinneret, is home to several species of fish, such as tilapia, barbel, and St. Peter's fish

In the story of Noah's Ark (Genesis 6-9) Noah is commanded to take pairs of every kind of animal onto the ark to ensure their survival during the Great Flood, except for the fish. It's logical that fish will survive regardless of the situation. The preservation of marine life demonstrates the importance placed on it by God and the responsibility humans have to care for it. In the story of Jonah, the great fish (probably whale) that God sends to swallow Jonah serves as both a tool of judgment and God's providence over all creatures and his ability to use them for his purposes. Additionally, in Ezekiel 47:9-10, there is a prophecy about fishermen standing by the sea

Exotic animals

Although lions were exotic animals for ancient Israelites, they are mentioned in numerous instances in the Bible. Even though this wild animal is dangerous for humans, there are verses in the Bible that praise its nature, which is interesting. A notable story involving lions is found in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. In Daniel 6, the story recounts how King Darius of Persia, impressed by Daniel's wisdom and integrity, appoints him as one of three administrators over the kingdom. The other administrators and satraps, envious of Daniel's favor with the king, conspire to have him removed from his position.

Unable to find any wrongdoing or corruption in Daniel's conduct, they devise a plan to trap him using his devotion to his faith. Knowing that Daniel prays to his God three times a day, they persuade King Darius to sign a decree stating that anyone who prays to any god or man other than the king for thirty days shall be thrown into a den of lions.

Daniel, steadfast in his faith, continues to pray to his God despite the decree. The conspirators catch him in the act and report him to King Darius. Despite his deep regret, King Darius is bound by the law he enacted and reluctantly orders Daniel to be thrown into the den of lions.

Middle Eastern lions, once widespread in ancient Israel and mentioned in the biblical story of Daniel, are now extinct
Middle Eastern lions, once widespread throughout the region, are now extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting

Miraculously, Daniel survives unharmed throughout the night as God. In the morning, King Darius rushes to the den and finds Daniel alive. Overjoyed, he orders Daniel to be lifted out, and then he commands that the conspirators be thrown into the den, where they are instantly devoured.

Though animals play a prominent role in this story as potential agents of Daniel's demise, they finally become agents of his deliverance from danger by demonstrating his innocence. The lions, typically feared predators, are rendered harmless by God's intervention, underscoring His authority and protection over His faithful servants.

Animals in ancient jewish art

Animals are frequently depicted in mosaic floors, frescoes, and other kinds of art in ancient synagogues, particularly during the late antiquity period (3rd to 7th centuries CE). These depictions serve a variety of symbolic and narrative objectives. 

Synagogues avoid depicting humans and instead utilize floral and animal motifs in their interior decoration
Synagogues often avoid depicting humans and instead utilize floral and animal motifs in their interior decoration

Some common examples of animals found in ancient synagogue art are Lions, which were a popular motif in ancient synagogue art, often symbolizing strength, courage, and protection. They frequently appeared flanking the Ark of the Torah, or guarding the sacred scrolls. Additionally, lions were sometimes depicted in hunting scenes, representing the triumph of good over evil.

Birds, particularly doves, were commonly depicted in ancient synagogues. Doves symbolized peace, purity, and divine favor, making them a fitting motif in religious contexts. Other birds such as eagles and peacocks also appeared, symbolizing majesty and beauty.

Fish motifs were prevalent in synagogues located near bodies of water, such as those around the Sea of Galilee. Fish symbolized fertility, abundance, and spiritual sustenance. They were often depicted in mosaic floors.

Deer and gazelles were common symbols of grace and swiftness. They were found on various decorative surfaces, occasionally accompanied by floral elements, portraying the beauty of nature and God's creation.

Many people find animals to be examples of the beauty of God's creation

While less common, serpents and dragons occasionally appeared in synagogue art, often in narrative scenes or decorative elements. These creatures could symbolize both danger and protection, representing the struggle between good and evil.

The menorah, a symbol of Judaism, sometimes featured animal motifs in synagogue art. These motifs could include lions, birds, or other creatures, enhancing its connection to the natural world.

Some ancient synagogues featured zodiac motifs, depicting the twelve signs of the zodiac along with associated constellations and celestial imagery. While not exclusively animal-focused, these motifs often included animal representations, such as lions for Leo or fish for Pisces.

These depictions of animals in ancient synagogue art served to conveying messages of unity of all beingsm where even animals can be used to convey moral truth which uman can understand. They also served to show values of strength, beauty, protection, and spiritual significance. They also reflected the cultural milieu and artistic traditions of the time, drawing on a rich tapestry of symbolism and iconography from diverse sources.


Popular Posts