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Bo: Going to the Dogs

01/26/2023 05:43:33 PM


In this week’s portion, Bo, dogs play an unexpectedly important role. As God is telling the Israelites what to expect on the night of the Exodus, He says (Exodus 11:7-8) “And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But at the Israelites, no dog will whet his tongue, neither against human or animal, so that you may know that God makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. The commentators wonder why the Torah would single out the role of dogs, and their apparent inactivity, during the 10th plague.

A simple explanation is that this is a turn of phrase. While today dogs are seen as loyal companions, or even "man's best friend," that was not always the case. Often in more traditional language dog is used as an example of the lowliest creature. We say “not fit for a dog,” “sick as a dog,” “dog eat dog” or that something has “gone to the dogs.” In the book of Deuteronomy, the Hebrew word for dog is used as a slur. In this case, the idea is that no creature, not *even* a dog, would react to the Israelites during their departure.

Some suggest a real world scenario. Hizkuni notes that in the ancient world, just as today, dogs were used as guard animals, and will bark vociferously at unusual movement, whether it be hundreds of thousands of Israelites or a passing squirrel. As the Israelites were proceeding through the streets of Egypt, the dogs did not sound the alarm. Shemot Rabba offers a parallel, but fanciful interpretation, that Pharaohs palace was guarded by enchanted golden dog statues who would attack and cry out against anyone who entered without permission, (shades of Ghostbusters?) but Moses hushed these supernatural guards.

Or Hachayim offers a more mystical interpretation- the Talmud (Bava Kamma 60) teaches that dogs are able to perceive the angel of death. Since the dogs did not bark at the Israelites, this was a sign that the angel of death did not walk among them, or perhaps they did bark, but only to alert Israelites to Egyptian spies in their midst.

Whatever the meaning of the this passage, the question of the dogs that did not bark comes up again later in the book of Exodus (22:30). When the Torah forbids eating the meat from an animal which was slaughtered but turned out not to be kosher (as opposed to an animal that died on its own) it suggests that it be given to dogs instead. Mekhilta, the earliest commentary on Exodus, explains that in fact, this is a reward- since the dogs were faithful to God’s word during the Exodus, they were rewarded with food which was perfectly edible, but not permissible for Jews to eat.

The “dogs that did not bark,” on that one evening, won a reward for their species from that time forward. The rabbinic conclusion is that we can learn from this that no good deed, large or small, goes unnoticed by God, perhaps not right away, or in the way that was expected. Indeed, every dog has its day.

Sun, March 3 2024 23 Adar I 5784