When I wrote a feature about Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies in 2009 and attended my first such event in 2010, they were not widespread. I documented 21 synagogues or other Jewish groups that had hosted at least one. At least 10 events took place around Shabbat Noach in the fall, when the Torah portion of Noah is read, although other times of the year were also chosen.
The ceremonies have become more common. Last October, Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy posted about Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies around Shabbat Noach. And on Shabbat Noach last year, in the heart of the pandemic, I attended an event on Zoom. On the Facebook event page, Congregation B’nai Jacob of Jersey City, New Jersey, explained, “Shabbat Noach … is the Shabbat where we read the story of Noah and the Ark, and we get to bless the animals, our animals who have always been with us even during the most stormy of times.” The service was led by Rabbi Bronwen Mullin, and attendees held their animals, including three cats and two guinea pigs, up to the screen.
Last Sunday, I attended my second in-person Jewish blessing of the animals. It was led by Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein—with her dog, Vashti, by her side—at Congregation Beth Ohr in Bellmore, New York. While the synagogue has coordinated the annual event around Parshat Noach in years past, it was moved later in the fall due to a scheduling conflict. Dogs were the only bona fide animals present, but my toddler brought a teddy bear. When Rabbi Bernstein asked what people appreciated about their animals and other people responded about companionship and cuddling, I noted that we enjoy hiding the bear!
Highlights included a beagle named Chip with a personalized (dogalized?) kippah and a large, fluffy Newfoundland/poodle mix. The readings featured an excerpt from Weekly Jewish Wisdom as well as a blessing based on Psalm 104: “Blessed are You, Holy Source, Maker of all living creatures. On the fifth and sixth days of creation, You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. We ask You to bless these animals; enable them to live fully in praise to Your Name. May we always praise You for all Your beauty in creation. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, for all of your creatures!”
The primary appeal wasn’t captured in any one barking outburst or reading. It’s the notion that animal companions are a big part of people’s lives, so it’s nice to have a lighthearted event, grounded in Jewish teachings, that connects with congregants in a way that is personally meaningful.
“Animals touch people at a very deep place … just like spirituality touches people at a very deep place,” said Diane Guerrero, author of the book Blessing of the Animals, in my 2009 feature. “When you combine the two, it’s even stronger.”