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Joshua Schwartz

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2024

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The Curious Case of Cats

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-curious-case-of-cats

APA e-journal

Joshua Schwartz

,

,

,

"

The Curious Case of Cats

"

TheTorah.com

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2024

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-curious-case-of-cats

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The Curious Case of Cats

Cats were known and domesticated in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but are absent from the Bible and Second Temple literature. The Persians despised cats, but the Talmud tolerates them.

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The Curious Case of Cats

Cat attacking chicken. Mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, 1st century C.E. National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Cats have been excavated in Jericho from as early as the pre-pottery Neolithic period (before 6000 B.C.E.).[1] At most, these ancient cats may have co-existed in some form with humans, although they were not yet domesticated.[2]

To date, we have found no evidence that the Israelites kept cats in their houses. The scant archaeological evidence of cats in a domestic context from Bronze and Iron Age Israel shows no connection to the Israelites, and the Bible never mentions cats.[3] This silence stands in contrast with the evidence from Egypt, where cats were dearly loved and often depicted in wall paintings and bronzes from the mid-second through late-first millennium B.C.E.[4]

Egypt

As a land rich in grain, Egypt was plagued by large numbers of mice and rats, as well as by snakes of all kinds, and cats provided some degree of pest control.[5] The early Egyptian cats were apparently so helpful that the ancient Egyptians began to see in them the embodiment of divine power, protecting from evil and misfortune and also promoting fertility.[6] Thus, they took great care in cats’ burial and may even have executed those who killed a cat, whether intentionally or not.[7] Elsewhere, cats were far less popular.

Greece and Rome

The Greeks used barnyard cats for pest control, and the tamer cats could even be pets of women and children. Cats’ appetite for birds, however, which were sometimes also pets, often dampened the enthusiasm for keeping cats as pets.[8] Cats were more popular with the Romans. They accompanied the legions as mobile vermin control, and their remains have been found in forts or in other types of military installations.[9] They were not, however, as beloved as dogs, which the Romans simply adored.[10]

Given the presence of cats in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, it is somewhat surprising that Second Temple period literature, like the Bible, lacks references to cats. Jewish tradition mentions them clearly only from the Roman period and afterwards.

Babylonia and Palestine

The Persians who ruled Talmudic Babylonia despised cats; they were considered khrafstra, noxious creatures, not much better than the vermin they destroyed.[11] The Talmudic traditions about cats suggest a slightly more mixed view of cats.

The only Talmudic tradition that directly praises cats is cited by the Palestinian sage R. Johanan (third century C.E.):

בבלי עירובין ק: אילמלא לא ניתנה תורה היינו למידין צניעות מחתול
b. Eruv. 100b If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat.

Rashi (R. Solomon b. Isaac of Troyes, 11th c.; ad loc.) attributes this to the fact that cats cover their droppings, which is true, while R. Hananel ben Hushiel (11th century, North Africa) claims that they are modest in the sense that they do not copulate in public, which is false.[12]

Another Talmudic source hints that cats were kept as pets in Babylonia, permitting cats to be taken outside on Shabbat with a collar around their necks, because the collar is superfluous for an animal that can be controlled by a leash:

בבלי שבת נא: חתול ....כיון דסגי לה במיתנא בעלמא
b. Shab. 51b A cat….since a mere cord is sufficient.

Most of the Talmudic traditions, however, focus on the predatory nature of cats.

Pest Control

The most important task of the domesticated household or semidomesticated barnyard cat was to rid houses, farms, granaries, or stores of mice and rats. Pest control was a serious problem in both Babylonia and Palestine. For this reason, some sages permitted cats and several types of wild animals to be raised to rid them of more harmful vermin:[13]

בבלי בבא קמא פ: רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר: מגדלין כלבים כופרין, וחתולין, וקופין, וחולדות סנאים, מפני שעשויין לנקר את הבית.
b. B. Qam. 80b It was asked: Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar says that it is permissible to raise kufri-dogs, cats, monkeys, and stone martens because they are likely to rid the house of vermin.[14]

While monkeys could be trained or kept as pets, the kufri-dog, likely referring to a spiny hedgehog, and the stone marten, which was related to the weasel, were only semidomesticated, and therefore also had the potential to become violent.[15] The presence of the cat in this list suggests that it was not necessarily a pet, but rather a semidomesticated and potentially violent animal brought into homes because it fulfilled an important function.

The inclusion of cats in a discussion about restitution for damage to borrowed work tools demonstrates a similar functional view of cats:[16]

בבלי בבא מציעא צז. ההוא גברא דשאיל שונרא מחבריה, חבור עליה עכברי וקטלוהו. יתיב רב אשי וקמיבעיא ליה: כי האי גוונא מאי? כי מתה מחמת מלאכה דמי, או לא?
b. B. Metz. 97a A certain man borrowed a cat from his friend. The mice ganged up against it and killed it. Rav Ashi sat and tried to determine how the matter should be understood. Was this similar to the case of “death on account of work”?

The somewhat unlikely scenario—even rats usually prefer to run from a cat—sets up a judgment that faults the cat for having been overcome by a weaker opponent; therefore, no restitution is required.[17]

The Talmud continues with a more likely scenario of a cat harmed by eating mice—perhaps made sick by consuming a diseased mouse or one that had ingested some type of poison:

בבלי בבא מציעא צז. איכא דאמרי: אכיל עכברי טובא וחביל ומית.
b. B. Metz. 97a Another version: The cat ate too many mice was injured and died.[18]

Again the judgment faults the cat, this time for overeating.[19]

Snakes

Cats are also depicted as ridding the home of snakes. Rav Pappa, the 4th century C.E. Babylonian amora, warns against walking shoeless in a home with a cat, lest the person step on the bones of a snake that the cat had killed, and thereby, in the non-scientific view of the sages, be exposed to the snake’s venom:

בבלי פסחים קיב: ביתא דאית ביה שונרא - לא ניעול בה איניש בלא מסני, מאי טעמא - משום דשונרא קטיל לחיויא ואכיל ליה, ואית ביה בחיויא גרמי קטיני, ואי יתיב לה גרמא דחיויא אכרעיה - לא נפיק, ואסתכן ליה.
b. Pesah. 112b A house which has a cat—one should not enter without shoes. What is the reason? Because the cat kills the snake and eats it. And the snake has small bones (which the cat does not eat). And if one of those small bones of the snake enters one’s foot, it will not come out and will be dangerous for him.

An alternative version notes the danger posed by the snakes in a house without a cat:

בבלי פסחים קיב: איכא דאמרי: ביתא דלית ביה שונרא לא ניעול ביה איניש בהכרא, מאי טעמא - דילמא מיכריך ביה חויא ולא ידע, ומסתכן.
b. Pesah. 112b Others say, a house which does not have a cat—one should not enter it in the dark. What is the reason? Perhaps a snake will wind itself around one’s leg and he will be unaware and be in danger.

Both versions depict the cat as a worthy opponent of poisonous snakes. Apparently, it was believed that cats were immune to the poison of serpents.[20]

The Violence of Cats

While cats were appreciated as mousers, they also threatened the household poultry. This is demonstrated in a story of the miraculous survival of chickens that are attacked by cats while their owner is on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a festival:

ירושלמי פאה ג:ז מעש' באחד שהניח בית של תרנגולין ובא ומצא חתולות מקורעין לפניהן
j. Peah 3:7, 17d It happened that one left a chicken house (when he went up to Jerusalem) and came (back) and found cats torn to pieces before them.[21]

That the cats are torn apart is a nice literary touch, reversing what would have been the fate of the hens had the cats succeeded in breaching the security of the chicken coop.

Spiteful Cats and Venomous Claws

Cats are also described as becoming more vicious when someone gets between them and their prey:

בבלי חולין נב: ההיא תרנגולת דהואי בי רב כהנא, דרהט חתול בתרה ועל לאידרונא, ואיתחיד דשא באפיה ומחייה לדשא בסיחופיה
b. Hul. 52b A hen belonging to Rav Kahana was being pursued by a cat and ran into a room. The door shut in the face of the cat so that (in its fury) it struck the door with its paw.[22]

The Talmud believes that the infuriated cat would consequently discharge more “venom” from its claws during the attack. This view of course is without biological foundation.[23]

Between White and Black Cats

One story depicts a cat attacking a baby who is about to be circumcised and biting off his hand. The attending Babylonian sages issue a halakhic decision outlawing cats:

בבלי בבא קמא פ: אדהכי והכי אתא שונרא קטעיה לידא דינוקא. נפק רב ודרש: חתול - מותר להורגו, ואסור לקיימו ואין בו משום גזל, ואין בו משום השב אבידה לבעלים.
b. B. Qam. 80b Meanwhile a cat had come along and bitten off the hand of the child. Rav thereupon went out and declared: “It is permissible to kill a cat and it is in fact a sin to keep it, and the law of robbery does not apply to it, nor that of returning a lost object to its owner.”[24]

In reconciling this decision with an earlier law that permitted the raising of cats for pest control, the sages attribute the violence to the color of the cat, suggesting that white cats are prone to violence:[25]

בבלי בבא קמא פ: מיתיבי, רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר: מגדלין כלבים כופרין, וחתולין, וקופין, וחולדות סנאים – מפני שעשויין לנקר את הבית! לא קשיא; הא באוכמא, הא בחיוורא.
b. B. Qam. 80b They challenge [based on an early rabbinic teaching]: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: One may raise kufri-dogs, cats, monkeys, and porcupines because they go around cleaning the house. This is not difficult: One is [speaking of] black [cats], and the other of white.[26]

Thus, white cats are to be marked for extermination, while the black cats are allowed to live.

Cats and Dogs

Cats, more often tolerated than loved, never achieved the popularity of the dog, though even the attitude toward dogs in Talmudic sources is ambivalent.[27] In a comparison between the two, however, the cat ironically is considered less wise precisely because it does its job well in hunting and consuming mice:

בבלי הוריות יג. שאלו תלמידיו את רבי אלעזר: מפני מה הכלב מכיר את קונו, וחתול אינו מכיר את קונו? אמר להם: ומה האוכל ממה שעכבר אוכל משכח, האוכל עכבר עצמו על אחת כמה וכמה.
b. Hor. 13a R. Eliezer (b. Hyrcanus) was asked by his students: why does the dog know his master and the cat does not know his master? He said to them: If someone eats from what the mouse eats and forgets, does not eating the mouse itself make this more so?[28]

Ultimately, the status of the cat in ancient Jewish households seems to have been related to its level of domesticity. This status may be reflected in a tradition about cats in dreams that uses an alliterative word play with the consonants shin, nun, and resh:

בבלי ברכות נו: הרואה חתול בחלום, באתרא דקרו ליה שונרא - נעשית לו שירה נאה, שינרא - נעשה לו שינוי רע.
b. Ber. 56b If one sees a cat in a dream, if it is in a place where they call it shunara (in Aramaic), a beautiful song (shirah naʾah) will be composed for him; if it is a place where they call it shinara (in Aramaic), he will undergo a change for the worse (shinui raʿ).

Perhaps, in the Talmud, the “beautiful song”-cat (shunara) represents the pet and part-time domestic mouser, and the “change for the worse”-cat (shinara) stands for one that makes a meal of barnyard hens, but in the final song of the Passover Haggadah, the Chad Gadya, it is the shunara that eats the kid goat.

Published

April 10, 2024

|

Last Updated

June 13, 2024

Footnotes

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Prof. Joshua Schwartz is Professor (Emeritus) of Historical Geography of Ancient Israel, Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel, and Chair, Board of Directors, Israel Antiquities Authority. He received his Ph.D. (1981) from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His most recent books are: Jews and Christians in Roman-Byzantine Palestine: History, Daily Life and Material Culture, Volumes 1–2 (Peter Lang 2018); Jerusalem: From its Beginning to the Ottoman Conquest (Ingenborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies 2017), co-edited with Avraham Faust and Eyal Baruch; Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: The Interbellum 70–132 CE (Brill 2018), co-edited with Peter J. Tomson; and The History of Jerusalem: The Second Temple Period 332 BCE – 70 CE, Volume One, History, Society and Cult, and Volume Two, The Material Culture (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi 2020), co-edited with Ronny Reich and Isaiah Gafni.