By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
My cat recently died and I want to know if it’s appropriate for me to recite the Kaddish prayer for her? In case this sounds ludicrous allow me to explain. My ex-wife and I never had children, and we have been divorced for nearly 10 years. Through this past, painful decade, this cat has been a big part of my life; she gave me a lot more than I gave her. She gave me connection, she was a cure to my loneliness, and she gave me something to love. Now all that’s gone and all that remains is a hole of loneliness. I know sitting shiva would be going too far, but I thought that going to say Kaddish for her would make up for some of that loss.
— Murray G.
I am very sorry for your loss. I once had a glimpse into how painful this must be for you when I was a young boy and my beloved dog Cookie was hit by a car. I vividly remember how intensely I cried and mourned her loss for weeks, walking around and collecting whatever hairs I could find; she was, at the time, the center of my life. I’m sure you are experiencing the same and perhaps even more pain.
Kaddish, however, is not the appropriate response to the loss of a pet, no matter how beloved the pet was and how mournful is its loss. This is based upon the understanding of what Kaddish means as a mourner’s prayer. If one takes a cursory glance at the words of Kaddish, looking for the mention of the deceased and the prayer for their soul, they will be shocked to find no mention whatsoever of mourning, death or anyone’s soul! How, then, is Kaddish meant to be a “mourner’s prayer”?!
The answer goes to the core of what it means to be a Jew. The primary responsibility of a Jew in this world is to effect a “Kiddush HaShem,” a sanctification of the Name of God. The way a Jew relates to another human being, whether in synagogue or a business setting, in public, or the privacy of one’s home, every act a Jew performs should bring nachas to the Al-mighty. Anyone, Jew or Gentile, who observes the actions of a Jew should be inspired to become greater and emulate the respectful, caring and truthful conduct of that Jew. Although we often fall short of that expectation and at times our conduct is less than inspirational, overall the life of a Jew who fulfills mitzvot and the will of God is living a life of Kiddush HaShem.
The loss of a Jew, any Jew, is empirically a net loss of Kiddush HaShem in the world. Even if their life was not so holy, their very existence as part of the Jewish people made the Jewish people stronger; the sum total of the Jewish people is a Kiddush HaShem. As a member of Klal Yisrael that person’s life was that of Kiddush HaShem; their demise minimized somewhat the level of Kiddush HaShem in the world.
Kaddish is related to the word Kiddush. What Kaddish is all about is a proclamation of the greatness of the Name of God and His dominion over the world. It’s about stating out loud that God is the King of the universe and us asking Him to extend his reign into our everyday lives and all that we do. It is the ultimate statement of Kiddush HaShem. When a Jew leaves the world and effects a net loss in Kiddush HaShem, those the person left behind recite the most powerful statement we have to make up a little for that loss. To do so brings untold bliss to the soul of the deceased, as he or she continues to effect Kiddush HaShem in the world through those they left behind.
All of this would, of course, not apply to a pet. As much as they were beloved, they were not endowed with an eternal soul to be elevated and their existence did not effect a Kiddush Hashem, rendering the recitation of Kaddish for them inappropriate. I would, however, recommend that you attend services and pray along with others without reciting Kaddish; it will be good for your own soul and will give meaning to the loss of your cat, as a positive outcome will have been effected as the result of her loss. I also recommend you contact the Jewish Family Service and see in what way you can volunteer your time to help others; that will give you the kind of meaningful, positive connection you understandably crave and can attain in a very deep, meaningful way by bringing a bit more light and happiness into the lives of others.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.