By Rabbi Shohama
As Yom Kippur approaches, our thoughts turn to remembering our loved ones, family and friends whose living presence in our lives we miss. Jewish tradition offers many ways to memorialize our losses. We visit graves, light memorial candles, attend special memorial services (Yizkor) as part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, recite Mourner’s Kaddish, donate tzedakah in their memory for a Yizkor Book or other charitable causes, and promise to do gemulit chasadim (generous and caring deeds) in their memory. All of these traditions can be meaningful and moving.
Yet I am aware that there is among us a group of mourners seemingly with no Jewish way to mourn at this season – those who beloved pets have died, animals who played a central role in their lives, lending endlessly unconditional love. For this question, traditional and even contemporary Judaism offer no answers. While Judaism honors the principle of Tzaar ba’alei chayyim (do not cause [unnecessary] distress to living creatures), it holds a firm line between loss of human and loss of animal life.
This is a question that speaks to me personally, remembering family pets from my childhood and my children’s childhood — among them Shadow, Marmalade, and Yogi. When they died, we did not know what to do and each time created a different ritual. With each loss, the children and I grieved deeply and for some length of time.
In 1997, I wrote an article for an anthology called Jewish Family & Life (eds. Yosef Abromowitz & Rabbi Susan Silverman, Golden Books, NY, 1997), in which I explored the issue of funeral rituals for animal companions. At that time there were no rabbinic options offered. It was clear that tradition mandated that animals not be treated on the same level as humans — no Mourner’s Kaddish, no Yahrzeit candle, no cemetery burial. I offered the suggestion that a ritual be created that allowed people to share memories, look at photos, and donate monetary tzedakah or good deeds in the pet’s memory.
While there have been some rituals suggested in the past decade, and even a few rabbis who offer to lead a funeral for an animal, there is still no Jewish practice for observance during or around the time of Yizkor. Traditionally Yizkor is just for primary family members (parent, spouse, sibling, child). In many liberal congregations, Yizkor books also list names of extended family and friends.
I want to invite those of you who care to remember your animal companions of the past to take some time at this season to look at old photos, to share your memories with family and friends, and perhaps to donate tzedakah to an organization that helps care for animals. Part of the importance of Yom Kippur is to allow us to appreciate our past and express our grief, whatever the cause.
This is a season for healing of the heart, and for knowing that God — whom we call Nishmat Kol Chai / the breath of all life — truly cares for all life in all forms.