From the Talmud to the Plague- Shul Katze (synagogue cat)
The Cat’s Place In Jewish History!
Rabbi Barbara notes that Synagogue Ner Tamid del Sud in Calabria is home to, Shul Katze (synagogue cat), three cats – Tommasina and her little ones, Teppa and Tobino. Since the “chatul,” (Hebrew for “cat”) is the most popular pet world wide, she did some investigating to see if indeed there is a connection between cats and Jewish tradition. Guess what? Indeed there is.
In her article about Jews and cats, Shira Cohen-Regev tells us that since their domestication in ancient Egypt 3,600 years ago, Cats and Jewish tradition have shared a common bond. In fact Cohen-Regev tells us that cats are mentioned fondly in the Talmud. Our rabbinic sages, including the great commentator Rashi, note that cats are an example of modesty given their use of their litter boxes and indeed the Talmud states, “If the Torah wasn’t given, we would have learned modesty from the cat.”
In his blog on the Jewish View of Cats, author Yonassan Gershom writes that many cultures have superstitions about cats, such as, “If a black cat crosses your path, it brings bad luck.” However Judaism forbids such beliefs because it violates the prohibition against omens (Leviticus 19:26). Gershom recalls what Jewish comedian Groucho Marx once said, “If a black cat crosses your path, it means the animal is going somewhere.”
Gershom continues that during the Middle Ages, when some Christians believed that cats where a witch’s kindred spirit, Jews took a more practical stance. It could be that since cats were part of the culture of ancient Egypt and thus were familiar to Jews but not so for European Christians, that Christians saw cats as strange and threatening.
Gershom writes, “So, in contrast to medieval Christians who were killing cats as demons, Jews kept Shul Katze (synagogue cat) around to hunt rodents and protect the holy books from mice. In fact it was common to have a shul katze (synagogue cat) to protect the congregation’s library.”
When the Black Plague devastated Europe, the Christian communities suffered most. Why? Those “Jewish” cats that solved the mice problem also controlled the proliferation of the rat population, and thus the Jewish communities of Europe were not as hard hit by the Plague.
But, as Gershom says, “Unfortunately, since nobody back then knew how the Plague was spread, this difference just reinforced the idea that Jews were witches with demon cats who had brought the Plague as a curse on the Christians .” The result, innocent Jews (along with their cats) were terrorized, persecuted and often killed.
So, nu, what is it about cats that lends itself to Jewish tradition. Well, in an ancient Jewish text, Perek Shirah (“The Song of the Universe,” recently rediscovered by Jewish environmentalists and ecologists), we find one answer. In these ancient writings, which include a combination of Psalms and Kabbalah text, we are told that everything in Creation is singing a song to God. In fact it is the cat who sings, “I pursued my foes and overtook them, and did not return until they were destroyed” (Psalm 18:38.) – what Gershom says is a “a pretty good description of a stalking cat!”