While today the two most common types of house pets are cats and dogs, the sages of the Talmud questioned the issue of safety regarding the ownership of these animals.

In general, most discussions of cats in the Talmud involve their special ability to hunt for and destroy vermin. If a person feels that they are being pursued by a snake, the sages suggest that they tie four cats to the legs of their bed and surround the bed with rustling rubbish so that the cats will pounce upon the snake when they hear it approaching (Talmud Shabbat 110a). While the Talmud discussed cats’ beneficial role in ridding a house of mice and other pests, there are also numerous discussions about the possible liability issues when cats attack other animals.

Beyond the “mousing” abilities of cats, mention is made of the general personality of the cats:

“Rabbi Yochanan observed: Had the Torah not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat…” (Talmud Eruvin 100b). The modesty of the cat refers to their handling of their excrement, which they cover. There is, however, also mention of the perceived anti-social disposition of felines: “Rabbi Eleazar was asked by his disciples: Why does a dog know its owner, while a cat does not?” (Talmud Horayoth 13a-b).

An interesting incident is recorded in Talmud Baba Kama 80, about black cats verses white cats. The sage Rab declared it permissible to kill a cat after a cat bit off a child’s hand. It was then asked how this could be, since Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar had listed cats as one of the animals that could be domesticated because they help with pests. It was then explained that black cats could be kept and bred, while white cats – or black cats who were born from white cats (such as the one that attacked the child) – were dangerous. The implication is that at the time of the Talmud, domestication of cats was not yet complete.

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