Project Genesis

Basics of Judaism

Heaven and Hell

Animals, Spirit, and Reincarnation

Question: I recently had to put my service dog to sleep. What is Judaism’s position on the souls of our animals and how we dispose of their bodies after death?

Answer: The Kabbalah recognizes two separate issues which shed light on the souls of animals: 1. the concept of the animal spirit, 2. the concept of reincarnation.

1. The animal spirit is the life-force that G-d has placed in both animals and people. The difference is that people contain a soul that is higher than the animal spirit. My Rabbis taught that the animal spirit is “almost physical”, and may eventually be identified through science in some way; as opposed to the concept of the soul, which is on a higher level and is only knowable through revelation. In a practical sense, the soul has free will, whereas the animal spirit is run by instinct. Since we, as humans, choose freely, our soul will be rewarded for the proper choices we have made in our lives (i.e. the choices to follow the Torah). On the other hand, animals live by instinct and are not rewarded for their choices. This is because they do not make moral choices, but rather are governed by instinct. When an animal passes away, its spirit returns to the place in heaven where it comes from, not for reward or punishment, but rather it simply returns to its source. However, through interaction with humans, a “tikkun“, or spiritual rectification, can take place for the animal. This leads us to the next concept.

2. Reincarnation—I remember that I was once a counselor in a day camp in a Chasidic hotel. The Rabbi of the hotel at the time is a well respected Dayan (judge of Torah law) in the Chasidic community in Brooklyn, NY, and his father is one of the great Rabbinical leaders of this generation. The children of the day camp went on a trip to a zoo, and the Rabbi came along with us. When we stopped to sit down for a lunch break, we sat at some picnic benches next to a pen holding an exotic (and rather large) species of deer. The Rabbi told the children in Yiddish, “When you recite the blessing on the food, do so loudly, with much concentration and devotion. This animal here contains the reincarnated soul of a Jew who needs a rectification, and the animal was waiting for some Jewish children to recite a praise to G-d in its presence so that the soul could be redeemed in the merit of your blessings over this food.”

We see this theme constantly, not only with animals, but also with plants and inanimate objects as well. The food itself, as well as all of its components (i.e. animal, vegetable, and mineral), is rectified when we eat the food according to the Torah—ensuring the food is kosher, with blessings recited before and after eating, and using the energy to further our service of G-d. Also, this tikkun can also be made in cases where eating is not involved. There is a blessing that is recited only once a year: The blessing over fruit trees in bloom. The Kabbalists tell us that the souls that are trapped in the trees are redeemed when we see the beauty of the flowers and recite the blessing to thank G-d for this beauty.

In the ancient work Pesikta Rabbasi (14:2), it tells the story of a Jew who sold his cow to a non-Jew, and the cow refused to work on the Sabbath. The new owner was furious, and he called back the seller to complain about his acquisition. The Jew came and whispered into the cow’s ear, telling it that it is no longer Jewish property, and would now have to work on the Sabbath. The cow summarily began to work. The non-Jew was so amazed by this that he decided to convert to Judaism, and he became one of the Rabbis of the Talmud, a colleague of the great Rabbi Akiva. This convert was called Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Torta, “Torta” being Aramaic for “cow”.

Interestingly, Rabbi Moses Isserles asserts that the cow was, in fact, the reincarnation of the non-Jewish Queen Vashti, the first wife of King Ahasuerus in the book of Esther. She used to humiliate Jewish women under her rule, and force them to violate the Sabbath. As a rectification for her soul, she was reincarnated as this cow, making her, through the inspiration derived from the story, the catalyst (I didn’t intend any pun – but could we say, cattle-lyst) for generations of adherence to the Sabbath. Thus, we see that God has many plans to help even the most distant souls attain rectification through reincarnation, whether it be into humans, animals, plants, or even inanimate objects.

Ultimately, your service dog cared for you in a very special way, and, if the animal contained some spark of a human soul (i.e. it was the reincarnation of a human being), then that soul received a rectification in the merit of the help rendered to you. Thus, you will be shown at the end who this was, and how every aspect of the relationship you had with the animal provided some rectification to that soul.

Finally, one of the basic dogmas of Judaism is the eventual resurrection of the dead. This is the reason why, for Jewish people, we are so opposed to cremation. However, animals will not have a physical resurrection. (However, if a human soul was rectified in an animal body, then it will be reunited with its original human body upon resurrection.) Therefore, there are no laws that I am aware of about how to dispose of the bodies of animals.

I wish you all the best.

Rabbi J. Kolakowski

2 Follow-ups »

No published follow-up questions.

We respond to every follow-up question submitted, but only publish selected ones. In order to be considered for publication, questions must be on-topic, polite, and address ideas rather than personalities.


Powered by WordPress