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September 30, 2005

Blessing Our Pets in the Spirit of St. Francis
… and Judaism?

by Jon M. Sweeney

Francis of Assisi performed the first “Blessing of the Animals” (repeated each early October in churches around the U.S.) almost 800 years ago, or did he?

St. Francis preached to the birds, cared for wolves and hens, blessed fish, and used real animals when he created the very first, live, Christmas nativity scene. But was he the first person to bless the animals? Judaism, long home to blessings of all kinds, may have come first.

Many synagogues now have their own blessing of the animals ceremonies, and, they say, the idea originated in ancient Judaism. Without reference to St. Francis, the Jewish ceremony is often performed on the seventh day of Passover (in the Spring), as a celebration of the Hebrews’ (and their animals’) emancipation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

But also, many Jewish congregations schedule blessings of the animals in the Fall after the High Holy Days, centering their ceremony around the second weekly Torah portion of the Jewish New Year, Noah's Ark. This year, the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah happens during the same weekend that churches invite pets into their sanctuaries: October 2-4. And so, this October, the story of Noah will be read in synagogues around the U.S. during October 16 services. Many Jewish blessings of animals will be performed in the second half of the month.

For example, Emanuel Congregation, a synagogue of the Reform movement in Judaism, is hosting what they call the “Celebration of Parashat Noach (Noah and the Ark)” on Sunday, October 30, at 12 p.m. Emanuel will have a “Celebration in Song, Prayer and Blessing for the House Pets who fill our homes with love and joy.” Their website reads that: “All are welcome, with or without an animal.”

Other synagogues, such as Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, California, will celebrate their blessings of the animals on October 16 as part of the Shabbat services (called Shabbat Noach on this particular Saturday). They advertise to their members: “Read the story of Noah while bringing your pet for a blessing after services.”

In both the Christian ceremony performed this weekend, and in Jewish ceremonies, which are becoming more and more common, the message to kids with pets is the same: Take care of them as you would take care of yourself. Show gratitude; they are gifts from God.

© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney

— Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. An Episcopalian and author of The St. Francis Prayer Book, he is speaking this weekend at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of their celebration of the feast day of St. Francis.
More by Jon Sweeney.

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