On the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, many churches around the country have a special blessing of animals service. In New York City, the largest of these was held on October 2 at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in MorningsideHeights. Since I am an animal lover at heart, I was thrilled to get a ticket for the service.
A Christian Worship Service
St. John the Divine is reported to be the 4th largest church in the world, and only a church of great proportions could have held the menagerie in attendance on Sunday.
The blessing service was attended by a host of creatures that would have made Noah proud: a miniature horse, cows, sheep, goats and a pot bellied pig that was better leash trained than some of the dogs in the congregation. In addition to farm animals, I saw species of animals from around the world: a North African fennec fox, South American llamas and alpacas, and a wallaby from down under.
Some tiny pets were carried in the arms of a family member and a giant tortoise was wheeled in for a blessing using a flower bedecked wagon. Dogs of all types sat with their families interspersed throughout the congregation. The entire front row was full of West Highland white terriers. Watch the video to see the procession of animals.
The service included reading from the Hebrew Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran.
This made me wonder, do other religions have services for blessing of animals?
Animals are important in all families, not just Christian ones, but I didn’t know if other religions had services to bless animals. So I did what every doctor does when he/she is unsure, I consulted experts. I called my veterinary colleagues who are Jewish or Muslim and asked them.
One of my colleagues recommended a website of Jewish rituals. This website is loaded with suggestions for celebrations of animals in our lives, not just for blessing services. Although Judaism does not have patron saints in the fashion of the Christians, they do celebrate the lives of important rabbis on the anniversary of their death.
Ritualwell suggests “a hillula for Rav Kook is a perfect opportunity to invest a celebratory event with appropriate meaning by linking it to a prominent figure in the field of Judaism and animals, as well as a way to share Rav Kook’s teachings about animals.” Another time in the Jewish calendar when animal blessing are performed is on Shabbat Noach, the time of the year when the Noah story is read from the Torah. In New York City, Congregation Simchat Torah has been the host of blessing services on this day in previous years. Practical suggestions for organizing a Jewish blessing service can be found on Heeb’n’vegan.
The Muslim Perspective
The Muslim religion does not have an animal blessing ritual, but the Quran contains stories to teach the importance of caring for animals. One story my colleague relayed is about woman who went to hell because she trapped a cat, did not feed the cat and did not let the cat free to hunt for food. Another story tells of a man who went to heaven because he stopped in the desert and went down a well to get water for a stray dog.
Whatever your beliefs, these stories speak to the importance of animals in our families and our stewardship responsibility towards them.
Thanks to my colleagues, Dr. Howard Gittelman, Cantor Elizabeth Goldmann, and Dr. Suliman Al-Ghazlat, for their valuable consultations.