Should guide and service dogs used by people with disabilities be permitted in the synagogue? This question has become more relevant in recent years as we strive to include people with disabilities in Jewish life. The recent translation of a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher, a Polish-born Israeli rabbi and author of the Torah Shleimah, addresses this question.

What Are Service Dogs?

Guide dogs are trained to work with people who are blind and /or deaf and service dogs are trained to work with people who have diverse diagnoses, including physical disabilities, medical conditions such as seizure disorders or low blood sugar, and autism. These specially trained dogs may retrieve objects that are out of their person’s reach, provide assistance in daily living activities, alert people to potential seizures and can assist in many other individual tasks as needed. A service or guide dog is an accommodation put in place so that an individual with a disability can participate in society as do non-disabled peers.

Service animals are not pets. You can identify a working service dog because it is wearing a vest or collar. Treating them like a pet, offering treats or petting, can distract the animal from his or her job of supporting the individual they work for. If someone brings a service animal to the synagogue, it is because that animal gives them the support they need in order to be there.

The Rebbe’s Response In Brief

The Rebbe addressed allowing guide dogs in the synagogue in 1959, over 30 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990. The Rebbe’s thoughts on the matter are not only a precedent to the law but highlight the role of accommodating a person with a disability in order that he or she may be included in Jewish life.

The Rebbe drew a similarity between the presence of guide dogs in the synagogue for people who are blind and the ruling in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 88, “that not allowing [women who are ritually impure due to menstruation] to attend Shul ‘will cause them great pain, because everyone else is going to Shul and they will be left outside.’“ The Rebbe wrote that this ruling concerns just two weeks of every month, whereas if someone is blind, the restriction is permanent. The Rebbe noted that other people could assist the person who’s blind into the Shul, but that, he wrote, is not the point.

What is the answer to the question of allowing guide and service dogs into the synagogue when they provide the necessary and highly skilled support for an individual with a disability or health condition?

The Rebbe wrote, “The point I am making here is about whether it is important for him [the person with a disability] to begin with (either because the pain he will otherwise suffer or because of the great importance of prayer in Shul).”

“If it is important for him to attend Shul, then we must obviously look for ways to enable this,” the Rebbe concluded.

The Rebbe uses the words “important for” at the end of his letter. If attending the synagogue is important to an individual, whether he or she requires a guide or service dog, or another kind of accommodation, then it is up to the community to embrace that person. It is just as important for the synagogue community to welcome and include people with disabilities as it is to the individual. The Rebbe’s final word on permitting guide and service dogs to accompany people who use them to shul reminds us that v'ahavta lereiacha kamocha, to love your fellow Jew like yourself, is at the heart of how we treat others. The essence is to treat others how they want to be treated, which is reflected back in how we want others to treat us.

Background to the Exchange

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher wrote a note in Torah Sheleimah (vol. 15 p. 157) regarding a question he was asked about allowing a blind person entering a Shul with his guide dog. Rabbi Kasher responded that it is forbidden, basing his ruling on the Torah prohibition (Devarim 23:19) to bringing an animal received in exchange for a dog as a sacrifice in the Beis Hamikdash.

A few years earlier, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein had addressed the same question (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:45). Citing Talmudic precedent allowing donkeys to be brought into a Shul (under certain circumstances), Rabbi Feinstein ruled that the guide dog may be allowed into the Shul. In his ruling, Rabbi Feinstein also considered the fact that not allowing the dog into the Shul would deprive the blind man of the ability to join the communal services, and would cause him great distress.

In the course of a letter of scholarly notes and comments sent to Rabbi Kasher regarding a book he had recently published, the Rebbe also addressed his ruling in Torah Sheleimah prohibiting the entrance of a guide dog into Shul.

The Rebbe’s First Letter

23 Sivan, 5719

Regarding that which you wrote in Torah Sheleimah vol. 15 p. 147 forbidding bringing a dog into Shul, you did not bring proof to your position. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 153:21.1 On the other hand, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes in Responsa Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:45 that a dog is surely no worse than a donkey [which may be brought into a Shul under certain circumstances].2

Rabbi Kasher’s Response

Rabbi Kasher responded to the Rebbe, sending him a copy of the letter he had written to Rabbi Feinstein critiquing his ruling permitting a guide dog into Shul. In this letter, Rabbi Kasher adduced additional proof to his position that a dog may not be allowed into Shul, and explained why he considered it Halachicly worse than allowing a donkey in. The Rebbe responded to Rabbi Kasher with the following letter.

The Rebbe’s Second Letter

16 Tammuz, 5719

. . . 2) Regarding allowing a dog into a Shul.

A suggestion in Sifri3 cannot be brought as proof to establish an actual prohibition.4 Comments made in the context of non-legal commentary can also not be used to establish a prohibition, even if it can be argued that such a prohibition is implied by Keli Yakar.5 You noted yourself that the Keli Yakar is not an adequate proof because the expression he employs, “it is improper,” is common in the commentaries, even when they are explaining the reason for a prohibition [and does not necessarily imply an actual prohibition].

3) I should also comment (and I’m surprised I haven’t yet seen anyone raise this issue), that the reason offered by the Keli Yakar, and the Sefer Hachinuch,6 for the prohibition of bringing an animal received in exchange for a dog as a sacrifice is disproven by a passage in the Talmud, Yoma 21b. The Talmud says there that in the Second Temple, the fire on top of the altar resembled a crouching dog.7 It can be argued that this is a proof that there is no prohibition against bringing a dog into a Shul.

—At first glance it can be argued (although it is a stretch) that the above-mentioned passage does not mean the fire on the altar assumed the form of a dog (and in the First Temple—a lion). Rather, this is said regarding the way the fire burned on the altar. Namely, that in the First Temple the fire burned on the altar in a calm and stable manner—like a resting lion—while in the Second Temple it was more volatile—like a dog.

But this is not so. Rashi ad loc., Zohar 3:211a, Tikunei Zohar 62b, and other sources, all specify that the fire assumed the form of a crouching dog (and in the First Temple, the form of a lion).—

4) At the end of your Responsa you asserted that there is no obligation to attend prayers at Shul. But see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 90:9 and the following laws (the source are referenced there), that rule that one must attempt to attend prayers at Shul, and that it is a mitzvah to hurry to Shul. Regarding you reference to Maharil, Magen Avraham 415:2 writes that Maharil was unsure whether attending communal prayers at Shul was enough of a mitzvah to justify the use of an eiruv techumin.8 But Magen Avraham writes that based on Orach Chaim 90:169 it is definitely a mitzvah that justifies use of an eiruv techumin (Orchos Chaim Hachadash writes that Responsa Chavos Yair 112 and Responsa of Rabbi Mordechai Ziskind 1 rejected Magen Avraham's position, but I don’t have access to these books).

Regarding this question [of allowing a blind person to enter with a guide dog] there is another important point. This case is similar to the ruling in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 88, that not allowing [women that are ritually impure due to menstruation] to attend Shul “will cause them great pain, because everyone else is going to Shul and they will be left outside”10 (and the case under discussion in Shulchan Aruch concerns only two weeks of every month,11 and even that ends at some point [i.e.: after menopause]. However, in the case of a blind person, the restriction would be permanent). It is obviously possible to arrange for the blind person to enter Shul with human assistance. But the point I am making here is about whether it is important for him to begin with (either because of the pain he will otherwise suffer or because of the great importance of prayer in Shul). If it is important for him to attend Shul, then we must obviously look for ways to enable this.12