From being able to detect certain illnesses to exhibiting strange behaviors days before an earthquake, animals exhibit extraordinary senses. Some have even described animals as possessing a sixth sense, i.e., a “gut” feeling, when someone is about to die or something just doesn’t feel right.

While there are, of course, scientific explanations for some of these phenomena, such as super keen hearing and superior eyesight, scientists are still searching for the explanations behind many premonitions animals seem to have. This has led many to believe that animals have the ability to see spirits.

Let’s examine this question from a Torah perspective.

Balaam’s Donkey

From a biblical perspective, it seems that the answer is pretty straightforward.

We learn in the Book of Numbers1 how G‑d was angry that Balaam set out to curse the People of Israel, so He sent an angel to station itself on the road before Baalam.

The verse tells us how Balaam’s donkey saw the angel and tried to turn aside (and eventually stopped altogether), only to be repeatedly beaten by Balaam.

G‑d performed a miracle and “opened the donkey’s mouth,” allowing her to complain to Balaam about his cruelty. Then “the Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the L‑rd standing in the road . . .”2

A careful reading of the verses shows that in order for the donkey to speak and for Balaam to see the angel, G‑d did a special miracle, opening the donkey's mouth and Balaam’s eyes. However, the donkey’s seeing the angel is stated in a matter-of-fact way, with no indication that it was anything out of the ordinary.

The foremost biblical commentator, Rashi, explains (quoting a Midrash) that “G‑d permits an animal to perceive more than people. Since people possess intelligence, they would become insane if they were able to see demons.”3

Although in this case we’re discussing an angel, not a demon, the principle remains the same. Animals are granted the ability to see spiritual entities that are invisible to us.4

Dogs Seeing Elijah and the Angel of Death

It has been observed that animals can often tell when a person is about to pass away. In this regard, there is a fascinating statement in the Talmud:

The sages taught: If the dogs are crying [for no reason], the Angel of Death has come to the city. If the dogs are laughing, Elijah the prophet has come to the city. This applies only if there is no female dog [among them, for if there is, their behavior may be prompted by her].5

Many (but not all6) understand this to mean that the dogs laugh or cry because they are actually aware of the presence of the Angel of Death or Elijah.7

What Difference Does It Make?

There are indeed Jewish sources for animals having much finer senses and being able to perceive the paranormal and supernatural. This awareness is very humbling, showing us just how much we do not know. But it also helps us internalize that there really is a spiritual dimension beyond what we can perceive.

There is so much more than what meets the eye.