Sabbath Fish

“Your approach,” I said, “is too body-oriented. Try to imagine a meta-dinner, not so much a filling occasion as a fulfilling one.”

From “When an Invitation Isn’t . . . ” by Anatole Broyard,

The New York Times, May 10, 1979.

  Introduction When I arrived in the States as a young immigrant, just after the end of World War II, I heard stories of “our boys” in the service who had been stationed in the far corners of the world, cut off from any contact with their families. When the Jewish chaplain was able to get them gefilte fish on Friday night or a Jewish holiday, tears would come to their eyes as memories of home were aroused by the sight and taste of the fish. In the smugness and conceit typical of youth and ignorance, I smiled inwardly at these stories. How vulgar, I thought, to associate the love for Judaism with a piece of food. How ignorant, furthermore, to attribute religious significance to gefilte fish, something that, to the best of my knowledge, was not even mentioned in the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative book on Jewish laws. As a matter of fact, I had never even heard of gefilte fish before my arrival in this country. But fate is often strange and, as Providence would have it, I came to love gefilte fish, to develop recipes suitable for mass production and, as Director of Production for the largest manufacturers of kosher fish products for over thirty years, I was probably responsible for serving more servings of gefilte fish than anyone else in history. I decided to take a new look at this custom of fish eating. Leafing through the pages of Jewish lore and history, laws and customs, I became aware of the fact that while gefilte fish, as we know it today, may be relatively new (by the standards of our four-thousand-year-old history), the custom of eating fish on the Sabbath and on special occasions goes back to the very origins of our history as a people. According to an ancient midrash, Miriam’s well, stocked with fish, accompanied the Israelites during the forty years of their wanderings in the desert. As if this were an omen, the custom of a fish meal on the eve of the Sabbath accompanied the Jewish people in their wanderings through the millennia and across all continents. In Ancient Egypt The Bible records for us that the Israelites complained to Moses about the lack of variety in the food available to them in the desert:

In Egypt we had fish for the asking, cucumbers and water-melons, leeks and onions and garlic. Now our throats are parched; there is nothing wherever we look except this manna (Numbers 11:5, 6).

Modern archeological evidence bears out the fact that fish was available for enslaved laborers like the children of Israel in Egypt. There is an Egyptian document concerning a petition addressed to the royal authorities in the 29th year of Ramses III (about 1150-1200 B.C.E.) by the Union of Gravediggers who, as part of their payment, received large amounts of fish four times monthly. The petitioners requested a pay increase, pointing out that they came to the authorities without clothes and ointments, and even without fish, that indispensable food. We know that the ancient Egyptians were able to preserve large quantities of fish for long periods of time by a process of drying and salting, and a warehouse of dried fish was discovered near the Sun Temple of Amarna. But to the Israelites wandering in the desert, fish meant even more than the free ration handed out to the slaves. There was a beautifully romantic aspect, as told us by the midrash.

Under the apple-trees I roused thee (Song of Songs 8:5). Rabbi Avira expounded: It was by the merit of the pious women in the generation of the oppression that our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt. The women were determined that the heritage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob not perish from the earth. When they went to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, summoned little fishes into their pitchers. They drew half water and half fish. They came home and placed two kettles on the stove, one to prepare hot water and the other for cooking fish. Then they carried the kettles out to the fields to their husbands and washed them, anointed them, fed them and gave them to drink and lay with them between the kettles.[1]

What species were these little fishes which our ancestors found so delectable during their sojourn in the land of Egypt? To our amazement, the evidence that has been preserved permits us to identify them and to conclude that some of the varieties that are used in the preparation of gefilte fish today are the very same species that were present in the Nile delta thousands of years ago. Thus, the Egyptologist Ingrid Gamer-Wallert reaches the following conclusion: It appears that the composition of the fish population of Egypt did not substantially change in the last five millennia. More than 30 species can be proven for Ancient Egypt and these still exist today in the waters of the Nile.[2] These varieties include carp, pike and mullet, and while these carp and pike families are not of the genus used in the Sabbath meal, the mullet (genus Mullet Mugilidae cephalus) is exactly the same fish that we use in the preparation of our present-day gefilte fish blend. A truly remarkable phenomenon. The Mishnah records “Egyptian Fish” as an article of commerce,[3] and, according to the commentary of Maimonides, this was a variety of small fish imported from Egypt to Palestine in metal containers and still well known in his own day. We can only speculate whether the popularity of this fish in Palestine[4] was based on ancient traditions. The starting point of our investigation of the fish meal in ancient Egypt is that passage in Numbers cited above: “In Egypt we had fish, cucumbers, water-melons, and leeks, onions and garlic.” Don Isaac Abarbanel, the Jewish Minister of Finance to the Portuguese Court, in his Bible commentary written in the early 16th century, takes the Hebrew word eth in the context of our verse to signify “with.” The Israelites in Egypt, writes Abarbanel, cooked fish with cucumbers, melons (or better, squash), leeks, onions and garlic in order to improve the poor taste of their ration. In other words, the Bible here gives us the first recorded recipe for fish cookery. In the Era of the Talmud Once we come to the period of the Mishnah and Talmud we find a wealth of information about the fishing industry and about the marketing and consumption of fish and fishery products. The main center of fishing was Lake Tiberias, but the Mediterranean and the Jordan River were also known for the bounty of their resources, and their waters were exploited commercially. The coastal town of Acco was the trading center for the commerce in fish, so that “bringing fish to Acco” had the same connotation as “carrying coals to Newcastle.” Generally, the fish for sale were attractively spread on leaves and reeds, and they were also served this way at the table,[5] much as the labels on American cans of gefilte fish suggest that the portions be served on lettuce leaves. Smaller varieties of fish were sold in metal containers and baskets. Fish were eaten pickled, boiled or fried, and served with vegetables and milk. A popular dish was fish prepared with flour in a type of pie and fish with good, aged wine was considered a meal fit for a king. The Jews—like the Greeks—loved fish food and were connoisseurs. Said Rabbi Yose ben Halafta (quoted in the famous Bible commentary of Rashi, on Genesis 1:10): “The taste of fish that comes up in Acco cannot be compared to the taste of fish that is caught in neighboring Sidon, and the taste of fish from Sidon does not compare to the taste of fish from neighboring Aspamia.” Because of this predilection of the Jews for fish it was the custom to honor the Sabbath with a fish meal on Friday night, at the beginning of the Sabbath.[6]

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: He who delights in the Sabbath will be granted his heart’s desire, as it has been said: “Delight in God and He will grant your heart’s desire” (Psalms 37:4). This delight in God shall be understood by reference to the prophet Isaiah: “You shall call the Sabbath a delight,” and it concerns, therefore, the delight in the Sabbath. How does one delight in the Sabbath? Rav Yehudah, son of Rav Samuel bar Shilat said in the name of Rav: With a course [of] spinach-beets, large fish and garlic cloves. Rav Hiyya bar Ashi said in the name of Rav: Even a modest meal, if prepared in honor of the Sabbath, is a delight. What might this be? Said Rav Papa: A pie of fish-hash (small fish prepared with flour and fish jelly) (Shabbat 118b).

Even the poorest of the poor were entitled to the Friday night fish-meal from the public kitchen: “When may those who possess less than fifty shekels have the dish of vegetables and fish? Every Friday night of the Sabbath.”[7] Talmudic laws regulating the relations of employer and worker take into consideration the need to prepare the Sabbath meal. In general, the worker who is hired for a full day must travel on his own time, so that he can start at his day-break. However, it is understood by both parties that the employer must let him leave every day in order to reach his home by night-fall. What about Fridays?

Rabbi Ammi said in the name of Resh Lakish: On Friday afternoon the employer has to let his workers off in time so that they can draw a barrel of water and fry a fish, before lighting the Sabbath candles (Genesis Rabba 72, 3).

No one is to consider himself exempt from the obligation of preparation for the Sabbath. The Talmud records that even the great masters did menial labor to prepare the home in honor of the Sabbath: “Rava (the famous Head of Academy in Mehosa) salted the turbot (he seasoned the fish in honor of the Sabbath).”[8] The custom of honoring the Sabbath with fish is also stressed in the Aggadah, the moral tales of the Sages where we see that people were regarded as especially praiseworthy in the eyes of God if, at any cost, they got fish for sacred occasions. The story of “Joseph, Who Honored the Sabbath”[9] Tells us how a rich pagan was warned that his neighbor, Joseph, would someday eat up all his possessions. To safeguard himself, the pagan sold all that he had and bought a single pearl. Unfortunately he then lost the pearl in a lake where it was swallowed by a fish which was later caught and sold to Joseph. Joseph found the pearl and sold it for a fortune. The moral of the story is pointed out: “He who lends to the Sabbath is repaid by the Sabbath.” A second story[10] brings out the same moral:

A pious man in Rome held the Sabbaths and festival days much in honor. On the eve of the Day of Atonement he went shopping in the market but found only a fish, which the servant of the Prefect also wanted to buy. They bid against each other, until finally the Jew got the fish, but at a gold denarius per pound. When, at dinner, the Prefect heard why no fish came to the table he had the Jew who, he presumed, was wealthy, called for him. The Jew came, and represented himself as a tailor.

“And a tailor eats fish at a gold denarius per pound?”

“My lord, permit me to speak!”

“Speak,” said the Prefect.

“We have a day which is more precious to us than all days of the year. All the sins which we have committed during the whole year are forgiven us on this day. Therefore we honor this day more than all the days of the year.”

Then said the Prefect: “You have justified yourself and are free.”

How did God repay the man who thus honored the festival? He had him find a valuable pearl in the fish, from the sale of which he supported himself for the rest of his life.[11]

We know that the Jewish custom of eating fish on the Sabbath eve was noted by the Romans, for it is alluded to in a rather obscure anti-Semitic stanza in a long poem by Perisus:

But when Herod’s birthday is come, and the lamps (like on every Sabbath and Holiday—E. F.), put in the greasy windows along with violets, emit their unctuous clouds of smoke and when the tail of a tunny floats curled round a red dish, and the white jar is bulging with wine, you move your lips in silences and turn pale at the circumcised Sabbath.[12]

Even though Persius’ statement is confused, all scholars have connected the passage with the traditional Friday night meal of the Jews. Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian and naturalist who called Jerusalem “the most illustrious city in the East,” also comments, in his Natural History, on the fish-eating customs of the Jews. In ancient Jewish liturgy, the wish for resurrection in the company of the Just is a frequent motif. It is also found on a tomb inscription, touching in its simplicity, for the nine-year-old daughter of Rabban Gamliel in Bet Shearim: “May she rise again with the Just” (Tehi amidatah im kesherim). The desire to be with the saints at the Feast of the Leviathan is the explanation offered to account for the presence of a fish symbol on some Jewish graves in Roman catacombs. The fish meal, fundamentally a festive meal to do honor to the holy days of the year, here becomes a symbol of the good life in the world to come, when legendary Leviathan becomes part of the menu for the ultimate feast in Paradise.[13] On a more earthy level, fish also served as an aphrodisiac and, especially in later periods, as a symbol of fertility, a protection against the evil eye and as an omen for bringing good luck. All of these ancillary meanings are based on ideas already present in Talmudic literature. The Age of Mysticism: Kabbalah In the imagery of the Bible and the Talmud, the Royal Table is one of the trappings of kinghood, much as crown and scepter are the insignia of monarchy in the Western tradition. When, in the famous twenty-third psalm, King David sang

Thou preparest a table before me In the presence of mine enemies

the Rabbis comment[14] that this table is the symbol of royalty, parallel to the line that follows, “Thou has anointed my head with oil,” which refers to that other symbol of kinghood, the consecration of the king by divine authority. The Royal Table of the ancients was not necessarily one long table, but, rather, a series of small ones: one for the king, with others in the same hall for favorites, friends and the more important servants of the land or of the royal household. In a more general sense, to eat at the king’s table came to mean to be supported by the king, regardless of where the meals were physically eaten. The Zohar, the holy book of the Kabbalah, in a lesson extolling the Sabbath meal, opens the passage by calling Israel “sons of the royal palace.”[15] They are guests, as it were, at the Sabbath table, the mystic table of God, the King, and of the Sabbath Queen. In this sense we must understand the severe reprimand and punishment for those who, as lès majesté, slight the Sabbath table, and the happiness and reward that, according to the Zohar, await those who honor the Sabbath table. The Holy Shelah,[16] a famous authority among the Kabbalists, prefaces his thoughts on the Sabbath meals with a quotation from Maimonides to the effect that the Sabbath table should be honored with proper good food, including fish. He proceeds to quote an anonymous authority who recommends that fish be included in each of the three obligatory Sabbath meals. The Shelah then develops a gematria, a play on the numerical value of Hebrew letters, to indicate that wine, meat and fish at the three Sabbath meals are a desideratum. What follows is a frequently quoted but often neglected call for moderation in food and drink, to which we will refer later. The Book of Delight of the Days, (Sepher Hemdat HaYamim) which has been called the most beautiful book in Lurianic Kabbalah,[17] is a treasury of lore and ethical exhortation concerning the mitzvot of Friday night. In the first chapter the author writes:

The custom is to eat fish on the Sabbath because then there is a proliferation of (mystical) sparks that must be channeled and elevated by the power of the holiness of the Sabbath.

This is a reference to the transmigration of souls in fish. The Holy Or ha-Hayyim, a Sephardic kabbalistic Bible commentator, is also of the view (in his commentary on Genesis 1:26) that the souls of the pious transmigrate into fish. An opposite school of thought, among the believers in the doctrine of transmigration of souls (gilgul), prefers to eat fish rather than meat, precisely because souls that have been condemned to be reincarnated in lower forms of life will never enter the body of a fish, but only the bodies of warm-blooded animals. Hence, fish are preferred for the Sabbath meal. An excerpt from the previously mentioned writing of the Holy Shelah will serve to conclude this brief review of kabbalistic thought on the Sabbath meal:

Those who thoughtlessly fill their bellies, going for the pleasant taste and the intoxicating drink, and then because of the excess of eating fall into a stupor and their mind gets confused—they do not delight in the Sabbath, rather they delight themselves on the Sabbath. Therefore, one should measure one’s actions wisely. A person can eat and drink properly without filling up one’s belly, because the latter is not called Rest and Delight, but waste of food and destruction of one’s health. It is also harmful to the soul because one is unable to study the Law and perform the commandments after overeating. The idea is to eat and to drink, in good spirit and with joy, food that is wholesome, properly prepared and seasoned and easily digestible—small quantities but good quality, as long as one does not stuff oneself. One may even drink two or three cups of wine to cheer the heart—everything depends on the individual’s ability to hold his drink—and then one gets up, with the satisfaction of a good meal, to start an arranged program of study, or to nap briefly in order to rest one’s head and limbs a little and then one sits down to study. Abudraham wrote, in the name of a scholar, that one of the reasons for the traditional three Sabbath meals is to avoid stuffing oneself at any one meal. For, by knowing that there will be three meals during the day, there is no need to overindulge at any one of them. It is the holy Sabbath and it shall be used to cling to holiness.[18]

The Hasidic masters, steeped in love for the Jewish people and for every Jewish tradition elaborated on the meaning of the fish course on the Sabbath. Thus it is related by the disciples of the Zaddik, Rabbi Simha Bunem of Przysucha:

Our master—may his merit protect us—said that the custom to eat fish as the first food on the holy Sabbath is based on the fact that fish were the first created living beings, and the holiness of the Sabbath, too, is the root of life; for this reason Israel has the tradition to start delighting in the Sabbath with fish food.[19]

The Zaddik, Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, adds another thought.[20] The midrash, he says, tell us that the manna of the desert had every conceivable taste that one could wish for, except for the taste of fish. That is why the people murmured: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt.” This lack of fish became the focus of their dissatisfaction with their lot. Israel now has the custom to eat this very fishfood to demonstrate that we are thankful to God and that our delight in the Sabbath is complete. The symbol of grievance has become the symbol of gratitude. Rabbi Zevi Elimelekh of Dynow, known as “the B’nei Yisoskher” (the title of his best-known work), refers repeatedly to the custom of serving fish on the Sabbath table.

We find in the Biblical story of the creation that three things were blessed on three successive days. The fishes were blessed on the fifth day, mankind was blessed on the sixth, and the Sabbath-day was blessed on the seventh day. This is “the three-fold cord that is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes). That is why man eats fish on the Sabbath, so that he may be blessed with the triple blessing. This is also alluded to in the twenty-third psalm: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” since the Hebrew word for green pastures—deshe—consists of three letters that are the initial letters for the words fish, Sabbath and man in Hebrew, and these are joined on the day of rest; hence the verse concludes: “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”[21]

Elsewhere, we encounter a more moralistic interpretation of the custom. The Sabbath day shall be devoted to the study of Torah, an act symbolized by the fish meal:

The element of the fishes is water and the element of Israel is the Torah that has been compared to water. “Ho, everyone that thirsteth, go ye to the water” (Isaiah 55:1). The parable of a fox and the fishes is well-known from the Talmud.[22] And just as the fishes, even though they swim constantly in water, when a drop of rain falls they open their mouths to snap up the drops as if they never tasted water in their life, so Israel—even though their element is Torah all the days of the week—when they hear new interpretations of the Torah on the Sabbath they bend their ears to hear it well. It is written in the Zohar that the Sabbath is the day of the Torah par excellence, and the day of the soul—for it was on a Sabbath that the Torah was given to Israel on Sinai.[23]

The custom of eating a piece of hallah (white bread) with the fish is a topic of discussion in hasidic literature. Some authors attribute the practice to the requirements of healthy nutrition, while others cite the fact that the Hebrew letters for fish and for grain (dagim and dagan) have the same numerical value, this making them compatible foods. In conclusion, let us quote the Bnei Yisoskhor on this topic:

The saintly Rabbi Menahem Asariah DeFano (famous Kabbalist and contemporary of the Ari and of Rabbi Moses Cardovero) wrote that, in the world to come, at the banquet of the Leviathan—since there cannot be a religious banquet without breaking bread—they will bring out the flask of manna that had been hidden (Exodus 16:33). Note that Scripture says “for your generations” and that refers to the time when all the generations will gather. This manna is called “bread,” and it is written “this is the bread that God has given you.”[24]

The author adds that the blessing to be pronounced over the manna will be “Blessed art Thou Who bringest forth bread from Heaven,” in contrast to our regular benediction, “Blessed art Thou who bringest forth bread from the earth.” The commentators on the Shulhan Arukh cite the custom, introduced by the Kabbalists, that after the breaking of the hallah-bread at the Friday night meal, the children kiss their mother’s hand. It is she who baked and provided the festive meal, fulfilling the task expected of the mistress of the household. In our time, a New York rabbi remembers the custom from his home in Transylvania, a beautiful memory from a world that is no more but that shall not be forgotten. The Age of Enlightenment: Old Vienna When the age of emancipation dawned in Western and Central Europe, the hold of the Jewish religion weakened considerably and some of the intellectuals went so far as to forswear the faith of their ancestors, in order to buy “an admission ticket to European culture.” Having spent childhood years in an intensely Jewish milieu, these apostates penned bitter-sweet reminiscences of the Sabbaths of their youth, including meals. Heinrich Heine, the famous German poet, in his Hebrew Melodies, describes nostalgically how the simple Jew, with the arrival of the Sabbath, is miraculously transformed from a peddler into a prince who welcomes the Princess Sabbath. Several times, in the Hebrew Melodies, he characteristically lapses from lyrical heights to ironical self-ridicule, and after rhapsodizing about the quasi-magical transformation of the lowly work-a-day Jew into the radiant bridegroom of Princess Sabbath, he makes us chuckle about the traditional meals: “Kugel, the beautiful spark of the gods, heavenly ambrosia.” Moritz Gottlieb Saphir was a contemporary of Heine. Born into a Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox family in a small town near Budapest, and having attended yeshivot in Pressburg and Prague, he later abandoned traditional Judaism and eventually was baptized as a Lutheran. He settled in Vienna, where he wrote humorous and satirical poems, essays, literary criticism, theater reviews, comedies and short stories. Saphir’s popularity and influence were widespread and his witticisms and satirical sketches were frequently reprinted and often quoted. In a nostalgic autobiography he devotes several pages to “Jewish fish.” Here follows a slightly condensed English translation:

Lucullus, (he muses), got quite far in gastronomy. Pompey was no slouch either and he paid to M. Aufidius Lucro, who had invented a technique for fattening peacocks, the sum of 60,000 sesterces; Apicius invented the art of fattening pigs with figs, Vitellius was the first to dine on pies made with nightingale tongues; he paid 2,000 sesterces for a single Swedish nightingale . . . however, none of these virtuosos of culinary art and gluttony had any idea of the hautgout, the peculiar charm of the Jewish cuisine. Lord Protector Cromwell once dined with the famous Manasseh Ben Israel and he admitted that he had never eaten so delightful a meal.

Delightful indeed! That must have contained garlic! Whether you call them Brown Carp with Jew-sauce, or Jew-fish, the sweet-sour Jewish fish are world-famous. Once upon a time I tendered a “sweet-sour Jew-fish dinner” to my Gentile literary friends in Munich. I placed a platter of “sour Jew-fish heads” in front of them and I made a little speech:

“Gentlemen! I have invited you all to join me for ‘sour Jew-fish heads.’ You met here for this tête-a-tête and, before we dig in, permit me a few words. Jews and fish have great sympathy for one another. Jews like to eat fish and fish like to eat Jews, as we know from the famous fish that swallowed a whole Jew, from head to toe, for a snack. Of course, he returned him unharmed . . . But the Jews love fish so much because, when they wanted to cross the Red Sea, the fish suddenly started to swallow so much water, that the Jews were able to cross dry land, and when Pharaoh arrived, the fish gave all the water off again, drowning the pursuers.

“For this reason the Jews, out of gratitude, invite the fish on every Sabbath and holiday. But the Jews themselves have so often been invited guests, only to be fleeced and cleaned out, that they do the same to their own guests, the fish! They remove the scales, they clean them out, and then they finish them off. Look here, gentlemen, these are extraordinarily good fish-heads! For, what is characteristic of a good head? To make life sweet for oneself, even in a sour mess. So one has to sweeten the sour sauce with raisins, almonds, nuts, a little celery and spices to remove some of the bitterness. And then the fish-heads become tasty and inviting!”[25]

The famous satirist ends on a whimsical note: “In order to understand the Jewish national dishes,” he writes, “one has to be a scholar; to describe them, one must be a genius; to enjoy them in a mood of sanctity, one must be a Jew; but in order to truly appreciate them, one must be a meshumed (an apostate)!” The Fish Meal in Hebrew and Yiddish Song, in Art and Literature A complete traditional Friday evening table requires Sabbath candles to set the festive mood, the presence of guests (often needy people whom the head of the household would pick up after the synagogue prayer service to join the family circle at the table) and the singing of happy Sabbath songs, the zemirot. The lyrics of several of these songs which date back to the early Middle Ages allude to the fish course served on the Sabbath:

How beloved is your tranquility,

Oh, Queen Sabbath,

How do we hasten to receive you.

Come, Crowned Princess,

We welcome you in festive dress,

The candles are lit,

All work and labor has ceased.

We delight in your honor

With all kinds of fowl and fish.

Every manner of delicacy

Has been prepared well ahead . . .

A foretaste of paradise

Is the rest of the Sabbath day.

Oh, let our redemption come quickly,

May lament and suffering disappear.

Leaping across several centuries, we find what may be called a Yiddish song of social protest. The ancient Sabbath hymn just cited glorifies the Sabbath food. But the words of the song have a different meaning for the poor than for the wealthy. For the rich, the words of the song conjure up a sumptuous fish course, but for us


Oi, kaptsonechlech

the poor, oh the despised poor people, the tail of a herring is all that can be anticipated. Parallel with the dissatisfaction of the impoverished masses with their lot, there is a nostalgic anticipation of Israel’s ultimate redemption. The joys of paradise are described in a folk-song that takes the form of a dialogue between a questioning child and the father who must satisfy his offspring’s curiosity about all the details of the fascinating Gan Eden.

Tatenyu, father dear

What is going to be served at the banquet that the Messiah has in store for us?

My child,

The Leviathan is going to be served

At the great banquet for the righteous people of Israel

In Jewish pictorial art, fish often represents this same longing for redemption. On an old pewter Passover Seder-plate (in the Rheinisches Museum, Cologne, Germany) we can see the Star of David surrounded by fishes. The combination is an appropriate messianic symbol because on the night of the Seder the Messiah and the prophet Elijah, who will announce his coming, will arise to prepare the redemption. Again, this time on a pewter Purim-plate dating from 1787 in Bamberg, Germany we find three fishes, the symbol of the zodiac sign for the month of Adar, Pisces. Here the fishes, in addition to the redemption theme, are a sign of good luck. Representations of fish are widespread in the orient as amulets, and in Eastern Europe some boys were named Fishl as a good omen against the evil eye. Representations of fish in ancient Bible manuscripts have been reproduced in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (Volume 4, pages 908, 962, 965). These include the Leviathan as the food of the righteous in paradise (the last page of a giant 3-volume Ambrosian Bible written in Ulm, South Germany, in 1236–38), a floral and fish motif in a beautiful Yemenite Bible from the year 1469, and a picture of Jonah and the whale in an Ashkenazi Bible now in the British Museum. The Jewish Museum in New York has in its collection several paintings on our subject matter. Mention should be made of Hermann Junker’s “The Buying of the Fish for Sabbath” (oil on canvas, 1880) which depicts the hustle and bustle of the fish market in a quaint inner city street of old Frankfurt am Main, as Jewish burghers and their womenfolk, dressed in the costume of early eighteen hundreds, go about the business of purchasing food for the Sabbath table. Nahum Tschacbasov’s Family at the Sabbath Table” (oil on canvas, New York, 1946) is an example of modern art. It shows a family partaking of the Sabbath fish course. The Jewish Museum also has a fine specimen of a fish-shaped box (made somewhere in Western Europe in the 18th century) which holds the spices for havdalah. Until our own time, the fish has been a favorite form for these spice-boxes. It symbolizes fertility, protection from the evil eye, and good luck for the week to come. As might be expected, the Sabbath fish-meal finds a place in the descriptions of Jewish life in the literature of the 20th century. Scholem Asch, in his trilogy, Three Cities, portrays a traditional Sabbath eve family supper of fish in the home of a maskil school teacher at a time of political, social and intellectual ferment of Poland’s Jewish masses. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel laureate, in his masterful short story, “Short Friday,” describes an idyllic Sabbath meal complete with a course of gefilte fish. Thus, the old custom of fish eating on the Sabbath has found its reflection in hymn and folk song, in art and literature. What about the cook-books? Starting with a recipe in a Yiddish cook-book, Di Yiddishe Kúch by B. Shafran (Warsaw, 1930), there has been a veritable explosion of Jewish cook-books in English that teach the making of traditional Sabbath-fish, whether American, European or Israeli style, as well as such exotic varieties as French, Italian and Chinese-style gefilte fish. But how did we make the transition from fish to gefilte fish? Gefilte Fish In the last two hundred years or so the custom has taken over to eat the Sabbath fish as gefilte fish. That phrase is, of course, the Yiddish for stuffed fish. In the original version of this delicacy, the fish was chopped, mixed with flour and condiments, and this filling was used to stuff the skin of the fish. The whole was then cooked, cut into slices and served. In the modern version, in which the dish has reached this country, the skin is discarded, and gefilte fish is the end result of the blending of several varieties of sweetwater fish with onions, eggs, matzo meal and condiments, simmered in a broth of fish trimmings, vegetables and spices. While there are several varieties of the basic recipe, depending on the origin of the cook and his or her skill, there are two main schools of gefilte fish cooking: the litvishe, the way the Jews from Lithuania or litvacks like it, which is unsweetened, but well seasoned with salt and pepper, and the galitsianer version, preferred by Jews originating in Austria or Galicia, who like theirs generously sweetened with a heavy dose of sugar. An important reason why fish, rather than meat, became the preferred Sabbath fish dish was economics. Impoverished Jewish communities could hardly have afforded meat on every ordinary Sabbath, but some kind of fish was usually available at prices that were within reach. The utilization of every morsel was important for a poor community, and in the making of gefilte fish the housewife could use every ounce. Moreover, gefilte fish was good whether served hot or cold, and since cooking was not permitted on the Sabbath, such a dish could be served either hot on Friday night or for a cold luncheon or supper on the following Sabbath day. We are reminded somehow, of the baked beans of the New England Puritans. The early American settlers, not permitting themselves to cook on the Christian Sabbath, developed a dish that could be put on the stove the previous day and allowed to simmer until Sunday dinner. Religious requirements and Yankee ingenuity combined to give New England baked beans, just as East European Jews developed gefilte fish. Religious law entered into the picture in yet another way. The Sabbath laws specify the preferred manner in which the edible part of the food shall be separated from the inedible portion, and even the manner in which the residue of the meal, such as the peelings and pits of fruit or the bones and skin of fish, can be removed from the table is laid down in the rules. To do so according to the strictures of halakhah requires a learning which not everyone possessed and which could not be expected from the indigent guests who were often invited to the Sabbath table. All of these problems were eliminated by serving the fish in boneless and skinless portions. “Come and let us give credit to Israel, the holy people,” writes a halakhic authority in the name of the Brisker Rav, “for establishing the custom of eating fish on the Sabbath in the form of stuffed fish, thereby eliminating all manner of religious scruples and doubts.”[26] During the past thirty years, commercially prepared gefilte fish has increasingly filled this demand. Conclusion And so the saga of our Jewish national dish, gefilte fish, continues. It started with the story of the pious women of the land of Egypt, and ever since then the Sabbath fish meal has been a symbol of our will to national self-preservation, the perpetuation of the race, of Jewish identity, and of the love we feel towards our heritage.

  Excerpted from Judaism 29:4 (1980) Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.     [1] Sotah, 11b. [2] Aegyptologische Abhandlungen (Wiesbaden, 1970), Vol. 21. [3] Mahshirin 6:3. [4] There was a Shaar Hadagim, a fish-gate, in Jerusalem, where the fishermen brought their wares. (See Zeph. 1:10; Neh. 3:3 and 12:39; 2 Chron. 33:14). [5] Tosefta Shabbat 13, 16. [6] The oldest reference linking fish and the Sabbath is in Neh. 13:16, where we are told that the Tyrians sold fish in Jerusalem on that day until the practice was stopped by Nehemiah.   [7] Tosefta, end of tractate Peah, and Maimonidies, Laws of Charity 7, 8. [8] Shabbat 119a. [9] Ibid. [10] Genesis Rabba, Chapter II also quoted by Tosafot Ketubot 5 a; V. ela me-atah.   [11] These two stories are rendered here largely as translated by Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, Vol. 5, p. 44. [12] Persius, Satire, V. 180-184. [13] Baba Batra, 74b.   [14] Midrash Shohar Tov to Psalm 23. [15] Zohar II, 252. [16] Isaiah ben Abraham haLevi Horowitz, Shnei Luhot haBrit, (Jerusalem, 1963), Part I, pp. 97-98. [17] Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), p. 285.   [18] Shelah loc, cit. [19] M. Nirenberg, ed., Likutei Kol Simhah (New York, 1955). p. 30. [20] Sefer Torat Emet, section Aykeb.   [21] Bnei Yisoskhor, Maamarei Hashabbatot (New York: Chaim Ubracha Pub., 1975) 1:11. 3:16. 8:20. [22] Berakhot 61b. [23] B’nei Yisoskhor, 1:21. [24] Ibid., 3:13.   [25] M. Saphir, Meine Memoiren und Anderes (Leipzig: Phillip Reclam jun.).   [26] Neuwirth, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilkhatah (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1965), 2. 24.  

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