Since the primordial mists of Jewish antiquity, the impression has become solidly entrenched in our minds that a Sabbath meal is not quite complete without a serving of fish.
Back in biblical times, Nehemiah chided his community for purchasing fish from Tyrian merchants on Saturday. Later, when rabbinic texts wanted to illustrate the typical preparations for the approaching Shabbat, their favourite example was that of roasting a small fish. Several talmudic sages explained the prophet Isaiah's exhortation to"call the sabbath a delight" as an allusion to eating fish treats.
Rabbi Joel Sirkes (d. 1640) reported that on late Friday afternoon the beadles of the major Jewish communities would proclaim the approach of the holy day by announcing that people should now proceed to cook their fish. Indeed, in most localities fish was a relatively inexpensive commodity, and from the perspective of Jewish law its preparation is quite straightforward, in that it does not require ritual slaughter, and can be served with either dairy or meat menus.
There are tales in the Talmud and Midrash that laud the virtues of simple Jews who were willing to incur exorbitant expenses in order to procure the choicest fish for the holy day. The ancient satirist Flaccus Persius poked fun at some of his fellow Romans who enjoyed partaking of Jewish fish.
The association between fish and the Sabbath was stressed in diverse ways in Hasidic lore. About the Ba'al Shem Tov himself it was related that his choice to reside in the town of Medzhibozh had been dictated primarily by the availability there of Sabbath fish. Hasidic teaching depicted the Sabbath as a foretaste of the World to Come, and cultivated numerous customs that were based upon that premise. According to a classic rabbinic myth, the righteous will ultimately enjoy a banquet at which one of the entrés will be leviathan, a magnificent fish! Accordingly, they concluded, it is fitting that we should make every effort to include a fish option on our menus in anticipation of that glorious feast. Stories were told about distinguished rabbis who humbled themselves by personally participating in the buying, preparation and cooking of the fish delicacies.
Unfortunately, when a commodity is known to be valued highly by its consumers, this can tempt unscrupulous merchants to gouge the prices, confident that people will have no alternative but to pay almost any exorbitant price that is being charged for their precious wares. Such a case was dealt with in a responsum by the seventeenth-century scholar Rabbi Menahem Mendel Krochmal of Nikolsburg. The gentile fishmongers, realizing that the Jews were prepared to pay premium sums for their Sabbath fish, hiked up the prices. The Jewish community countered with a two-month boycott, leading some individuals to inquire of the rabbi whether that policy might entail an unacceptable desecration of the Sabbath. Rabbi Krochmal had to remind his questioners that eating fish was not actually a formal religious obligation; but that even if it were, there were ample precedents of ancient rabbis instituting sanctions in situations of this sort in order to lower prices and protect the interests of the consumers.
A very different attitude was voiced by Rabbi Moses Ashkenazi of Vilna. He declared that the requirement to eat fish on Shabbat does indeed stem from the Torah, and pious Jews should therefore be ready to pay inflated amounts in order to fulfill that obligation, as they would be expected to do with respect to other hallowed mitzvahs.
In a similar confrontation that arose in the nineteenth century, Rabbi Abraham Teomim of Buczacz was asked to support a general boycott against overpriced fish, in order to safeguard the interests of the local poor. However, he refused to impose an inconvenience on the rich for the sake of the needy, as long as the price increase had not reached critical proportions—and that would not be the case until the inflation jumped one third beyond the normal price. At any rate, Rabbi Teomim argued in his finest Marie Antoinette spirit that if the poor could not afford fish, then they ought to find something else to dine on!
The opposing view had been vociferously argued by distinguished figures like Rabbis Abraham Gumbiner and Shneur Zalman of Liady. The latter pointed out nevertheless that eating fish was not mentioned in any of the standard codes of Jewish law, and was nothing more than a matter of local custom or preference.
Nevertheless, Jewish exegetical creativity took up the challenge of proposing ingenious rationales and sources for the practice of eating fish on Saturday. Some of those rationales were quite straightforward; for example, the Hebrew word for fish,"dag," has the numerological value of seven, quite appropriate for the seventh day. [For those who are impressed by such things, we should point that the other Sabbath table staples also fit neatly into the pattern: wine (yayin)=70, and meat (basar)=700.]
The association of fish with water also evoked some well-trodden symbolic associations. Water is a familiar image for Torah, and hence the relationship between the fish and water is comparable to the one between Israel and the Torah. It reminds us that without our holy scriptures, we would perish like...fish out of water!
Certain kabbalistic interpreters found significance in the fact that fish (lacking eyelids) never close their eyes, and can therefore serve as fitting symbols for unceasing divine providence, which is said to be especially receptive to our needs during the Saturday afternoon meal.
The kabbalistic belief in reincarnation suggested an additional theme: the fish on your plate may embody the soul of a Jew who is seeking redemption for the transgressions committed during a previous life. Therefore, when one eats it in the context of Sabbath holiness, one is mercifully allowing it to move on to the next stage of its rehabilitation.
One interpretation that I find particularly charming was proposed by Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynow, and focuses on God's blessings from at the time of the creation. According to the opening chapter of Genesis, there were three beneficiaries of that divine blessing: the fish (on Thursday), humans (on Friday) and the Sabbath.
Therefore, when the Jews consume their fish on Shabbat, they are symbolically unifying those three elements into a most powerful threefold blessing.
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