Why Eat Fish on Shabbat? By Yehuda Shurpin

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Eleven Answers to One Question

The prophet Isaiah (58:13) tells us, “And you will proclaim the Sabbath a ‘delight,’ and the holy [day] of G‑d, ‘honored.’ ”

Noting that this verse requires us to both delight in Shabbat and honor it, our rabbis explain that one honors Shabbat by wearing special, clean clothes, and delights in Shabbat through enjoying fine food and drink.1

In Talmudic2 times, fish was considered a “delight” and was often savored on Shabbat. In fact, the Talmud relates the story of how Yosef Moker Shabbat, “Yosef Who Cherishes Shabbat,” would always buy fish in honor of Shabbat. He thus merited to discover a precious gem in the belly of a fish, which resulted in him becoming very wealthy.

So on a basic level, it seems as though fish is really just a preference, and if one prefers another food over fish, there is no reason to specifically seek it out and serve it on Shabbat.

However, the mystics explain that one should try to have fish at the Shabbat meals.3 In the words of the Shulchan Aruch Harav (quoting the kabbalists):4

It is desirable to be meticulous and partake of fish during every meal unless [a person’s physical constitution is such that eating] fish is harmful to him or he dislikes it, i.e., it brings him discomfort, not pleasure—for Shabbat was given for the sake of pleasure.

Jews throughout the generations have been meticulous to eat fish on Shabbat. In fact, halachah discusses the not uncommon scenario where non-Jewish fishermen would specifically raise the price of fish before Shabbat due to the demand.

There are many reasons given for the custom to eat fish on Shabbat. Here are 11 of them.

1. Triple Blessing

Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, known as the B’nei Yissaschar, explains that during the six days of creation, G‑d blessed three things as they were created:

  1. On Thursday, He blessed the fish: “G‑d blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters of the seas . . .’”5
  2. On Friday, He blessed mankind: “G‑d blessed them (Adam and Eve). G‑d said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth!’”6
  3. On Shabbat, “G‑d blessed the seventh day and He declared it holy . . .”7

“A three-stranded cord will not quickly be broken,”8 says Scripture. Thus, we combine all three: man eats fish on Shabbat, and is thus blessed with the threefold Priestly Blessing:9

  1. May the L‑rd bless you and watch over you.
  2. May the L‑rd shine His countenance upon you and grant you grace.
  3. May the L‑rd raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.10

2. The Number Seven

On Shabbat, the seventh and final day of the week, we eat foods that are associated with the number seven. The Hebrew word for fish is דג (dag), which has the numerical value of seven.11

3. Souls of the Righteous

The mystics explain that if the souls of the righteous must return to earth, they are often reincarnated as fish, which are one with their surroundings. Unlike other animals, fish don’t need to be slaughtered, and thus they cannot become unkosher due to the preparations or any damages to their innards.

On the holy day of Shabbat, we have the extra merit and energy to elevate these souls through using them for the mitzvah of delighting in Shabbat.12

4. Easy Elevation

Unlike meat and fowl, which require a special process in order for the food to be kosher and ready for us to elevate, fish are ready to be elevated without much preparation. Eating fish on Shabbat symbolizes that on this holy day there is no need for extra work to elevate the mundane.13

(This is also one of the reasons why, in a meal in which both fish and meat are served, the custom is to have the fish course first. We first approach and tackle the food that is spiritually easier to elevate, and having mastered that, we move on to the more difficult foods.14 )

5. Thirsting for Every Drop of Torah

Just as a fish lives in the water, which is crucial for its survival, so must we remain immersed in Torah, which is compared to water, as we read, “Everyone that thirsts, go to the water.”15 This is vividly explained in the Talmud’s parable of the fox and the fishes.16

But though fish are constantly in water, it is said that 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, too, the Jewish people, who are immersed in Torah at all times, make an effort to learn new interpretations of the Torah on Shabbat. Additionally, it is written in the Zohar that Shabbat is dedicated to Torah and matters of the soul—for it was on Shabbat that the Torah was given to Israel on Sinai.17

6. No Eyelids

Fish don’t have any eyelids. As a result, their eyes are always opened. We eat fish on Shabbat, alluding to the notion that G‑d’s “eyes” are always opened, watching over us with love and compassion.18

7. First Course

Fish were the first created living beings, and Shabbat is the root of all life for the upcoming week. Therefore, the custom is to begin the Shabbat meal with fish.19

(It should be noted that there are additional, halachic reasons why fish would come before other courses in a meal.20 )

8. More Refined

During the Great Flood in the days of Noach, the land animals were also punished, since they had become corrupted and were mating with animals that were not of their kind.21 The fish, however, were able to survive in the water, since they had not become corrupted. On Shabbat, when we celebrate the most spiritually elevated day of the week, it is only fitting that we do so with the most spiritually elevated of the creations.22

9. Fishing for a Mitzvah

In general, kosher animals havemitzvahs performed on them prior to being eaten (e.g., kosher slaughter and salting away the blood). Fish, however, are the exception. They have no special mitzvahs or rituals required to be performed prior to consumption. Therefore, to make up for this lack, we eat fish onShabbat—thus associating fish with the great mitzvah of Shabbat.23

10. The Missing Dish

The Midrash tells us that the manna 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 and complaints in the desert. Therefore, we now have the custom to eat fish, demonstrating that we are thankful to G‑d and our delight in the Shabbat is “complete.” What was once a symbol of our grievances to G‑d has become a symbol of gratitude.24

11. The Leviathan in the Messianic Era

The holy day of Shabbat is a glimmer of Olam Habah, the World to Come, which is referred to as “a day that is completely Shabbat.” Since one of the foods that will be served at the great feast when Moshiach comes is the Leviathan, we have the custom to eat fish on Shabbat.25

With this custom, we also show our yearning for the coming of Moshiach, may it be speedily in our days!