Fish Out Of Water – Kashrut (part 1)

Over the millennia, various explanations for the laws of kashrut have been proposed. There have been claims that non-kosher animals are unhealthy. Claims have been made that the purpose of kashrut is simply to teach discipline. Others have proposed that certain animals represent virtues and others, vices.1 In Jewish law, the rules of kashrut are considered chuqim (חקים) meaning they are not given a rational explanation.

Tradition asserts that the Torah was written on four levels of interpretation. The word PaRDaeS (פרדס) is used as an acronym to represent these levels: PaShaT (פשט), simple translation; ReMeZ (רמז), what is hinted at in the Torah text; D’RaSh (דרש), an explored or interpretative understanding; and Sod (סוד), the secrets of the Torah. But does PaRDaeS merely describe a post Biblical means of interpreting the text, or were these levels purposefully and literally woven into the text? Based on my twenty years of daily study of both Torah and Hebrew etymology, I believe that our ancestors utilized their understanding of Hebrew and Semitic etymological to literally weave together at least two of the four levels explored in Torah exegesis. This blog will utilize Hebrew etymology to introduce a chiddush (חידוש – new perspective) regarding which water-based creatures are permissable based on Torah law. Rather than translating each word as it appears sequentially, my approach will be to introduce the most basic concepts first. Then I will broaden the discussion by examining other words and their metaphorical flavors.

The Torah laws delineating which creatures living in the water are allowed to be eaten can be found in Leviticus chapter 11 and Deuteronomy chapter 14. The essence of the two sections is the same, although the wording of each is slightly different with Deuteronomy stating the rules utilizing two verses whereas Leviticus uses four. Here are the verses from the text of Leviticus 11 followed by my pashat translation:

את זה תאכלו מכל אשר במים כל אשר לו סנפיר וקשקשת במים בימים ובנחלים אתם תאכלו וכל אשר אין לו סנפיר וקשקשת בימים ובנחלים מכל שרץ המים ומכל נפש החיה אשר במים שקץ הם לכם ושקץ יהיו לכם מבשרם לא תאכלו ואת נבלתם תשקצו כל אשר אין לו סנפיר וקשקשת במים שקץ הוא לכם

This you my eat from all that is in the water: all that there is to it a fin and scale, within the waters in the seas and in the torrents, you may eat them. And all that there is not to it a fin and a scale in the seas and in the torrents, from each swarming of the waters and from each living soul that is in the waters, they are repulsive to you. And repulsive they shall be for you. From their flesh, you may not eat. And their carcass, you should be repulsed. All that there is not to it a fin and a scale in the waters, repulsive it it to you.

Although Kashrut applies to many different aspects of halakhah, the discussion here is specifically regarding what can be eaten. The Hebrew verb to eat, /aKhaL (אכל), evolved from the root KaLaH (כלה), which fundamentally means to contain, but with semantic extension also means to finish, complete, destroy, and hold back. The related noun K’LeeY (כלי) is essentially a container, but can also mean tool, utensil, weapon, and item of furniture. The verb /aKhaL (אכל), to eat, also essentially means to contain. However, in order to convey the allegorical meaning of the text more clearly, I prefer to use the synonym to embrace. The metaphor regarding kashrut is meant to inform our understanding of what behaviors are allowable when confronted by certain circumstances in our lives.

The text is referring to what can be eaten that is from the water, mayim (מים). This word comes from the word for sea, YaM (ים), which itself evolved from the word HaMaH (המה) meaning to stir up. So these two words, sea and water, derived from HaMaH (המה), mean what is stirred up. The question then becomes: what behaviors are we allowed to embrace when we are in a situation of being stirred up? The answer, of course, is a creature with a fin, S’NaPiR (סנפיר) and scale/s, QaSQeSeTh (קשקשת). Beginning with the simpler of the two, the word for scales QaSQeSeTh (קשקשת) evolved from the word QaShaH (קשה) meaning to be hard, stiff or firm. So one behavior required of us when we are in a stirred up situation is for us to remain firm.

The Hebrew word for fin, S’NaPiR (סנפיר) is one of the few words in Hebrew that is actually a combination of two different roots. The first component, SaNaH (סנה) means sharp as with a thorn bush, S’NeH (סנה). From the idea of sharp, this root also came to mean bright and clear. The verb SaNaN (סנן), an expansion of this root, further elaborated on the idea of being clear, and came to mean to filter, refine, strain and hold back. The word Sinai (סיני), as in Har Sinai (הר סיני – Mount Sinai) is related to these roots. Regarding the mountain, Sinai probably means sharp or pointy mountain in the literal sense. Beyond the literal sense of the word, the Talmud contrasts two types of scholars. One scholar, referred to as Sinai, is restrained, refined, and meticulously clarifies information. The other scholar is called an \oqaer harim (עוקר הרים), one who pulls up mountains, signifying one who rapidly discharges logical arguments. Likewise, the first part of S’NaPiR (סנפיר) metaphorically refers to a behavior of remaining sharp, restrained, refined, and meticulously clarifying experience.

The second component of S’NaPiR (סנפיר), comes from one of the closely related roots PowR (פור), PaRaH (פרה), and PaRaR (פרר) which essentially mean to separate and disengage from, fall apart, crumble, and throw about. From these were derived the words PaR (פר) bull or one disengaged from the herd, P’ReeY (פרי) fruit or what disengages from the tree, PaRa/ (פרא) wild ass, and PaRPaR (פרפר) meaning to crumble, convulse, writhe, throw or to flit about, and a butterfly. So the word for fin, S’NaPiR (סנפיר) literally means that which is sharp that disengages (from the body of the fish). So far, the allegory tells us that when a person is in a stirring situation, it is necessary to remain sharp, restrained, and refined and to meticulously clarify the situation, appropriately disengaging when necessary, and also that it is necessary to remain firm.

In Leviticus 11:9 a few additional words are used to clarify the halakha, each adding a level of complexity to the allegorical meaning of the text. Two words elaborate on what types of waters are being referred to, stating המים בימים ובנחלים the waters in the seas and in the torrents. The text does not mention ponds, not because the laws do not apply to pond creatures, but rather because the word for pond, B’RaeKhah (בריכה), which literally means clearing, does not serve the allegory. Furthermore, the word for river NaHaR (נהר) which merely means rapid (related to MaHaeR מהר rapidly) is also eschewed. In contrast, analogous to the first two words (waters / seas) that mean stirred up, the Hebrew word for torrent, NaChaL (נחל), evolved from the word ChaLaL (חלל) meaning to throw about. This root is related to words meaning to swirl around (Jr23:19), to tremble (Jb26:5), anguish (Is21:3)(Ezk30:4)(Nch2:11), and to torment oneself (Es4:4). Therefore, the metaphorical meaning of the word NaChaL (נחל), torrent also implies a situation of being thrown about, of potential torment, and of potential anguish. These words serve to amplify the idea of being in a stirred up situation.

More textual details are given, each word conveying the same allegorical message. The text goes on to say:

וכל אשר אין לו סנפיר וקשקשת בימים ובנחלים מכל שרץ המים ומכל נפש החיה אשר במים שקץ הם לכם

And all that there is not to it a fin and a scale in the seas and in the torrents, from each swarming of the waters and from each living soul that is in the waters, they are repulsive to you.

The word SheReTs (שרץ) usually translated as swarm evolved from the word RoowTs (רוץ) meaning to run. It could just as appropriately be translated as what runs unchecked or rampant. Metaphorically, the phrase from what swarms of the waters (שרץ המים) becomes a person’s running unchecked as a result of what is stirred up in experience. For a culture deeply immersed in law and discipline, such a behavior would be contradictory at best.

The word NePheSh (נפש), often translated as one’s soul or spirit, more specifically means the spirit intrinsic to an animated body. In Qabbalah, the nephesh, as opposed to the ruach or n’shamah, is associated with the lowest of the four worlds. It is the animated soul-spirit of the yetser ha-ra\. Although usually translated as the evil inclination, I prefer to translate it as the fragile inclination. The word Ra\ has a range of meanings fragile > weak > bad > evil from the verb Ra\a\ (רעע) whose meaning underwent semantic change from to (vibrate >) shatter and impair (Jr15:12), to to feel bad, grieved and bothered (Dt15:10)(SmI1:8)(Nh2:3), and ending with to treat badly, hurt, and do harm (Dt26:6)(Is65:25)(Jr10:5)(Tz1:12)(Pr4:16). According to the Rabbis, the yetser ha-ra\ is necessary for survival and only manifests as a truly evil force when it is poorly controlled and channeled. Technically chayah (חיה) means lively, but also implies wild. So nephesh ha-chayah (נפש החיה) can imply one of lively or wild animalistic spirit. Combining these two phrases, a metaphorical understanding of this section of the text implies that when a person is in a stirred up situation, and the person is lacking the ability to be refined in clarifying the situation, to disengage and remain firm; then there may be the tendency instead for the person to run about rampant and unchecked allowing their wild, animal-like natures to prevail.

No words in the Torah are superfluous. The text begins with eth zeh (את זה), indicating that what we are allowed to eat is called: this. Furthermore, by using the marker of the direct object, the text indicates that Zeh / this is a very definitive thing. The word Zeh (זה) meaning this comes from the verb ZaHaH (זהה) which according to Jastro, means to be proud, wanton and haughty, but literally it means to visually stick out. When we say “this thing,” we are basically saying “the thing before us that is visually apparent.” The root is related to ZaHa/ (זהא) which in Arabic means to be radiant, shine brightly, be haughty, conceited, over bearing, prideful and boasting and in Syriac means shining, glorious, splendid, and resplendent. In this context, assuming that Zeh (this) refers to a positive attribute that we are supposed to embrace, we can understand it to mean bold and self assured. To be clear, the text is not saying that we should avoid stirred up and turbulent situations. It is saying, first and foremost, that when we are in such situations, we should embrace being bold and self-assured.

The text adds the detail from their flesh, you shall not eat (מבשרם לא תאכלו). The word for flesh, BaSaR (בשר) does have an associated Hebrew verb, but at first glance its meaning of to deliver (good) news is more confounding than helpful. However, the Arabic cognate, which means to peel, scrape, shave off, grate, shred, come in contact, to engage in sexual intercourse, and apply oneself; can inform a better understanding of the root. Based on this (and much more that is too complicated to get into now), I suggest that the essential meaning of this root means to drive in (with confidence) and that the word BaSaR, meaning flesh or meat, essentially means what is driven into (so as to remove it from the bone). Consider the following lines from Ecclesiastes (2:2-3) in which the benefits of overcoming one’s inhibitions through drinking alcohol (to excess) are considered:

לשחוק אמרתי מהולל ולשמחה מה זה עשה תרתי בלבי למשוך ביין את בשרי ולבי נהג בחכמה ולאחז בסכלות עד אשר אראה אי זה טוב לבני האדם אשר יעשו תחת השמים מספר ימי חייהם

Regarding laughter, I said, “foolish!” And regarding exuberant elation, “What does this do (achieve)?” I sought in my heart to draw out, through wine, my confidence – even though my heart was guiding with wisdom – and to apprehend senseless folly, until that I could see how is this good for the children of humanity that they do under heaven, numbering (limiting) the days of their lives.

Furthermore, there are other uses of the word BaSaR where confidence is a better translation than flesh, notably Kings II 5:10,14; Jeremiah 17:5; Ezekiel 16:26; and even as a reflexive verb in Samuel II 18:31. Of course, the pashat as it applies to kashrut refers to the meat of the fish, but here we are exploring the allegorical meaning of the text. Replacing flesh with driving in, the allegory says from their way of driving into experience (behaviors of running about rampant and unchecked, of allowing one’s wild, animal-like natures to prevail), you shall not embrace.

A similar sentiment is expressed thereafter: and their carcasses, you shall be repulsed by ואת נבלתם תשקצו. This word for carcass also means behaving disgracefully and senselessly. So by making a simple replacement, the sentence becomes and their ways of behaving disgracefully and senselessly (behaviors of running about rampant and unchecked, of allowing one’s wild, animal-like natures to prevail), you shall be repulsed by.

Finally, toward the end of the section these disallowed creatures are referred to using the pronoun they, which in Hebrew is the word HaeM (הם). Like the words HaMon (המון), riotous crowd, HoMiyah (הומיה) tumultuous, HaMaH (המה) rumblings / tumult, and yaM (ים) sea – the Hebrew word for they comes from the verb HaMaH (המה), to stir up, and literally means those stirred up.

Here is the section from Leviticus translated allegorically:

את זה תאכלו מכל אשר במים כל אשר לו סנפיר וקשקשת במים בימים ובנחלים אתם תאכלו וכל אשר אין לו סנפיר וקשקשת בימים ובנחלים מכל שרץ המים ומכל נפש החיה אשר במים שקץ הם לכם ושקץ יהיו לכם מבשרם לא תאכלו ואת נבלתם תשקצו כל אשר אין לו סנפיר וקשקשת במים שקץ הוא לכם

Of persistent, bold, self assurance, you may embrace from all that is within stirred up situations. Each that there is to it a behavior of remaining sharp, restrained, and refined – and meticulously clarifying the experience, disengaging (when necessary), and remaining firm; within stirred up situations, within the situations of being stirred up and within the torrents of experience, you may embrace them.

But all that there is not to it a behavior of remaining sharp, restrained, and refined –meticulously clarifying the experience, disengaging (when necessary), and remaining firm; within the situations of being stirred up and within the torrents of experience, from each way of running unchecked as a result of stirred up situations and from each of an animallike spirit of wildness that is within stirred up situations, repulsive are the ways of being stirred up for you. And repulsive shall they be for you.

From their ways of driving into experience, you may not embrace. And the persistence of their ways of behaving disgracefully and senselessly, you shall be repulsed by. Each that there is not to it a behavior of remaining sharp, restrained and refinedmeticulously clarifying the experience, disengaging (when necessary), and remaining firm, it is repulsive to you.

I would be delighted to field any questions and more than willing to hear any criticism of this chiddush Torah. Please leave comments below this blog on the Times of Israel page so that everyone can participate. I encourage and look forward to a lively and bold discussion. But please, when in the torrents of clarifying debate, remain refined and show appropriate restraint.

1 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashrut#Explanations

Ernest Klein (1987) A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company

Hans Wehr. Ed by J Milton Cowan (1979) Hans Wehr A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Published in the United States by Spoken Languages Services, Inc with permission of Otto Harrassowitz

Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)

Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press

J. Payne Smith’s (1999) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Published by Wipf and Stock

About the Author
David Kolinsky is a retired physician born and raised in Monsey, New York. While living in Monterey California, David initially lived as a secular, agnostic Jew. However, in his spare time, he delved into twenty years of daily study of Hebrew etymology and Torah study culminating in the writing of an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a metaphorical translation of Torah. Abandoning his agnostic views, David was simultaneously a spiritual leader of the world's smallest conservative synagogue, a teacher in his local reform synagogue, and a gabbai at Chabad. He is currently sheltering in place with his family in his new home in Plano, Texas.
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