Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Fish Words


When the Jews complained about the manna they received in the wilderness, they nostalgically spoke about what they ate in Egypt, saying, “We remember the fish (dagah) that we ate in Egypt for free.” (Num. 11:5). Dagah is clearly related to the common Hebrew word dag (“fish”), but in what way do the terms dag and dagah differ from each other? Our study on different words for “fish” in the Hebrew language begins with probing this question, and then continues by exploring other Hebrew and Aramaic words for “fish” and the differences between them.

Most of the sources that deal with the difference between dag and dagah focus on the word-change regarding the aquatic creature that swallowed up the prophet Jonah. Initially, that fish is identified as a dag (Jonah 2:1), but afterwards the prophet uses the word dagah (Jonah 2:2).

The Talmud (Nedarim 51b) explains that dag denotes a “big fish,” while dagah can denote either a “big fish” or “small fish.” Accordingly, the Talmud explains that Jonah was first swallowed up by a big fish (dag), which then spit him out, whereupon Jonah was subsequently swallowed by a second, smaller fish (dagah). According to this, when the Bible reports that the fish in the Nile died during the Plague of Blood, it uses the word dagah (Ex. 7:18) because both the big and small fish alike died. But in the context of Jonah, the Bible switches from dag to dagah to denote the change in size from the first fish to the second one. Accordingly, when the Jews reminisced about eating dagah in Egypt, this could mean either “big” or “small” fish.

Alternatively, other sources (like Rashi to Jonah 2:1 and Yalkut Shimoni 550) explain that the first fish (dag) that swallowed Jonah was a male. The male fish’s belly was quite spacious, such that Jonah was not overly alarmed by his situation. However, subsequently, G-d had the male fish spit Jonah out, so that a second, female fish (dagah) would swallow him. This second fish was “pregnant” and its abdominal cavity was not as spacious, which caused Jonah to realize the straits he was in and pray to G-d. According to this explanation, dag means “male fish,” while dagah means “female fish.” By this rubric, it is hard to understand why the Jews in Egypt would have specifically eaten female fish and why the Plague of Blood would have killed only female fish. (Perhaps this lends credence to the Talmudic view in Yoma 75a that “eating dagah” does not actually refer to eating fish, but to illicit sexual activity, in which the Jews were free to engage while they lived in Egypt.)

The Zohar (Beshalach 47b-48a) also takes note of this word-switch and explains that at first Jonah was swallowed up by a live fish. Only later, G-d decided that Jonah was too comfortable inside the fish. Therefore, He caused the fish to die, which put Jonah in a more uncomfortable situation and spurred him to begin praying to G-d. As the Zohar explains, the earlier word dag denotes a “live fish,” while the word dagah used subsequently means a “dead fish.” The Zohar further adduces this understanding from Ex. 7:18, which uses the word dagah for the “dead fish” in the Plague of Blood. The Zohar’s explanation is echoed by Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Num. 11:5 and Kad HaKemach, cf. his comments to Num. 22:33) and Rabbi Avraham bar Chiya HaNasi (in Higgayon HaNefesh). Based on this it seems that when the Jews in the wilderness recalled eating fish in Egypt, they used the word dagah because they ate dead fish (because eating a living fish is forbidden; see Rema to Yoreh Deah 13:1).

Ibn Ezra (to Ex. 7:18) explains that dagah refers to the entire species of “fish” as opposed to individual fish (see also Rashi to Yirmiyahu 6:6 and Malbim to Jonah 2:2). This does not help us explain the word-switch said about Jonah, but it does explain why the word dagah was used to denote the fish the Jews ate in Egypt and the fish that died in the Plague of Blood — it implies that they ate all sorts of different fish there.

Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe (1820-1892) takes the opposite approach, writing that dagah refers to a specific type of fish that was native to Egypt. He explains that this is why dagah is prefaced both in Numbers and Exodus with the letter hey as the definite article (“the”). He, too, does not account for why the story of Jonah switches from dag to dagah.

Interestingly, besides dag and dagah, there is a third variant in the primary Hebrew word for “fish.” When Nehemiah reports that Tyrian merchants would bring fish to sell to Jews in Jerusalem on the Sabbath (Nech. 13:16), the word dag in that passage is spelled DALET-ALEPH-GIMMEL (but still read dag). Ibn Ezra (there and in Sefer Tzachut) explains that the root of dag is triliteral, being either DALET-YOD-GIMMEL or DALET-VAV-GIMMEL, but in this case the middle letter of the root is replaced with an ALEPH. On the other hand, the commentary known as the Rasag (there) interprets the presence of an extra ALEPH exegetically, explaining that it alludes to them bringing extra “worries” (da’agah) to the world by engaging in commerce on the Sabbath.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces all these ‘fishy’ words to the biliteral root DALET-GIMMEL, which refers to fecundity and quantitative increase. According to him, dag (with or without an ALEPH) means “fish” — a species of creature known for their highly-productive fecundity, while dayag (Isa. 19:8) and davag (Yir. 16:16) refer to “fisherman” who try to catch such creatures (according to Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, and Radak the VAV is part of this word’s root). There is also a special type of boat used by fisherman known as a dugah (Amos 4:2), which also derives from this root.

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Jacob used a verb form of the word dag — v’yidgu (“and you shall become fish-like”), i.e. you will be fruitful and multiple like fish — when blessing Joseph’s sons (Gen. 48:16). As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) points out, this is the only instance of the verb form of dag in the entire Pentateuch! Everywhere else, cognates of dag onlyoccur as nouns that refer to “fish.”

Among the earlier grammarians, only Menachem sees this verb as deriving from the same root as dag, while Ibn Janach and Radak understand its root to be the triliteral DALET-GIMMEL-HEY, although Radak seems more open to the idea of it being related to dag.

Indeed, the root DALET-GIMMEL-HEY appears in Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Balaam’s list of verbs that are derived from nouns. However, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) understands that just the opposite is true: the primary meaning of the root DALET-GIMMEL-HEY is fecundity and quantitative increase, while the word dag in the sense of “fish” is actually borrowed from that usage. Rabbi Marcus uses this assertion to explain away why the Pentateuch never uses the word dag/dagim (e.g., in the Creation narrative of Genesis or when detailing kosher and non-kosher fish in Leviticus), and if anything, it only uses dagah/digat or v’yidgu. (I must point out, though, that the word digei does appear once in the Pentateuch, in Gen. 9:2, and that word seems to be the construct form of dag.)

Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim also connects two more words to this root that the other commentators do not necessarily see as related: da’agah and dagan (“grain”). As Rabbi Pappenehim explains it, da’agah refers to a minimally-justified sense of apprehension that leads to a person “worrying” about something. The worrier simply sees some signs of a possible danger and this already leads to his apprehensiveness. Rabbi Pappenheim connects this to the words dayag/davag, because the fisherman also decides to go fishing at a specific place simply because he has some vague signs that point to that location’s usefulness in fishing, but he has no solid proof or reason to think that there will really be any fish there. The three major Hebrew lexicographers (like Menachem, Ibn Janach, and Radak) all see da’agah as deriving from its own triliteral root DALET-ALEPH-GIMMEL.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that dagan relates back to dag because grains are an especially fertile and fecunditious plant, as one seed can beget grains with many more seeds, just like one fish can father many more little fish. The three important lexicographers mentioned above all see dagan as deriving from its own triliteral root DALET-GIMMEL-NUN.

The word dugmah (“example”) appears twice in the Mishna (Shabbat 10:1 and Eduyot 5:6), and numerous times in the Talmud. This word refers to a “specimen” or “pattern,” and is said to be a loanword sourced in the Greek deigma. However, given Rabbi Pappenheim’s understanding of the biliteral DALET-GIMMEL, we may conjecture that this word is derived from that root as well (with the MEM extraneous to the root itself), in the sense of an example being a mere sampling of a quantitatively larger pool.

As an aside, Menachem does agree that the name of the Philistine god ‘dagon’ derives from the same root as dag, because the idol that represented that deity was fish-shaped. I wrote about this at length in the encyclopedic section of my book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018) in my entry on that deity.

Earlier in this essay we spoke about big fish versus small fish. Interestingly, if you look in the Talmud you will find multiple Aramaic words that Rashi defines as “small fish”:

Rashi (to Succah 18a) writes that avruma (or avdumah according to the Sefer HaAruch) means “small fish.”

Rashi (to Sanhedrin 49a, Avodah Zarah 29a, and Ketuvot 60b) also writes that munini means “small fish.” In some places, the Talmud specifically mentions munini brine (see Rashi to Shabbat 105b and Gittin 69b), and the term munini itself eventually became synonymous with brine (see Shabbat 110b which refers to grasshopper brine as “munini of grasshoppers”). Rabbi David Golomb (1861-1935) parses this word as comprising the diminutive MEM and the Aramaic nun (“fish”). Rabbi Moshe Batzri, on the other hand, reads this word as a portmanteau of the phrase mei nuna (“water of fish”).

The word gildna refers to a specific type of fish (Rashi to Sanhedrin 100b, Rabbeinu Gershom and Rashbam to Bava Batra 73b), and elsewhere, Rashi (to Horayots 12a, Brachot 44b, and Ketuvot 105b) clarifies that gildna are some sort of small fish. Ichthyologists (mentioned by Dr. Moshe Raanan) identify this fish with the Flathead Grey Mullet (Mugil cephalus) or with Gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata).

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Rashi (to Megillah 6a, Brachot 44a) explains that tarit refers to the fish we all know as “tuna.” Elsewhere, Rashi (to Shabbat 39a and Chullin 66a) also identifies the fish referred to as sultanit and Spanish kulyis as “tuna.” According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Nedarim 6:3), in Babylon people called a tarit tzachanta (which Rashi to Succah 18a and Sanhedrin 49a defines as a “small fish”). Modern scholars (cited by Dr. Moshe Raanan) identify this fish with either sardines or anchovies.

When Moses sent spies to scout out the Holy Land ahead of the Jews’ conquest, only two spies remained loyal to the cause: Caleb and Joshua. Throughout the Bible, Joshua is always described as Yehoshua/Hoshea bin Nun (“Joshua son of Nun”) because his father’s name was Nun (I Chron. 7:27). Now, the word nun actually means “fish,” which leads a certain apocryphal Midrash made famous by Rabbi Avraham Vilner (1765-1808) to claim that Joshua was put into the river as a little child and swallowed up by a fish. According to this fanciful tale, the fish was caught and brought to the Pharaoh, whereupon they cut it open and discovered the child inside. That child — Joshua — ended up being raised in Pharaoh’s house and rose to the position of Chief Executioner. Although Rabbi Yitzchak Yishaya Weiss of Neve Achiezer in Bnei Brak already debunked the provenance of this Midrash, other traditions claim that Joshua was called “bin Nun” because he was destined to swallow up the thirty-one Canaanite Kings like a “fish” (Midrash HaBiur to Haftarat Shlach), or because G-d was ready to hear Joshua’s supplications (tachaNUNim) once he would enter the Holy Land (Megaleh Amukot 27). Either way, the fact remains that the word nun means “fish.” In this essay we will continue discussing different Hebrew words for “fish” — starting with nun.

The Hebrew word nun in the sense of “fish” never appears in the Bible. As you may have realized, the common word for fish in Biblical Hebrew is dag/dagah. Why does the word nun not appear in the Bible?

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) theorizes that the word nun has been excised from Biblical Hebrew because Canaanites and other nations deified the “fish” or “sea-creature” that this word denotes, turning Nun into the name of a god. In order to downplay this development, Biblical Hebrew purposely left out the word nun from all books of the Bible, which is why dag became the standard word for “fish.”

Nonetheless, the word nun remains the standard word for “fish” in Hebrew’s Semitic sister languages like Aramaic and Ugaritic. In fact, nun/nuna/nuni are the standard words used by the Targumim in translating the Hebrew dag, and they appear numerous times in the Talmud. For example, the Talmud (Kiddushin 25a) relates that the people of a certain town mocked Rav Hamnuna, whose name sounds like cham nuna (“hot fish”), by calling him kar nuna (“cold fish”). Plus, the letter NUN in the ancient paleo-Hebrew script (Ktav Ivri) looks like a fish.

When the Torah describes G-d creating sea-monsters known as a taninim (Gen. 1:21), Rabbi Marcus argues that at the core of taninim is the word nun, as the letter TAV is not part of the root. In offering this explanation, Rabbi Marcus explicitly rejects scholarly speculation that the word taninim is a Sanskrit loanword.

Interestingly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 1:21) also suggests that the word tannin is derived from the word nun, but adds that nun itself is derived from the Hebrew word nin (“offspring,” or in Modern Hebrew “great-grandchild”). He compares this to the word dag, which primarily denotes fecundity (as we saw last week), but also carries the additional meaning of “fish.”

Rabbi Ron Yosef Chaim Masoud Abuchatzeira takes the exact opposite approach from Rabbi Hirsch’s. Whereas Rabbi Hirsch suggested that the word nun comes from nin, Rabbi Abuchatzeira submits that nin actually comes from nun. The Talmud (Brachot 20a) relates that fish are fruitful and multiple in large quantities because they are not susceptible to the Evil Eye. Accordingly, explains Rabbi Abuchatzeira, the common word “offspring” (nun) is derived from the word “fish” (nun) in an effort to deflect the Evil Eye from upon one’s descendants.

Rabbi Abuchatzeira fascinatingly compares this to a well-known custom among Tunisian Jews (especially those from Djerba) who give their children names related to “fish” in order to help immunize them from the Evil Eye. Examples include masculine names like Hayuta/Hauita (“fish” in some North African dialects of Arabic, although in Aramaic it means “snake”), Manani (“merou” or “grouper” fish, possibly also related to nun), Bugid (“striped red mullet”), Hadir (“torpedo fish”), Karutz (“bass”), Uzifa, Wurgana, and feminine names like Shelbia (“Salema porgy”), Svirsa, Murgana, Manana (feminized form of Manani), and Baharia (“mermaid”).

Another possible derivative of nun is the place-name Ninveh. Rabbi Avraham (b. Hillel) Rivlin explains that the word Ninveh is a portmanteau of nun (“fish”) and naveh (“home”), and indeed the cuneiform symbol for that city is a fish inside a house. When Jonah refused to go to the city of Ninveh, G-d punished him by making him experience the meaning of that city’s name in that he was swallowed by a fish, such that a fish became his home. Rabbi Nissim Paniri adds that the name Jonah (Yonah) is spelled with the same letters as Ninveh, except that Jonah’s name is missing a second NUN. In order to give Jonah that extra NUN so that he would identify with Ninveh and agree to be G-d’s emissary to that place, G-d placed him inside a fish (nun).

Rabbi Aryeh Moshe Teicholtz suggests that the name Ninveh relates to the Aramaic word nun and recalls the fish-god that they worshipped there. In order to stress the urgency of Jonah’s mission to Ninveh, G-d had the prophet swallowed up by a fish (nun) so that Jonah would remember about their idolatrous fish-cult and agree to help them repent.

There are several other words for “fish” in the Talmud that we have not yet discussed:

1. Besides the word nun, another common word for fish in Judeo-Aramaic is kavra. It remains unclear whether the term kavra refers to all fish in general or to a specific type of fish (see Tosafot to Moed Katan 11a). Dr. Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) notes that the Mishnaic word kaveret means “beehive” or “basket” (Sheviit 10:7, Bava Batra 5:3, Keilim 8:1, 15:1, 22:10, Ohalot 5:6, 8:1, 8:3, 9:1), leading him to explain that kavra in the sense of “fish” refers specifically to “live fish” that are kept in a cauf (i.e., basket). According to this, it would seem that kavra can refer to any type of fish housed in such a portable fish tank. On the other hand, the Talmud (Chullin 109b) relates that kavra is a type of fish that tastes like the girutha bird (which Jastrow identifies as the “moor hen”), which suggests that kavra refers to a specific species of fish, not to all fish in general.

2. The Mishna (Bechorot 8:1, Karitot 1:3, Niddah 3:4) discusses the Halachic status of a miscarriage that results in a fetus in the shape of a sandal. The Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 25b) explains that the shape of a sandal resembles the shape of a fish in the sea. Rashi (there and to Ketuvot 39a) and his son-in-law Rivan (to Yevamot 12b) further note that this refers to a specific fish named sandal (such is also implied by the Jerusalem Talmud, Niddah 3:4). Meiri (to Yevamot 12b) adds that this sandal resembles a free-floating piece of meat that does not have clear limbs (perhaps a jellyfish?).

3. The Talmud (Chullin 109b) relates that the brain of a shibuta fish tastes like pork and is a kosher substitute for that porcine foodstuff. Moreover, the Talmud (Kiddushin 41a) relates that Rava would personally engage in preparations for the Sabbath by salting the shibuta fish for consumption. Jastrow identifies shibuta as probably referring to the “mullet”(or, Mugil cephalus) fish, while others identify the shibuta as the sturgeon or porpoise fish. The most definitive approach is that of Drs. Zohar Amar and Ari Zivotofsky, who identify shibuta as the fish known as shirbot/shabout (or Arabibarbus grypus) in English. Indeed, this type of fish fits the Jerusalem Talmud’s description that the shibuta can be found in Babylonia, but not in the Holy Land (Taanit 4:5). (See also Minchat Chinuch 550:2, who suggests that the term shibuta can refer to both kosher and non-kosher types of fish.)

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Remarkably, an ancient tradition claims that there is a certain type of fish that does not swim on the Sabbath (Radak to Gen. 2:3, Yalkut Reuven to Gen. 2:2, Shevet Mussat ch. 11). Based on this, some sources connect the word shibuta (spelled with a TET) with Shabbat (spelled with a TAV), thus identifying the shibuta fish as that fish which refuses to swim on the Sabbath (see Megadim Chadashim to Shabbat 119a).mi

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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