Jonathan Bailey
Retired US Army Officer and Author

Is It Really Just Fins and Scales?

A couple of days ago I was reading an article on the Chabad website about why shellfish aren’t kosher. The article initially stated that shellfish aren’t kosher because they don’t have fins and scales, saying that fins and scales are properties of actual fish. It then gets into some academic issues concerning some instances of fish that don’t necessarily have both fins and scales, but ultimately it concludes with the basic principle that it opened with, that the deeper, darker, profound and mystical reason that Torah observant Jews don’t each shellfish is because they don’t have fins and scales. Now that we know this, we are all sages of the divine, ready to becomes the harbingers of God’s oracles to the world, apparently.

If you can’t tell by the cheeky tone of the above paragraph, I was a little disappointed in the article. See, I already knew that Jews don’t eat shellfish because they have fins and scales. I have read the Torah. The Torah doesn’t specifically forbid shellfish, even. It forbids anything that doesn’t have fins and scales, including whales, sharks, squid and octopi, jellyfish, etc. Basically, as the article says, anything but fish is, literally, off the table. The article doesn’t actually reference the scripture except in a footnote, forcing the reader to look it up. So I will do the courtesy of printing it here.

These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. 10 But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. (Leviticus 11:9-10)

There we go. Much shorter than the article on shellfish. And really, just as informative. This is what I am going to complain about today. I was talking with someone recently about the book The Endless ways of the Torah by Abraham the son of Maimonides, where the point was made that one person might obey Torah commandments without contemplation, while another might not only obey the commandments, but contemplate them, and still a third would obey and contemplate the meaning of the commandments and intimately incorporate this deeper meaning into their spiritual life. The article I read about the shellfish doesn’t help the second or third Jew, because it really doesn’t provide any contemplative meaning about the commandment from the Torah to eat only sea creatures with fins and scales.

So first, I would like to provide some. When reading the commandment, I asked myself, why would God command such a thing? There are a few ideas I came up with. A common thing that people mention in connection with eating only fish is that shellfish are generally bottom feeders, and bottom feeders are not healthy. They see the dietary laws as a matter of biological health. However, whales, seals, sharks and jellyfish, are not bottom feeders, yet are forbidden. One thing I have noticed is that as a general rule, fish, in common with the land animals permitted by the kosher laws and the birds permitted by the kosher laws, are not predatory. They tend to eat vegetable matter, microbial life, and very small, simple forms of life. They generally don’t attack humans. This holds true for just about everything that the Torah permits as food.

But finally, though, I got the idea about a characteristic of fish that makes them rather unique that doesn’t have to do with their fins and scales, but rather their gills. Fish have to move forward to breathe. Now I know there are a number of fish that can stay sedentary for quite some time. They tend to have low oxygen requirements, and they either have to position themselves in a slow current, or they do truly stay still for some amount of time, but then eventually have to move forward just a bit every now and then in order to get the oxygen to flow. Now I do know there are some fish that actually can stay perpetually still. In fact one of them was something of a fad about 20 years ago. I can’t remember the name, but the fish had unusually large fins, and could develop just a minimal current to keep the gills oxygenated and stay still basically indefinitely, so they sold like hotcakes in these tiny aquariums the size of a wine glass that wasn’t much bigger than the fish itself. But this is for one a rare exception, and for two, even this fish had to have a system of moving water over the gills, simulating a type of forward motion even if the fish itself wasn’t actually moving forward. At any rate, your average fish isn’t going to be predatorial, at least to humans, and it is going to need to move forward to breathe.

Now when we eat an animal, we take a life out of the world and use that life to sustain our own. So the idea that we should eat fish indicates that we should adopt a peaceful manner and that we should always move forward to keep ourselves alive. We should not stay in the same place forever, neither socially nor ethically nor intellectually. If anyone is going to take heed of my analysis of why the Torah says to eat fish, anyway.

Now the commandments about which land and air animals to eat can also be analyzed, but they are outside the scope, and my specific offering of the deeper meaning of why a keeper of Torah only eats fish of the sea actually isn’t the centerpiece of what I am getting at here. My idea that eating fish represents a commitment to benevolently moving forward at all times did not come to me in a dream from God, nor any prophetic authority. It’s just the result of any given dude thinking for a second about what sort of spiritual, moral, and philosophical significance a commandment to only eat sea creatures with fins and scales could possibly mean. It’s certainly not the only underlying meaning that could be mined from contemplating this commandment. What it represents, though, is an obedience to keeping Torah commandments that isn’t completely mindless, and is seeking to find some sort of spiritual relevance in a restriction on what sort of seafood to partake of.

So my complaint is, then, why wasn’t anything like this in the article I read? Why did I think this up on my own rather than be told by someone? Why wasn’t I given a selection of ten possible hidden meanings meanings of this commandment to think of? Why, for the most part, have the people I asked about this commandment have really no idea at all?

The Torah was meant to organize the entire society of the nation of Israel into a giant set of symbols with profound meaning that could be analyzed by the world in order to come to know the mysteries of God. This is what is meant by the concept in Judaism of the Jews being the light of the world. Supposedly, if someone can see the Jews, they can see the mysteries of God being lived. Yet at this date, very few Israelis actually keep many of the Torah commandments, and almost none of them can offer any relevant explanations of the meaning of keeping these commandments to anyone. Even the most highly religious in the country are often at a complete loss as to explaining meaning of Torah commandments to the more moderately religious, much less to the secular members of society.

I think it is this trend that recently resulted in my being deported from Israel at the Ben Gurion Airport for incidentally stating that I wanted to convert to Judaism to a Border Control Officer. He saw no value in Judaism whatsoever, apparently. He certainly didn’t want to make a good impression on someone who wanted to convert. The religion itself is apparently simply a means of illegal immigration or something to some portion of Israeli society of probably great size.

I’m not so sure that this is a great state for Israel to be in. A rather small country, expensive to live in, isolated from allies, oppressed by rockets and threats from hostile neighbors at nearly all times, one has to ask oneself what is it really that makes Israel special. Something tells me that “we are the divine light of the world” has a certain savor to it that “we have a lot of IT guys” just doesn’t quite match. Sadly, though, Israel seems to be doing a good job with the latter statement, and not such a good job with the former.

As for how to end this post, I am in a bit of a quandary. In the US Army I learned not to offer criticism without providing solutions. I don’t exactly have any solutions at the moment. I hope the reader maybe got something out of my explanation of why a Jew shouldn’t eat shrimp. And I hope Jews who keep kosher have thought provoking explanations of why they do so that provide true benefit to those who ask them why they don’t eat shrimp. Practicing Torah is not just enough. Thinking about it is critical. Talking about it is critical. Maybe the idea that what God gave to the nation through Moses actually has some relevance and makes the country special could potentially gain some traction and provide some kind of social change for the better. But for right now, all I have is some disappointment. And the beginnings of an urge to make things better.

This post has been brought to you from exile imposed by מנהל מעברי גבול.

About the Author
I am a medically retired Army Captain who has taken to blogging and writing. While not Jewish myself, I majored in Jewish Studies in college, have studied Hebrew at various points in life, was trained in Arabic and Russian by the US Army, and lived in Israel in 2018 and 2019. All for diverse and apparently unrelated reasons. For the last couple of years I have been a relatively dedicated student of Kabbalah. Recently I have discovered that I have 0.3% Ashkenazi DNA from various DNA tests. As such, Israel and Judaism are topics of interest for me.
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