Shmuly Yanklowitz

Lox and gefilte fish? Study shows fish are more like friends than we thought

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

For many of us in the Jewish world, we find the avoidance of meat to be a meaningful Jewish practice. It makes keeping kosher easier, and it benefits our health, the environment and the welfare of animals.

We know, however, that there is one category of food that is fuzzier among the Jewish community: fish!

It makes plenty of sense in Jewish life to avoid all animals except for fish; fish are not considered meat for purposes of kashrut, and they don’t require kosher slaughtering. Further, many classic Jewish foods consist of fish: herring, whitefish, lox, gefilte fish, even, for some, the traditional fish head on Rosh Hashana. 

(Wikimedia Commons)

So too, in the culture at large, fishing is considered a much more benign activity than hunting. And pescatarianism is certainly not an eating practice limited strictly to Jews. We tend to think of fish as animals that need less protection than, say, birds and cattle, but should that be the case?

My attention was caught by a recent study indicating that fish can recognize their own faces “like humans.” How did the researchers determine this? Fish that had not been shown in a mirror what they look like would attack photographs of themselves as well as other fish, while fish that had seen themselves in a mirror were less likely to be aggressive toward pictures of themselves.

The researchers, led by Professor Masanori Kohda, write:

Some animals have the capacity for mirror self-recognition, but implications for self-awareness remain controversial. Here, we show that cleaner fish, Labroides dimidiatus, likely recognize their own mirror image using a mental image of the self-face comparable to humans.

Additionally, Scuba Diving magazine reports that “Other studies have highlighted complex behaviors in fish including tool use, planning, collaboration and even play.”

With that in mind, we might want to consider that the sharks in Finding Nemo had a point: “Fish are friends, not food.” The average American eats about 16 pounds of fish and shellfish each year, and we also have the problems of overfishing and the exploitation of fisherman. Might it be time to decide fish are no longer a necessary part of our diets?

Maybe that sounds like too great a change. Maybe the fish course on Friday night or lox at kiddush lunch are too meaningful to you. Perhaps one idea worth considering is to give up fish on every day except Shabbat.

(Wikimedia Commons)

On Yom Kippur, we read the Book of Jonah, a story in which a fish is the vessel God chooses to use to induce teshuva. We learn: Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish” (Jonah 2:2).

Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser—known as the Malbim—suggests that the belly of the fish was like a womb where Jonah was reborn. Jonah is placed there to reflect, repent, and emerge an entirely new man. At some point, I believe there is a time for us to do teshuva for the way we as a society treat fish. God speaks to animals (to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, to Jonah’s fish, and to Balaam’s donkey) and perhaps those animals are speaking to us now today too.

(Wikimedia Commons: Pieter Lastman — “Jonah and the Whale”)

Typically, humans harm fish. They stick their fishing rods into the sea piercing the fish and then deprive them of oxygen upon their boats or shores. Here in the Jonah story, we see that the mercy of the fish outshines the cruelty of the human. Finally, the fish gets the chance for revenge when swallowing up Jonah. Instead, she gives sanctuary to the forlorn man, provides a space for atonement, and delivers him safely to the shores. The rabbis, in a midrash, imagine that even upon salvation, Jonah isn’t grateful to the fish but thinks the fish should be grateful to him! “Jonah then said to the fish, ‘See! I have saved you from the mouth of Leviathan.'”

The bottom line is that we tend to not eat animals that are “cute” to us. An arbitrary cow is less cute than the family dog or cat, so Americans choose to eat the cow. Most fish, though, we hardly relate to at all. They’re considered the least adorable, so we have few problems eating them. But is that how this should work? Our ethical choices should not be about what’s comfortable for us. They should be about what is right. And the growing evidence shows us that eating animals with certain human-like capacities isn’t the right thing to do.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.