Lazer Gurkow

Semini: Kosher fish

Kosher fish have fins and scales. In the Torah’s words, “Any [creature] in the water that has fins and scales, those you may eat.” Though fins and scales merely indicate that a fish is kosher, there must be a reason G-d chose these two indicators. Why do fins and scales a kosher fish make?

Fins are a fish’s navigation tools and scales are its protective armor. In fact, the Hebrew word for scales is kaskeses. The Talmud asks how we know this means scales and it explains that we derive it from the Philistine warrior Goliath, who was famously defeated by David’s slingshot. Goliath emerged for battle dressed in siryon kaskasim, a coat of mail. This tells us that kaskeses refers to scales that shield the fish like a mail coat of armor

We now understand why these two signs are indicators of a kosher fish. With its fins the fish propels itself through the water. With its scales, it is shielded from danger. In our lives, these correspond to the positive commandments and the negative commandments.

When we do the things that G-d instructs us to do, when we gather around the Shabbat table to chant Kiddush and eat Challah, when we light candles on Chanukah, when we don tefilin and pray, we generate spiritual propulsion. We add spiritual energy and holiness to our lives. When we chant a blessing and thank G-d for His bounty, we become more spiritually aware. This generates forward spiritual momentum. It is a positive force.

When we observe all the negative commandments, when we avoid gossip, slander, fraud, addictive behavior, criminal abuse, lust, greed, and any of our obsessive appetites, we shield ourselves from negative influence.

The combination of fins — forward spiritual momentum, and scales — a shield against negative influence, makes for a kosher way of life. If you want to be kosher, ensure that you have fins and scales. Avoid the pitfalls of life and embrace goodness, holiness, and kindness.

Why Fins

As usual, the Talmud isn’t content to leave things simple. The Talmud always offers a twist. In this case, the Talmud makes a blanket statement. Any fish that has scales, has fins perforce. Any fish that has fins, does not perforce have scales. Thus, says the Talmud, scales are the critical indicator of a kosher fish. If it has scales it is certainly kosher and you don’t need to look further. But if it has fins, you don’t know if it is kosher until you ascertain that it also has scales.

Accordingly, the Talmud asks why the Torah even mentions fins? Given that it is not a conclusive indicator, and is in fact a superfluous indicator, why is it mentioned? The Talmud’s answer is, “To make the Torah great and glorious. The literal meaning is that although fins are superfluous, by adding it, the Torah becomes loquacious and, therefore, more glorious.

A good student will question this assertion. If fins are unnecessary, it detracts from the Torah’s clarity and muddles the waters (pardon the pun). How does that make the Torah glorious?

Moreover, of the two indicators, the Torah brings the fins, the superfluous indicator first. Why bring the superfluous indicator ahead of the real one?

The Torah
To answer this question we introduce a new interpretation to fins and scales. Rather than positive commandments and negative commandments, we translate them as Torah study and Mitzvot.

The Torah is often described as water. The fins represent Torah study because just as fins help the fish navigate through the water, so do we navigate the sea of Torah by studying it. Scales represent Mitzvah observance because our Mitzvot form a protective armor from negative energy. Our sages taught that just as a coat of mail is comprised of many layers of thin pieces of metal so is our armor against negative energy comprised of many individual Mitzvot

One who has both fins — Torah study, and scales — Mitzvah observance, is kosher. A Jew who has only one, is unkosher unless the one indicator are scales. If you have scales, you certainly have fins. If you observe Mitzvot, you receive credit for Torah study as well. Why is that?

There is no way to observe G-d’s commandments without studying to know what they are. Even if we didn’t study, someone else studied the Torah and taught us. Thus, we learned through them. This means that if we observe the Mitvot, we receive credit for both and we are kosher. On the other hand, it is eminently possible for someone to study Torah and neglect the commandments. Sadly, that is not an uncommon phenomenon. Someone who studies but doesn’t observe is not kosher. Someone who observes, but doesn’t study, well such an animal doesn’t exist.

Nevertheless, the fins are mentioned first. It is true that Torah students who don’t practice are unkosher. But those who practice, must have studied first. Whether they studied in the book or at the hands of their parents, teachers, or peers, they studied. Hence the fins are mentioned first. Torah study always precedes observance.

This also explains how the Torah is made great and glorious by the mention of fins. If fins go unmentioned because they are a given for fish that have scales, Torah study would have gone unnoticed for those who observe the Mitzvot. To make the Torah great and glorious, the Torah mentions fins explicitly. It raises the profile of the Torah by saying that though Torah can go without Mitzvot, Mitzvot can never go without Torah

Deed Not Creed
The upshot is that we are a religion of deed not of creed. To be a good Christian, you must believe as Christians do. To be a good Jew, you must behave as Jews behave. No matter what we believe, if we observe the Jewish traditions and behave as we ought, we are kosher Jews.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a Jew who neither studies nor believes, and yet observes the Mitzvot. If they didn’t believe somewhere deep within, they wouldn’t observe. Their observance is rooted in the very essence of their soul, hidden so deep that they even they aren’t aware of it. And if they didn’t study, someone else did and taught them. A Jew doesn’t live in isolation.

Yet, we sadly find Jews who study Torah, but don’t behave ethically or properly. No matter how you skin this fish, it is not Kosher. Such behavior is not Kosher. It is just plain fishy.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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