Shemini: Swimming in Torah

Embrace Your Inner Fish

What is the significance of fins and scales?

Table for Five: Shemini

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

But any [creatures] that do not have fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, among all the creeping creatures in the water and among all living creatures that [live] in the water, are an abomination for you.

– Lev. 11:10


Benjamin Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Speech Writer at MitzvahSpeeches.com

For a fish to be kosher it must have both fins and scales. According to science (confirmed by my Google search) there are fish that exist that have fins, but do not have scales. However, there are no species of fish that have scales but don’t have fins. So why doesn’t the Torah just say, to be kosher the fish must have scales? Rashi gives us a clue when he compares the scales of a fish to Goliath’s scaled armor.

If we look at the context, we’re specifically talking about creatures in water. Water is frequently considered to be a symbol for the Torah. Just as these scales protect a fish, the Torah is the armor of the Jewish people. Just look at our miraculous victories as recent as the modern State of Israel. But if the scales are our protection, why do we still need fins as a kashrus requirement?

Fins are what propel the fish forward. It is not enough that we simply learn Torah, like a high school kid regurgitating material for a test. Torah must be contemplated and discussed. We have to wrestle with it, make it relatable, and ultimately apply it to our lives. Our Torah knowledge must reach the level of binah, understanding, so that it can propel us forward. It’s not enough to sit feeling contented. Because if we do, we’re dead in the water.


Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, Councilor, Beit-Hatzayar School for At-Risk youth

Let’s face it! The kashrut laws are strange. They are not “Mishpatim,” more society-based laws. Instead, they are “Hukim,” laws G-d gave without any apparent logic. That makes Kashrut rules spiritual laws — manifested in this verse to keep ourselves pure. What we eat becomes our own flesh, which is why we only eat “pure” animals.

The Torah is teaching us that everything we do affects our body and mind, for better or worse.

As an IDF officer and now an educator, I’ve learned that to earn respect from your students, let alone to lead people into battle, it isn’t enough to be charismatic and confident. You must walk the walk. People have a sense of the person standing in front of them. To be a good leader, you should be a real mensch first.

Purification is primarily for ourselves. If I want to be a worthy leader, able to make the right life-and-death decision in battle, I must prepare myself, even now, as an officer in the reserves. I learn tactics. I participate in training exercises. But most importantly, I work on myself, trying to become more solid, balanced and honorable.

That is the idea behind keeping kosher. Being a good and well-balanced person isn’t just about what you do in public. It starts with the small things: what you eat, how you treat your family, how connected you are to spirituality. And building from these small acts of living in purity, we can live healthier, more wholesome lives.


Rabbi Yoni Dahlen, Spiritual Leader, Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Southfield, Michigan

There’s an old Yiddish expression that goes, “es iz schver tzu zayn a Yid,” that “it’s hard to be a Jew.”

It certainly can be. But sometimes, the things that are hard can offer the most incredible and meaningful of blessings.

It’s hard to be a Jew, because to be a Jew is to live apart.

And this is true regardless of how religiously observant we are or how integrated we are into what is considered to be “mainstream society.” To be a Jew is to be an exception. And that exceptionalism is recognized from the inside out as well as from the outside in. As Richard Rubenstein argued, whether or not the Jews were chosen by God, they were certainly chosen by everyone else.

That exceptionalism can feel othering. It can feel alienating. It can feel lonely.

But it can also feel like the most beautiful gift imaginable. Because our chosenness doesn’t make us better, or holier, or somehow closer to the Divine. It makes us family. It bonds us together in a way that transcends all other labels: nationality, skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status. We live apart (intentionally or not) so that we can live cosmically together.

And so the fins and scales are about so much more than fins and scales. They’re a reminder (one of many) that it can be hard to be a Jew. But when those hardships pass, what’s left is nothing short of magic. What’s left is family.


Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Congregation B’nai Torah

The laws of which creatures are Kosher are considered by our Sages to be “Chukim” – Trans-rational laws that are beyond human understanding. We follow them as acts of recognition that the G-d who created us transcends all our frameworks. Nevertheless, the Torah itself encourages us to find understanding and lessons even in these mitzvot. One of these paradigms is that those animals we take into our bodies embody qualities that we find salutary. None of the kosher animals and birds are habitual carnivores. However, this metaphor breaks down with kosher fishes.

There are many highly aggressive carnivorous fish with fins and scales. Examples are the Pike, Barracuda and Piranha! The 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out that the spiritual difference lies in the fact that fish live submerged in and draw all their vitality from water. Water is symbolic of Torah. If one is a “fish” living in the “Sea of Torah” until its values and morals become the entire medium of one’s being – then all technologies and all traits – even toughness, aggression, and suasion can be used for a holy purpose. All the traits and qualities that have potential negative effects can be used for the positive. Even violence is good and holy when used to protect the innocent from predatory aggression. If one seeks to use the tools of sales and self-interest to influence people to do the right thing -these are not negative traits. To successfully engage the world as Jews we must embrace our “inner fish”.


Dr. Rachel Lerner, Dean, School of Jewish Education and Leadership, American Jewish University

We just finished a few weeks of obsessing over what we eat: before Passover in getting the house ready and preparing for the holiday, and then during Passover itself. Can I use this butter or buy my eggs in this store?

We should all wonder whether we can be as scrupulous as to ensure that what goes into our mouths is not an abomination as to whether what comes out of our mouths will also not be an abomination. The Jewish tradition gives us rules upon rules and books upon books about what we can eat.

It is no less urgent that we pay such close attention to the words that we utter! It’s a world of more peaceful families, fewer messes to clean up between people, and lives that are more quiet and purposeful. What if in addition to making sure a person’s home meets our kashrut needs, we ensure that the way they treat others aligns with our own?

Our tradition has much to say on good speech and how we treat others. How can we bring the essential teaching of “love your neighbor as yourself” into our daily lives in more meaningful ways? If eating something with the wrong criteria is an abomination, how much more so is treating people poorly through our words? Let’s obsess about that more.


With thanks to Benjamin Elterman, Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, Rabbi Yoni Dahlen, Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, and Dr. Rachel Lerner


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