Monday, June 12, 2006

From Mitzvah to Superstition - Eating Fish on Shabbos.

Menachem Mendel last week posted about Professor Daniel Sperber and his opus Minhagei Israel brought to mind another book written by Professor Moshe Halamish of Bar Ilan “Hakabalah Bitefila, Bahalacha Ubeminhag.” It was published in 2000 but I only read about a year ago. It is a revelation to see how Kabalistic thinking found its way and heavily influenced our daily praxis. It would require a great scholar to expunge those changes and bring our praxis back to its older pristine form. Already in medieval times the Talmidim of the Rashba introduced Kabbalah ideas into Halacha but after the Beis Yosef, the Remak (R. Moshe Cordevero) and the Ari (R.Ytzchak Luria) the process accelerated.

Professor Halamish deals extensively with the concepts, the personalities involved especially R. Yosef Karo’s attitude towards the Zohar’s rulings; follows the Gemara when they disagree but follows the Zohar where there is no conflict. Halamish points out that even in the latter case RYK was not consistent and quite arbitrary using his judgment where to introduce the Zoharic ideas.

Where I had the most difficulties is when I realized how much of an influence the Hemdas Yomim has on our daily praxis. Just a fast look in the index one can see that it is one of the most oft quoted sources. That is a very suspect book claimed by some to have been authored by the Shabbtai Tzvi prophet Natan of Gaza. How many of our practices are influenced by this Messianic disaster?

A fascinating chapter deals with eating fish on Shabbos. Tracing it from the Gemara Shabbos 118b through the Possekim, the famous Tur question to his father the Rosh whether he can make do with “Kassa D’eharsannah “(probably a dried cod called Bacalhau that is readily available cheaply in the Iberian Peninsula) because of his extreme poverty, and to the Shulchan Aruch who does not make it any mention of it. The reason given for eating fish on Shabbos is that it is part of the Mitzvah of Oneg Shabbos and therefore it is a matter of taste. One cannot legislate taste.

But then the story takes on a weird twist. Fish becomes important because supposedly Tzadikkim end up in fish after a transmigration of their souls (amazingly Aruch Hashulchan uses this reasoning quoting the Kitzur Hashelah) and by eating the soul containing fish, the Mitzvah elevates the soul of that Tzaddik. And of course Hemdas Yomim adds his two senses to the mix.

Here are the five reasons that develop over time:
The original rational one: Tastes good.
A symbolic one:
The fish’s eyes are always open a symbol of God’s providence that is constant.
Three superstitious ones:
By eating the fish in a meal that is a Mitzvah the soul that transmigrated in it is saved.
A kabalistic concept of elevating sparks. (?)
Another Kabalistic concept of Sefirotic connection. (?)

It may be a good idea to stop eating fish on Shabbos altogether. Too much voodoo!

There is much more in the book just on the fish topic alone. It is an all encompassing study well worth reading. It also makes you wonder how much external influences have entered our daily life. Maybe it is time to revert to pure Rambam legislation where all this superstition has not yet had an impact.

Other books on related topics:

Professor Ta Shema "Haniglah Shebanistar".
Professor Yakov Katz : Halacha Vekabalah"


  1. The notion that one cannot legislate taste is true. However, we see something similar by the halacha of eating meat on Yom Tov to create Simcha. Do you propose the cesation of meat eating on Yom Tov?

  2. >eating meat on Yom Tov to create Simcha

    Simcha and oneg are two different things. Besides if I am not mistaken the original idea was Korban Hagigah on Yom tov so it would be more a zecher than enjoyment and taste.

    I was being tongue in cheek about the eating part. i happen to like Sushi os I am yotzeh fish with that but i certainly dont pay attention to the poor soul that is hovering around! :-)

  3. Hallamish has a new one, a companion book to the 2000 one, on Kabbalistic influences on Shabbat specifically.

  4. Very interesting stuff, thank you.

  5. I would say that kabalah and all sorts of mysticism have a place in Judaism. You see in the gemara certain kabalistic leaninings. However, they should be treated as a peripheral entity such as culture and not as a central theme as Halacha or learning.

  6. david
    although i dont comment much, keep posting, i find you very refreshing.
    Was wondering about the fish, soup, meat 3 course meal on friday night.
    I grew up that way but I find that my kids dont like fish, i cant eat all 3 without being obscenly full. So we basically have soup (and maybe some meat from the soup mixed in.)
    I find when my parents come, we serve the 3 courses.

    Is there kabbalahdik reason for the former?

  7. Chemdat Yamim MIGHT be sabbatean but it is pretty unlikely it was written by Natan Yimach Shemo

  8. Mivami, Thanks for the info. i will go looking for it. The problem is the time to read all that interests me.

    Anonymous, As I am getting older I become more aand more convinced that Kabbalah and Mysticism are wrong and harmful. We will remain in Galus until we rid ourselves of it.

    Happy, The mitzvah is oneg so whatever makes you happy is correct. Anything different is just nonsense. My father when he comes to me, we cook according to his custom as you describe. I also put on a white shirt lichvodo. In my mind it becomes a de'oraisa of Kibud and Yra'ah so it is a mitzvah I do with alarcity. That is his oneg. The same applies to you if that makes your parents happy, that is the mitzvah the food is secondary.

    Chardal, I know but it is easier to peg on Natan who everybody knows. Chemdas is dangerous and insidious.

  9. Happy, I almost forgot. Thank you for your kind words. I enjoy wriring too. It helps me clarify things.