There was a time when, if a child wanted to do something nice at school, that student would bring an apple for a teacher. Invariably, that apple was a Red Delicious. Remember the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?” The image of the apple that kept the doctor away was, of course, a Red Delicious. When I was growing up, the only apples at the grocery store would be red delicious. It was beautiful. It was sweet. It was very red, and it was delicious. It was the Red Delicious. But go to a grocery store today, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one. There’s honey crisp, fuji, envy, java, and a dozen other varieties, but rarely a red delicious. So what happened to the Red Delicious? Well, it’s a long story, but basically, the growers of Red Delicious apples were more concerned about the appearance of the apple and its ability to store for longer periods of time, but to achieve this, they sacrificed the flavor. So, as the apple became more attractive, it became less sweet. The apple historian Tom Burford explained it best when he said, “We started eating with our eyes and not our mouths.” As I read this week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Shemini, I couldn’t help but think about the Red Delicious.
The Laws of Kashrut
Leviticus, Chapter 11 details all the animals that can or cannot be eaten according to the Laws of Kashrut (Kosher). Mammals are required to have a split hoof and chew their cud. With regard to that which lives in the water, the text is a bit more complex. Leviticus 11:9-12 reads:
“These you may eat of all that are in the waters: whatever has fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, those you may eat. And all that do not have fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that swarm in the waters, and of all the living creatures that are in the waters, they are a detestable thing to you, and they shall be a detestable thing unto you; you may not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses you shall hold in detestation. Whatever does not have fins or scales in the waters, that shall be a detestable thing to you.”
There are many fish that have both fins and scales. A few of them are tuna, salmon, herring, bass, trout, carp, cod, grouper, snapper, flounder, and mackerel, but there are many more. Non-kosher sea life are those that either have no scales or fins or just one or the other. So, catfish have fins but no scales. Sharks also have fins but no scales. A few others are eels, octopus, shrimp, rays, crabs, and lobster. And herein lies the Red Delicious Dilemma.
The Torah tells us that anything in the water with both scales and fins is kosher, but should scales and fins be the only determiners as to whether we should eat an animal from the water? There is no question that mercury in fish has been a serious issue for years, but a recent study from Florida Atlantic University found that pharmaceuticals have entered the marine ecosystem and are now found in fish. In fact, 94% of the redfish sampled in the study had pharmaceuticals in their systems. The problem originates from water treatment plants that cannot remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater (again, I recommend Seth Siegel’s excellent book “Troubled Waters” for a fuller examination of this problem). Add to this the toxins leached into the water from sewage, plastic, oil, and so many other pollutants, and the question of “Kosher Seafood” becomes far more complicated than just scales and fins.
Pikuach Nefesh (פּיקוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ) is a mitzvah that says it is an obligation in the Jewish tradition to save a life. This mitzvah is so important that the Rabbis taught that all other mitzvot (except 3) can be violated to save a life. It’s based on the passage in Lev. 19:16, which says: “You shall not stand by while your neighbor bleeds.” The obligation applies to an immediate threat to life but also to a less immediate threat that has the potential to become life-threatening.
The question is, what constitutes a threat that has the potential to become life-threatening? Bioaccumulation is the process by which toxins are absorbed into fish tissue from the food they eat and the polluted water in which they live. As big fish eat smaller fish, and bigger fish eat those fish, the toxins in the fish accumulate up the food web until the last fish in that chain ends up on your plate. At that point, all of the poisons and chemicals that all those fish have been exposed to have accumulated in the fish you’re about to eat. It seems to me that scales and fins should not be the only consideration as to what makes a fish kosher. When eating fish, Pikuach Nefesh should be as much a consideration as scales and fins. The problem is that science still does not know all the long-term effects that may come from consuming fish that have been contaminated.
On every cigarette carton sold in America, it says: “Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy.” That warning is there for everyone to see. When it comes to “Seafood,” however, there’s no warning at the fish counter in the grocery store. Nowhere will you see: “Warning: This fish may contain mercury, flecainide, tramadol, flupentixol, fecal matter, and caffeine.” However, in the October 2021 FDA document “ADVICE ABOUT EATING FISH For Those Who Might Become or Are Pregnant or Breastfeeding and Children Ages 1 – 11 Years,” there is a chart showing “Best Choices,” “Good Choices” and “Choices to Avoid.” Choices to Avoid? OK, that tells us what shouldn’t be eaten. Still, an article in the Guardian, also from 2021 entitle Revealed: Seafood fraud happening on a vast global scale” reported on a study of restaurants, fish markets, and supermarkets in more than 30 countries and found that 36% of seafood was mislabeled. It’s all well and good to be told what good choices are and what choices to avoid, but if 36% of those choices are mislabeled, there is a significant chance that you could accidentally be eating a fish that poses a health threat.
What Do We Do?
If Pikuach Nefesh is also about the less immediate threat but which have the potential to become life-threatening, then certainly eating seafood could be viewed as, if not imminent, a potential threat to the health and even the life of those who eat it.
Here is our dilemma. If eating animals that live in the water and have scales and fins but may contain toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastic, mercury, and parasites can be dangerous to our health, should we eat them at all just because the Torah says we can and because they taste good? There are plenty of things that feel good, which we don’t do because we know they might be dangerous. The Surgeon General gives a “warning” about smoking cigarettes, but the FDA gives “advise” about eating fish, specifically to pregnant women and children.
And so, we return to the Red Delicious. When we started “eating with our eyes instead of our mouths,” we sacrificed that deliciously sweet, beautiful apple that graced the desks of countless teachers over the years. But, when we eat fish with our mouths instead of our brains and hearts, we are potentially sacrificing something much more significant than an apple.