A Drop of Torah
This week’s Torah portion, VaYikra, is the first parsha in the Book of Leviticus. It details the sacrifices that were offered in the Tabernacle (and later in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) and the purpose for them. To our modern sensibilities, the service of the sacrifices (Korbanot in Hebrew) seems primitive and barbaric (especially to a vegetarian). In ancient times they served a purpose. Eventually, after the destruction of the Temple, sacrifices were replaced by prayer.
There were different types of sacrifices for different purposes. Without getting into specifics, animal sacrifices were generally divided into 4 categories: 1) a burnt offering, 2) a sin offering, 3) a guilt offering and 4) a peace offering. There was also a flour offering (Mincha) which was wheat or barley flour with olive oil and frankincense.
Only kosher animals could be offered as sacrifices, and of those only oxen, sheep, goats, turtledoves and pigeons were sacrificed. For an ocean lover like myself, this begs the question: If only kosher animals could be offered as sacrifices, then why are there no fish sacrifices? As long as it has scales and fins, why were fish not offered in the “holy service” of the Tabernacle and the Temple?
Why Not The Fish?
To answer the question, we have to understand how the Jewish tradition views fish in general. If we’re discussing fish from the perspective of “food” then as long as it has scales and fins, then it’s kosher and can be eaten (by someone who eats fish). For mammals, the animal must have a split hoof and chew its cud to be considered kosher, but it must also be slaughtered in a ritual manner (called Shechitah) to be fully kosher. For a fish, no Shechitah is required. All you have to do is take it out of the water, beat it over the head until it’s dead or leave it on the ground to suffocate, gut it and eat it. Of course, compassion should be shown in accordance with the Torah’s prohibition against causing pain to animals (Tzar Ba’alei Chayim as discussed in the post on Parshat Bo) but usually isn’t. If a fish is a living being, then why is Shechitah not required?
There are three factors which answer these questions:
What is the purpose of Shechitah?
What is the nature of the environment in which fish live?
Beyond something to eat on Shabbat, how does Judaism view fish?
Question 1: What is the Purpose of Shechitah?
Most of us have been taught that Shechitah is the most humane form of animal slaughter. Some people may disagree, but the fundamental approach is that a razor-sharp knife severs the jugular vein and carotid artery with one cut at the same time, rendering the animal unconscious almost immediately. Whether this is in fact accurate, I will leave to a veterinarian, physician or food scientist to answer. From the perspective of the Kabbalah however, the purpose of Shechitah is to elevate (or release) the soul of the animal that is slaughtered. Oh, and in case you weren’t aware, Judaism believes that everything (humans, animals, plants etc.) has a soul. Some might question whether a soul can only be elevated through ritual slaughter. Personally, I think that a soul would be released upon death as opposed to requiring to be slaughtered. Either way, whether naturally or through slaughter, the question of why does a fish not require it is still before us. The answer comes in the next questions.
Question 2: What is the Nature of the Environment in Which Fish Live?
I have often quoted Psalm 95:5 which says אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַ֭יָּם “The Sea is God’s”. The full verse however reads: אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַ֭יָּם וְה֣וּא עָשָׂ֑הוּ וְ֝יַבֶּ֗שֶׁת יָ֘דָ֥יו יָצָֽרוּ “The Sea is God’s, God made it, and the dry land God formed with His hands.” (Please forgive both the sexist and anthropocentric wording). From this the Kabbalah teaches that not only is the Sea God’s, but that it was made in a complete and perfect state by evidence of the word עָשָׂ֑הוּ. The dry land, according to the Kabbalah was formed יָצָֽר and like a potter who forms a bowl from clay, it requires a raw substance to form the bowl. Thus, the water is in a pure and complete state, and the life within the water is in a perfect and complete state and their souls do not need to be corrected or elevated through Shechitah. While animals that live on the dry land do not live in a complete and perfect environment and do require Shechitah to be elevated.
Question 3: If They Live in a Perfect Environment How Does Judaism View Fish?
Looking back to Parshat Noach, the world had descended into a state of such evil that “God” felt it necessary to kill everything in it by means of a flood and start all over. The only area that was not impacted was the Ocean. Again, because the water exists in a complete and perfect state, as such the evil of the terrestrial realm could not enter the water or affect the animals in it. The only animals that didn’t die in the flood, other than those in the Ark, were the animals in the water. Not only did they not die, but they continued to increase and be blessed. Remember, the only creatures that received a blessing from God in the first chapter of Genesis were humans and the animals in the Sea.
A Deeper Look at Fish
In his book, The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, Rabbi David Sears said: “Fish exemplify the mystical paradigm of the “open eye” that alludes to the World to Come and the state of enlightenment (da’as). Thus, fish were created in the water, which symbolizes enlightenment, as in “The knowledge of God shall fill the Earth as the water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). The Kabbalah goes so far as to say the reason fish don’t have eyelids is because the “Evil Eye” (the negative energy projected from one person to another through jealousy, anger, hatred, coveting the property or belongings of another etc.) doesn’t penetrate the water and doesn’t exist in the aquatic environment. In fact, the great Rabbi Isaac Luria in his book Sha’ar HaGilgulim (the Gates of Reincarnation) wrote that “Tzadikim (righteous people) often reincarnate as fish” for their final incarnation on earth.
So clearly, there is much more to fish than meets the eye. Why they have ended up being treated as they are in the world today reflects how they are viewed on a physical level. They are viewed as food, as sport, as entertainment, as lower life forms because they’re not cute and cuddly like dogs and cats. We don’t connect with them, and as such they don’t receive the care and concern that other living beings receive. As educated Jews however, it behooves us to look deeper into our tradition to learn not just the physical, but also the spiritual aspects of the world around us. If we just view the physical world around us, we will enjoy it. When we begin to recognize the spiritual nature of the world around us, then we will experience Awe.