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Parshas Re-eh (5770)

Rabbis and Fish

Last week, I was in the mood of a good fish meal. I told my wife “I hate to carp on things – and I don’t want to sound shellfish - but I’ve haddock with the same old chicken we have every night for dinner”. I searched the net for the top fish restaurants in town – kosher, of course - and found one that would suit our porpoises perfectly. It had no o-fish-al website, but the plaice had good prices and was located just down the turn-pike. We made reservations for eight o’clock, since the piano tuna was coming at seven. I was looking forward to having a whale of a time. When we got there, the waiter sat us down at a corner table without saying a word – the guy looked like he had no sole. He blankly said, “Due to the BP oil spill, our prices have gone up tremendously.” I waited with bait-ed breath to hear how much the poached salmon would cost. When the waiter told me the price, I said I would have to mullet over. I finally decided to order the sea bass. Thinking about the mess down in the Gulf, I jokingly asked the waiter, “Can I have unleaded, please?” Needless to say, he didn't laugh. I took one bite of the sea bass and, all of a sudden, started feeling violently eel. I said, “Oh, Cod, this fish tastes horrible!” It turns out that the fish hadn’t even been cooked! I told the waiter, “You don’t have to be a brain sturgeon to know that this fish is raw!” My wife calmed me down. Although I wanted to sue-she convinced me not to. So we just left and went home.

You’re probably wondering why I shared that punny story with you …. Actually, I have no good reason. I did it just for the halibut.

Seriously, folks … there is something really fishy in this week’s Torah portion that I need to tell you about because think it will blow(fish) your minds:

In Deuteronomy 14:9-10 (as well as in Leviticus 11:9), the Torah lists the signs that make fish kosher: “These you may eat of all that are in the waters; all that have fins and scales, you may eat. But whatever does not have fins and scales, you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.”

So far, nothing too amazing, right? Just a Biblical verse telling us the two signs fish need to have to be considered kosher and fit for eating. But wait … hold on to your seatbelts … we’re not done yet.

The Mishnah in Tractate Niddah (6:9) states the following: “Any fish that has scales also has fins, but there are some fish that have fins and do not have scales.”

What the Mishnah is teaching us – in practical terms - is that any fish that has scales is presumed to be Kosher (without needing to check for fins) because if it has scales then it must also have fins. Do you get it yet? Isn’t it just amazing?

If you still aren’t blown away by now … I need to give you a little more background as to what exactly the “Mishnah” is – and for that I will go everyone’s favorite source of reputable information online …. Wikipedia!

The Mishnah (Hebrew: "repetition", from the verb ‘shanah’, or "to study and review"), is the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions called the "Oral Torah" and the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism. It was redacted c. 220 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions dating from earlier times (536 BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten. The Mishnah is also called ‘Shas’ (an acronym for Shisha Sedarim - the "six orders"), in reference to its six main divisions. Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah over the next three centuries were redacted as the Gemara, which, coupled with the Mishnah, comprise the Talmud.

The Mishnah reflects debates between 70-200 CE by the group of rabbinic sages known as the Tannaim. The Mishnah teaches the oral traditions by example, presenting actual cases being brought to judgment, usually along with the debate on the matter and the judgment that was given by a wise and notable rabbi based on the rules, Mitzvos, and spirit of the teaching ("Torah") that guided his sentencing. In this way, it brings to everyday reality the practice of the mitzvos as presented in the Bible, and aimed to cover all aspects of human living, serve as an example for future judgments, and, most importantly, demonstrate pragmatic exercise of the Biblical laws.

The Mishnah consists of six orders (sedarim, singular seder), each containing 7-12 tractates (masechtot, singular masechet; lit. "web"), 63 in total, and further subdivided into chapters and paragraphs. The orders and their subjects are: Zeraim ("Seeds"), dealing with prayer and blessings, tithes and agricultural laws (11 tractates), Mo’ed ("Festival"), pertaining to the laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals (12 tractates), Nashim ("Women"), concerning marriage and divorce, some forms of oaths and the laws of the nazirite (7 tractates), Nezikin ("Damages"), dealing with civil and criminal law, the functioning of the courts and oaths (10 tractates), Kodshim ("Holy things"), regarding sacrificial rites, the Temple, and the dietary laws (11 tractates) and Taharos ("Purities"), pertaining to the laws of purity and impurity, including the impurity of the dead, the laws of food purity and bodily purity (12 tractates).

You see, the Mishnah, which was written by great Rabbis well over 1800 years ago, made a Halachic statement that any fish that you find anywhere in the world that has scales on it, must also have had fins (even if they are not readily evident for whatever reason) and is kosher to eat.

With over 25,000(!) species of fish around the world, how could the Rabbis possibly have known – and stated as Jewish Law with practical implications - that every fish with scales also has fins …. and they got it right!!!!

The commentaries on the Talmud (see, for example, the Tosafists commentary to Chullin 66b) explain that the only way that the Sages of the Mishnah could have known such a fact – short of sailing around the entire globe and documenting all the fish of all the oceans, rivers and lakes, which would have been impossible for them to do – is if G-d Himself, Who created and knows all the fish that exist, revealed this information to them through Moses at Mount Sinai.

In other words, what we are saying is that this Mishnah about signs of kosher fish is solid proof that the “Oral Torah” that was written by the Rabbis, emanated from G-d at Mount Sinai, no different than the “Written Torah” that was written by G-d Himself (through Moses).

[I should mention that there is a nasty, hate-filled Jewish website - which shall remain URL-less – on which they challenge the assertion of the Rabbis of the Mishnah that all fish that have scales must have fins. They claim to have spoken to the Smithsonian Institution, which came up with one(!) fish that supposedly has scales and no fins. The fish involved is called Monopterus cuchia of the swamp-eels family and the class of ray-finned fishes. But they made a mistake and thought that the fish did not have a fin. Actually, it has a rudimentary dorsal fin. Even the name of the fish testifies that it has a single fin, since the word ptero means wing, and the word mono means one. So the claim made by the Rabbis of the Mishnah still stands!]

So the next time we read something in the Torah quoted from the Rabbis of the Mishnah or the Talmud - and it sounds kind of “fishy” and hard to believe - let’s remember Where and from Whom these great people got their info … a source infinitely more reliable than Wiki!

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