In praise of gefilte fish

The fish Hebrews ate in ancient Egypt may just be the same that Ashkenazi Jews serve today during Pessah.

March 16, 2010 06:36
Gefilte fish served with fresh horseradish and bee

gefilte fish 311. (photo credit: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT)


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It appears that a large consignment of gefilte fish is stuck in the storerooms of an Illinois facility in the US because of possible tax imposition on its import by Israel. It is essential that this product reaches us here in time for Pessah, when it forms the traditional hors d’oeuvre to the Seder meal. The need is so pressing that it has been reported in this paper that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is engaged in diplomatic moves to resolve the crisis.

This rather special fish dish is not only reserved for the Seder meal. It also features as the traditional delicacy for the seuda shlishit, the Shabbat afternoon meal. The dish consists of a large ball of chopped fish seasoned with egg and onion, and often eaten with chrane or horseradish spice. This was the essential dish for the Orthodox of the Polish shtetl, who sat around the rebbe’s Shabbat table, often with a glass of weak beer, singing and listening to his words of wisdom till the fall of night. But to the Jews of Germany, the Yekkes, this delicacy was unknown.

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I mention this because one George Freudenstein has recently published his father Eric’s interesting essay on the whole subject of fish on Shabbat. With the recent death of Eric Freudenstein in Riverdale, New York, we have lost an eminent nutritional scientist and Hebrew scholar. Freudenstein was chief chemist of the Jewish food giant Rokeach for 50 years and also an ardent talmudist. George recently gathered his father’s papers and published them in a handsome volume entitled Yad Gavriel, that being Eric’s Hebrew name, after his maternal grandfather, who had been a founder of the Adath Yisrael community in Berlin in the mid-19th century, and who was instrumental in appointing Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer as its first communal rabbi.

Freudenstein’s piece, called “Sabbath Fish,” documents the close association of Jews with the eating of fish on Shabbat. Coming from a German background, Freudenstein had never had gefilte fish at home. When he came to the US as a young immigrant at the end of World War II, he smiled rather superciliously at the stories of the Jewish GI soldiers, away in Europe and the Far East, who would be invited by their chaplains and sit down to a Shabbat meal starting with gefilte fish. It was an event that, according to their New York parents, brought tears to their eyes.

To young Eric, this was sentimental nonsense. How vulgar, he thought, to hang your love of Judaism on a piece of fish. But Eric’s attitude to fish was soon to change. With his family he had left Germany for England in 1936, did well at high school and went up to Cambridge University to read chemistry. When war came, the British deported him and his father to Australia – British wartime policy vis-à-vis enemy aliens did not differentiate between those Germans who could have been regarded with concern and those who could have been expected to enthusiastically oppose the Nazis – from where they eventually managed to immigrate to the US via Mexico, where Eric stayed on to complete his degree in chemistry.

Once in New York, Freudenstein joined the kosher food firm of I. Rokeach and Sons as a food technologist and rose rapidly to become executive in charge of production, a post he held for the rest of his working life. As he wrote, “I came to love gefilte fish, to develop recipes suitable for mass production and, as director of production for the largest manufacturer of kosher fish products for over 30 years, I was probably responsible for more servings of gefilte fish than anyone else in history.”

This prompted Eric to research the eating of fish on Shabbat, and he came up with some surprising results.

IN ANCIENT Egypt fish was a staple diet for the workers, and that included the Hebrew slaves. Not satisfied with the manna, they complained to Moses, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for nothing” (Numbers 11:5) and the Egyptian sources confirm that Rameses II, perhaps the pharaoh of the Exodus, gave his workers a free allowance of 10 kilos of salted fish each month. Under his descendent Rameses III, around 1150 BCE, it is recorded that the grave diggers requested an increase in this generous amount to compensate them for their heavy and unpleasant work.

In spite of the hot climate, Nile fish could be preserved by drying and salting, as evidenced by the discovery of a warehouse of dried fish at the Sun Temple of El-Amarna, in central Egypt.

Freudenstein quotes a German Egyptologist, who claims that the composition of the fish in the Nile Delta has hardly changed over the last five millennia and that there are 30 species still active from ancient times. These include carp, pike and mullet, and the species of Nile mullet is exactly the one that is in use for today’s gefilte fish, at least as produced by Rokeach.

In talmudic times the center of fish supply was Lake Kinneret, as evidenced by the Jesus tales in the New Testament, while the port of Acre served as the main supplier of Mediterranean fish. But the fish brought to the ports of Lebanon was apparently even tastier, and Rabbi Yose ben Halafta (as quoted by Rashi) says the fish from the Lebanese ports was the best of all. This squares with the statement in the Book of Nehemiah that the fishermen of Tyre used to come all the way up to Jerusalem to sell their fish on Shabbat, and Nehemiah had to give orders to close the city gates to stop them breaking the Torah law (13:16).

Later in Hasmonean times, as is well known, R. Doseh claimed that the powerful King Alexander Jannai fed his hundreds of workers, who were clearing the land of fig trees, with 600,000 dishes of salted fish “from one Shabbat Eve to the next” (B. Berachot 44A), though he may have been referring to schmaltz herring rather than gefilte fish. Freudenstein notes that the Talmud implies the connection of fish and Shabbat when it quotes Resh Lakish, of the Tiberias academy, saying that an employer has to let his workers go home on Friday afternoons in time “to draw a barrel of water and fry a fish, before lighting the Shabbat candles” (Genesis Rabba 72:3).

That one was supposed to eat fish on Shabbat is underlined by the story of one Joseph, a poor man who spent his pittance to buy a fish for Shabbat. It happened to be one that had swallowed a rich man’s pearl so, on preparing it for Shabbat, Joseph was rewarded with unexpected riches. As the story concludes, “He who lends to the Shabbat, is rewarded by the Shabbat” (B. Shabbat 119A).

In kabbalistic terms, the importance of the fish meal on the eve of Shabbat and festivals is connected with the idea of the resurrection, when the faithful will enjoy the taste of the mythical monster fish Leviathan as the centerpiece of their feast in paradise. This accounts for the depiction of a fish on many of the Jewish graves in the catacombs of Rome.

Hassidic lore also praises the eating of Shabbat fish. The disciples of Rabbi Simha Bunem of Przysucha said that their master referred the custom to the fact that fish were the first created living beings “and Shabbat too is the root of life, for this reason Israel has the tradition to start delighting in Shabbat with fish food.”

Freudenstein goes on to add that even Jewish apostates like Heinrich Heine and Moritz Gottlieb Saphir still savored the delights of their earlier traditional cuisine. Saphir in his autobiography dwells on the fine taste of Jewish fish. He claims that when Oliver Cromwell, the lord protector of England, dined with Manasseh ben Israel (who secured the return of the Jews to the British Isles after 1656), he said that he had never had such a delightful meal. Saphir speculates that it must have included “the brown carp with Jew-sauce, or Jew-fish, the sweet-sour Jewish fish that is world famous.”

But Freudenstein brings us back to earth when he argues that the popularity of the fish meal may have been because it was more economical than meat and that, while meat was the prime dish for Shabbat, many impoverished Jewish communities could not afford it every week and so the fish alternative was praised to the skies and imbued with heavenly attributes. So too, gefilte fish, made of pieces chopped and stuffed, may itself have been a dish that derived from the need to use all manner of fish scraps, and thus a delicacy was born out of a necessity.

The writer is senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.

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