Ask the Rabbi: Battlefish

Sectarian polemics and the case of swordfish.

July 10, 2008 12:48
4 minute read.

Rabbi Haim ben Yisrael Benvenisti penned the first ruling on the 'fish with the sword,' writing that Jews eat the fish, despite the fact that it does not have scales once it has landed, since 'when it comes out of the water, due to its anger, it shakes and the scales are thrown off' Q All my teachers tell me that swordfish is not kosher, but my grandfather insists that his family ate it when he was a kid. Can you explain this? - S.F., Tel Aviv A I first heard about the controversy over the kashrut of swordfish as a college student, when a local Orthodox rabbi told me that the Conservative movement might be correct that it should be kosher. I forgot about the remark, since I was never a big fish consumer (I only started eating tuna a few years ago). Yet a recently acquired taste for fish (aliya will do that to you), plus a fascinating article by Ari Zivotofsky of Bar-Ilan University (B.D.D. 19), from which this column will heavily draw, has resparked my interest. While the Torah specifies that kosher fish require both scales and fins (Leviticus 11:9-10), an ancient tradition codified by Halacha asserts that all fish with scales necessarily have fins (Nida 51b, YD 83:3). As such, much halachic literature focused on defining halachic scales, a complex project since these coverings vary greatly in different fish. Among other criteria, kosher fish must contain scales attached to their body which can be peeled without damaging the fish's skin (Rama YD 83:1). Scales that shed when fish mature or leave the water, or alternatively, that develop only later in life, were also deemed acceptable. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to identify which fish possess the biological traits that match these halachic criteria. For starters, there are myriads of fish which must be carefully examined by competent authorities. Moreover, as Zivotofsky emphasizes, contemporary scientific classifications do not easily correspond to the different legal distinctions. Furthermore, similar fish in different geographic regions can have distinct characteristics or names (for example, salmon is kosher, rock salmon is not). With other animals, like birds, existing legal traditions from previous generations help determine the animal's status. The inconsistency of names and traits, however, makes this unfeasible with fish, leaving the decisor with nothing but the specimen in front of him to tip the scales (sorry, I couldn't resist!). Rabbi Haim ben Yisrael Benvenisti (Turkey, 17th century) penned the first ruling on the "fish with the sword." He recorded that Jews eat the fish, despite the fact that it does not have scales once it has landed, since "when it comes out of the water, due to its anger, it shakes and the scales are thrown off" (Knesset Hagdola, YD 83:74). The kosher status of the swordfish was continuously affirmed over the next centuries in important halachic works like Pri Megadim, Darkei Teshuva and Kaf Hahaim. Significantly, the 1933 kosher fish list of the Agudat Harabbonim of the United States lists swordfish (Xiphias gladius) as kosher. While the list was challenged for its inclusion of certain types of sturgeon and eel, its inclusion of swordfish remained unchallenged. Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler, a trained microbiologist and prominent scholar at Yeshiva University, first challenged the kashrut of the swordfish in 1951, noting that he had examined the swordfish under a microscope and found no scales, and therefore concluded that R. Benvenisti actually permitted a different fish. R. Tendler further claimed that his distinguished father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, agreed with his conclusions. However, another prominent student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Hershel Schechter, claims that his teacher in fact permitted consuming the swordfish. Be that as it may, many American kashrut agencies, based on Rabbi Tendler's research, subsequently banned swordfish, a position which was affirmed by the prominent Israeli decisor Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 9:40). Not everyone agreed with Rabbi Tendler, however. Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman (d. 1976), who later became Israel's chief rabbi, contended that swordfish indeed have scales while in water and that, moreover, a 350-year tradition affirms the fish's kashrut (Shvut Miyehuda YD 5:118-119). Zivotofsky further claims that the widely respected researcher of biblical and talmudic science, Prof. Yehuda Feliks, now identifies the swordfish as the fish permitted in a talmudic text (Tosefta Hulin 3:27), even though his earlier Talmudic Encyclopedia (7:201-206) article equivocated. The heated dispute within Orthodox circles took a new turn in the 1960s when Conservative Rabbi Isaac Klein published a sharp responsum affirming the tradition of permitting swordfish. Rabbi Klein further claimed that he consulted with leading scientists who confirmed that juvenile swordfish possess scales. While both sides used scientific and halachic arguments to buttress their arguments, the debate now took on a polemical element that entrenched each position. To this day, the Conservative movement allows swordfish consumption, while Orthodox kashrut agencies in both Israel and the United States unequivocally forbid it. One hopes that Zivotofsky's continued research into the halachic and scientific aspects of this dispute will spark a calm and scholarly reexamination of this embattled fish. The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.

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