The link between fish and hassidism has deepened in recent years. A venture hatched in 2014 has grown into a company called The Rebbe’s Choice which offers various types and flavors of herring.

Herring (illustrative)  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Herring (illustrative)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Twice in his famous hassidic work Bnei Yissaschar, the great hassidic master Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynow (1783-1841) related to the spiritual valence of eating fish on Shabbat.
He noted that in the Genesis account there are three creations that God blessed. On the fifth day of Creation, the Almighty blessed the fish of the sea: “And God blessed them, saying: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth” (Genesis 1:22). On the sixth day, God blessed humans: “And God blessed them; and God said unto them: Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth” (ibid. 1:28). And then on the following day, the Almighty blessed Sabbath: “And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made” (ibid. 2:3).
Zvi Elimelech explained: When a person, who is blessed, eats fish, which is blessed, in honor of the day that is blessed, we have a threefold blessing, “and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
THE LINK between fish and hassidism has deepened in recent years. A venture hatched in 2014 has grown into a company called The Rebbe’s Choice which offers various types and flavors of herring, each product inspired by different hassidic masters or dynasties. The Rebbe’s Choice sells a number of varieties courting different hassidic allegiances: Honey Mustard Sriracha Herring inspired by Kotzk; Zesty Matjes Herring inspired by Rimanov; Sweet Onion Herring inspired by Ropshitz; Jalapeno Matjes Herring inspired by Lelov; Sweet Black Pepper Herring inspired by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev; and Smokey Zaatar Herring inspired by Reb Zusha.
For the uninitiated, the company’s website explains the link between the flavor and the branch of hassidism, and adds words of Torah in an earnest attempt at deepening the spiritual experience of eating herring (
MYSTICS TEACH us that equilibrium exists in this world since any sanctified, positive, or holy aspect is balanced by something unsanctified, negative, mundane. This delicate balance ensures that people must still select a path between competing options. This is one way to understand the mitnagdim, the people who vehemently opposed the advent of hassidism.
According to this line, had hassidism been a lone spiritual force in the world, it would have won over every person seeking a true religious path. The mitnagdim provided a compelling counterweight to the spiritual force of hassidism, ensuring that each person still needed to make a choice.
What is true about spiritual pursuits is apparently true about herring: hassidic herring would apparently be an unchecked force in this temporal world, so a mitnagdic herring is nothing less than a mystical necessity.
The vacuum was filled by Flaum, a five-generation business specializing in kosher pickles, herring and other fish spreads and salads ( Flaum produces a purple matjes herring called “The Herring of Volozhin.” In Jewish collective memory, “Volozhin” evokes the prestigious Lithuanian talmudic academy founded by Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin (1749-1821).
Hayim was a disciple of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), and he became one the spokesmen for the mitnagdim. The herring is described in terms familiar to any student of the Lithuanian style of Talmud study: “A herring that is gavra and heftza – uniting subject and object – with the analytical prowess of Volozhin.” This herring is not just “inspired” by Volozhin; it is offered to consumers as the very herring of Volozhin. The mere mention of “Volozhin” is synonymous with the anti-hassidic faction and its herring an appropriate counterweight to The Rebbe’s Choice.
Flaum also markets a pepper jack schmaltz called “The Herring of Salant,” which is described as “A herring with a mussar haskel – discipline of wisdom – steeped in the impeccable self-refinement of Salant.” This product recalls the Jewish ethical movement founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883). This decidedly non-hassidic movement flourished in 19th-century Lithuania.
THERE WAS no official victor in hassidic-mitnagdic controversy, yet it is patent that hassidism is still alive and thriving. True, hassidism jettisoned some of its wilder practices, bringing it closer in ethos to mitnagdic norms. Yet the early mitnagdim had sought to eradicate the newfangled spiritual mode, and on this yardstick they failed.
It would appear that Flaum has a keen sense of hassidic history. Apparently concerned with the inevitable victory of hassidic herring, Flaum offers the taste of hassidism to complement – or perhaps to counter – its Volozhin and Salant varieties: “The Herring of Breslov,” “The Herring of Ruzhin,” “The Herring of Apt” and – in direct competition with The Rebbi’s Choice – “The Herring of Kotzk.”
The Breslov variety is a sweet schmaltz herring that recalls Rabbi Nahman of Breslov’s (1772-1810) demand for constant joy: “A herring that is tamid besimha – perpetually happy – with the optimistic disposition of Breslov.” Flaum’s Kotzk line is a spicy matjes described as “a herring that is kurtz un sharf – cuts straight to the point – with the wit and flavor of Kotzk.” Flaum’s richest product might be the lox and matjes mix “that is zahav tahor – pure gold – luxuriating in the sumptuous splendor of Ruzhin.”
FLAUM PERSUASIVELY advertises its lines by declaring that “an eternal people deserve an eternal herring.” Regrettably, Flaum and The Rebbe’s Choice are available only in America. For those of us fortunate to live in Israel or elsewhere in the world, we have to make do with herring that is not named after hassidic greats, just as the hassidic greats themselves ate!
The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a postdoctoral fellow with the Galicia project at the University of Haifa.