Fins and Scales: Fish, Children and Scholars

Duality.  Ambition or integrity.  Scholarship or creativity.  Which of these two qualities should take priority in our lives… and what do fish have to do with making the determination?  As it turns out, fish have a great deal to do with how we understand ourselves and our mission in the world.  But to understand why and how, we must first appreciate the mystical truth that whatever a person eats has an effect on his psyche.  That is, what we eat imbues us with its personality and deepest qualities.

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The laws that govern the kashrut of fish are very different than laws governing the kashrut of land animals.  On land, an animal’s acceptability is determined by two qualities – if it chews its cud and has split hooves.  These are not arbitrary characteristics but speak to the spiritual quality of the animal and how that quality affects the person who ingests it as food.

To “chew the cud” is to regurgitate, to eat and re-eat, to digest and re-digest.  As much as it is a physical process, chewing the cud is a lesson in constant review; it teaches us to continually reevaluate our motivations and our actions; to be thinking and aware human creatures.  Such a posture and perspective is the very foundation of teshuvah.

The split hoof reminds us of the need to “keep it real”, to stay focused from head to foot, from top to bottom.  We need both the ability to take in the “big picture” and the ability to perform teshuvah in order to live a meaningful life.

But fish?  Fish are unlike land animals in so many ways, both obvious and subtle.  Fish, unlike land animals, require no elaborate characteristics to be deemed kosher; we do not need to understand their inner workings and digestive systems to know whether or not they are kosher.  They need only scales and fins.  What’s more, unlike land animals that require ritual slaughter, fish simply have to be caught and eaten.  No shechita.

We intuitively understand that fish are the more spiritual of God’s creatures.  Indeed, when God brought a flood to destroy creation fish were exempt from destruction!  Unlike land animals, which engaged in all manner of bestiality prior to the mabul, fish maintained their purity from the moment of Creation.

“… this you may eat of all that is in the waters: everything that has fins and scales, you may eat.  But anything that has no fins and scales you may not eat, it is unclean to you.”  (Devarim 14:9-10)

The Talmud (Niddah 51b) teaches a critically important principle based on this verse. “All [fish] that have scales also have fins [and are therefore kosher]; but there are [fish] that have fins but do not have scales [and are therefore not kosher].”

This statement invites two pressing questions.  One, why are these two characteristics of fish the ones that determine its kashrut and, perhaps more fascinating, why are fins listed as a necessary characteristic when the Talmud itself notes that all fish with scales also have fins.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson wrote in his journal in 1941, long before he assumed the leadership of Chabad, “As the armor that protects the body of the fish, scales represent the quality of integrity, which protects us from the very many pitfalls that life presents. A man of integrity will not deceive his customers, in spite of the financial profits involved. He will not lie to a friend, despite the short term gain from doing so. He will not cheat on his wife, in the face of tremendous temptation. Integrity means that one has absolute standards of right and wrong and is committed to a morality that transcends one’s moods and desires. Integrity preserves our souls from temptation.” (Cited by Rabbi Y. Y. Jacobson “Fins and Scales”)

So, in our mystical understanding of our relationship with the food we eat, a fish’s scales imbue us with integrity, protection from hubris.

Rabbi Schneerson also spoke to the kosher characteristic of fins.  “Fins, the wing-like organs that propel fish forward, represent ambition.”

Integrity and ambition.

We know that there are non-kosher fish that possess fins but no scales.  In other words, ambition but no integrity.  But what is integrity without ambition?  Hubris.  Ego.  Selfishness.  So many of our sports heroes, business leaders and political leaders are like non-kosher fish, swimming in our world lusting for power and riches, willfully blind to the consequences of their attitude and behavior.

Scales, integrity, shield us; they protect us.  The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) compares yiras shomayim – fear of God – to just such a protective layer.  Without yiras shomayim all that one does, learns, hopes to achieve is in danger.  This is why it is the scales, not the fins, which ultimately determine whether a fish is kosher or not.

But, while yiras shomayim in and of itself makes for a good and pious Jew, we still need fins to propel us forward.  So long as there is yiras shomayim it is possible for a scholar to be novel and creative in his Torah pursuit.  The lessons of the past will guide and inform him; they will not determine him.

Without the Fear of God, all learning is meaningless and superficial.  With the Fear of God, all learning can be uplifting and enlightening.

Now we can see that kosher fish are more than merely symbolic of Torah scholars.  It is true that, like fish immersed in water, Torah scholars are forever swimming in the waters of Torah.  The scholar’s “scales” protect him from wrongful reading and interpretation of text; protect him from the haughtiness of the ego-driven scholar, the one who enjoys the ability to speak lucidly about text but does so to draw attention to his own scholarship.  But more, his “fins” – the creative mind God has blessed him with – keeps him moving from one place to the next, going back to the received wisdom of the ages even as he envisions novel approaches and applications which bring meaning to our own time and experience.

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What is true of scholarship and piety is true also of ambition and integrity.  To live in the world, one needs both ambition and integrity.  To live in the world of Torah scholarship, one needs Fear of God and a creative, inquisitive mind.  One needs both fins and scales.

But which should predominate.  Which quality should we teach our children first?  Though giving our children “fins”, ambition and an inquisitive mind, might result in confident “doers”, such a gift does not guarantee their moral standing.

“Every fish that has scales also has fins, though there are some fish that have fins but have no scales.”  Teach a child integrity, guide him or her to living a decent and moral life and you can be sure that he or she will surely also develop “fins”.

Such a fish, such a child, will surely go forth with learning and decency, and the determination to make the world a more beautiful place.

As with the child, so it is with the scholar.