Photo by marcelo träsel, via Flickr
Photo by marcelo träsel, via Flickr
ScienceOnly Human

Gefilte Fish: Why, Oy Why?

Jewish stories are brimming with miracles. When Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews, frogs fill up his bed, the Nile turns to blood, and the skies rain hail and fire. Later, a small unarmored boy uses a slingshot to slay a giant. Sometime after that, in the Holy Temple, a day’s worth of oil lights a menorah for eight. But for this shiksa, the biggest Jewish miracle of all is the acquired taste for gefilte fish.

I first encountered this flaccid culinary specimen in September 2007, when celebrating Rosh Hashanah at my new boyfriend’s parents’ house. It was my first time meeting them, and my first Rosh Hashanah, and I was trying my damnedest to blend in at the long table full of friendly Jews. I dipped apple slices into honey and (slowly) sipped Manischewitz. When somebody suggested the Gentile visitor put on a yarmulke, I complied and posed for a toothy photo.

So far, so good. Then my boyfriend’s mother, Marlene, came around behind me with a platter of brown-gray gelatinous lumps.

“Gefilte fish?” she asked.

“Um, what is it?” I said in the most polite voice I could muster.

“It’s fish mixed with bread,” said Howie, my boyfriend’s brother, eagerly forking one from the platter.

“OK, sure,” I said. I looked down at this supposed fish on my plate and took a tiny, tepid bite. I did not like it, which I guess was obvious from my face. Everybody laughed. “Well, you tried it!” Marlene said.

For the uninitiated: Gefilte fish is ground fish mixed with other ingredients, typically matzo meal, onions, vegetables, eggs, and seasonings. Small patties of this batter are poached in fish stock, chilled, and served cold and slimy.

Some gefilte recipes are sweet, others savory. The split appeared a couple of hundred years ago from something known as the “gefilte fish line” in Poland. Jews living west of the line ate sweet gefilte, whereas those east of the line ate a peppery version. (According to one Jewish historian, the fish line overlaps with a linguistic border between two types of Yiddish.)

Some Jewish families relish their homemade gefilte. “These recipes are sacred, held close and carefully passed from generation to generation,” says Aimee Levitt, a writer at The Chicago Reader. “My own family’s comes from my maternal great-grandmother, who only relinquished it mere months before she died. Every Passover, someone marvels at what a close call we had.”

Levitt’s Passover tradition is in jeopardy this year, she writes, because of a whitefish shortage in the Chicago area. Some Jews are resorting to tilapia or, gasp, to the many varieties of jarred gefilte found on grocery store shelves (the source of my first and only bite):

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But seriously. Why?

Fish in general has been a Sabbath tradition for a long time. The first Jews thought fish encouraged fertility. “They believed the intoxicating odor on the Sabbath table would encourage couples to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — which in Jewish tradition is encouraged on Friday night,” writes Tamara Mann of My Jewish Learning.

There’s also symbolism in the word itself. The Sabbath happens on the seventh day, and so many foods traditionally eaten on the Sabbath correspond to the number 7, explains Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin:

The Hebrew word for wine is yayin, spelled יין, yudyudnun. If one adds up the gematria of יין, it equals 70.

After Kiddush, everyone then washes and returns to the table to say the blessing on and eat challah bread. The gematria of חלה, challah, is 43, and 4 and 3=7.

After they eat the challah, of course they have gefilte fish. The word “fish,” דג (dag), is spelled dalet=4 and gimmel=3, equaling 7.

Alright, this is all starting to add up. I’m down with eating fish on the Sabbath. But why gefilte? Why butcher it so?

“The gastronomic considerations of this delicacy may seem the most obvious,” writes Rabbi Zushe Blech, of Monsey, New York. I beg to differ. Luckily the rabbi also provides a more credible reason*:

Shabbos is a day of rest where many types of labor are prohibited. One of the activities in which one may not be engaged on Shabbos relates to the separation of chaff from grain, which is known in Hebrew as Borer. This restriction extends to many types of separation, and the rules governing which types are permitted and which are not can be quite complicated. Eating fish is a common situation where Borer becomes a problem, since fish is often served whole and bones are not removed before serving. In order to avoid this concern, a custom developed, whereby the fish was filleted, ground, and stuffed back into the skin and then cooked.

That’s where the name comes from, by the way: Gefilte is derived from געפֿילטע פֿיש, the Yiddish word for “stuffed fish.” But wait, gefilte fish isn’t stuffed! What happened? I can’t find an explanation online, other than laziness: It was just easier to poach the stuffing rather than jam it back into the skin. I can’t help but think how much more appetizing the fish would be had the skin stayed in the picture.

I’m headed back to Marlene’s house tomorrow evening for Passover. She’s my mother-in-law now, so I don’t have to worry about fitting in. When she comes around with the gefilte platter, I’ll just say, “No, thank you,” and take two helpings of charoset.

*This is the most popular explanation for why Jews eats gefilte, but some scholars are skeptical of it. Haym Soloveitchik, a Jewish historian at Yeshiva University, wrote in 1994:

“Popular lore has it that gefilte fish was introduced into the Sabbath menu to avoid the very problem of borer. [But] gefilte fish is an East European dish, and Jews had been eating fish on Sabbath for some fifteen centuries before this culinary creation. Even in Eastern Europe, I know of no instance of someone being labeled a mehallel Shabbas and run out of town for eating non-gefilte fish.”

Which, I must say, makes me feel a bit better about my aversion to the stuff.