Mesorah Fish

December 17, 2008

On Sunday February 19th, the Orthodox Union presented a conference on a wide variety of subjects pertaining to Mesorah of various “pareve” subjects. The following is a look at the topic I presented, “An Analysis of Kaskeses – Part and Present”.

The first question one must address is the relationship between “kaskeses” and a kosher fish. What exactly defines a fish as kosher? The Pasuk in Vayikra 11:9 describes a kosher fish as one that has “snapir v’kaskeses”, which is generally translated as fins and scales. From the Pasuk alone, one might think that a fish needs to have both simanim in order to be kosher. However, the Mishnah in Niddah 59A (expounded in Chullin 66B) tells us, “kol sheyesh bo kaskeses yesh bo snapir”, that any fish which has “kaskeses” will automatically possess “snapir”. If so, we now see that in order for us to know if a fish is kosher, we simply need to confirm that it has “kaskeses”. The question remains, however, what exactly is “kaskeses”?

The Gemara goes through a back and forth discussion to confirm what exactly is a “snapir” and what is a “kaskeses”. The gemara concludes that “snapir” refers to a fin that assists a fish in swimming, and that “kaskeses” refers to those finger-nail like protrusions on the side of a fish. The gemara asks (in light of the knowledge that every fish possessing “kaskeses” automatically has “snapir”) what the was need for the pasuk to mention “snapir”. The Gemara responds, “Yagdil Torah V’Yadir”, that the pasuk mentions “snapir” in order to “make great” and “aggrandize” the Torah.

The question still remains, what exactly is “kaskeses”? Though it is often translated as “scales”, not all scales are included in the term “kaskeses”. Specifically, the Ramban in Chumash tells us that a “kaskeses” must be able to be removed from the fish either by hand or with a knife, without ripping the underlying skin. Practically speaking, if the scale underneath the skin would rip upon removing the scale, the fish could have “fins and scales”, but not have “snapir v’kaskeskes”, and would not be kosher. The Ramban’s requirement is discussed in the Achronim, but is universally accepted as the halacha (see Y.D.83:1, and Ramah there in the name of Maggid Mishnah).

No limit is given in the Poskim to discuss a particular shape, color or texture of a “kaskeses”. Any scale that can be removed without ripping skin would qualify as a “kaskeses”. The only limit discussed is the size of a scale, namely that it must be large enough to be viewed by the naked eye. Both the Aruch HaShulchan and the Tiferes Yisroel mention this requirement, on the grounds that a view at a normal distance by the naked eye is always the minimum limit specified by Torah Law for something to be legally significant.

The second question to address is how can we know if a particular fish is kosher? Many people believe one can determine a fish to be kosher based upon the scientific classification of the scales of a particular fish. There are five different types of scales: placoid, cosmoid, ganoid, ctenoid and cycloid. Placoid scales are found on many different types of sharks (sharks do have scales, though they rip the skin when removed and thus cannot be considered “kaskeses”), cosmoid are found on lungfish, ganoid are found on sturgeon, gars and bowfin. These three types of scales are rarely found on kosher fish, though I mentioned bowfin (Amia Calva) as at least one example of a kosher fish with ganoid scales. The other two types, cycloid and ctenoid scales, are the ones found on most kosher fish. The scale classifications are based on varying factors,such as the make upof the scale,its relationship to other scales on a fish, and the structure of the growth rings on the edge of a scale (experts can determine how old a fish is by counting rings on its scales, much as they would rings on a tree).

Some Rabbis have postulated that any fish bearing cycloid or ctenoid scales is a kosher fish. They would say that all one needs to do is confirm that a certain species of fish has one of these types of scales to know that it is kosher. There are several reasons why one should disagree with this assertion. One reason, mentioned above, is that some fish contain cycloid scales that are not visible to the naked eye. One example that we encountered in the OU office was a type of sandeel (Ammodytes Americanus) that supposedly had cycloid scales, though all the experts in our office who viewed samples could not see anything on the fish large enough to consider it as having “kaskeses”. Another reason why defining the type of scale is not sufficient to know if it is kosher, is that some fish have embedded scales. American Eel (Anguilla Anguilla) is known to have scales that could be “kosher” if not for the fact that they are deeply embedded into the skin. The same is true for burbot (Lota Lota). One must also bear in mind that there is nothing intrinsic to the definition of any type of scale that requires it be able to be removed from the fish without ripping the skin, as is required for “kaskeses”. Even if anecdotally one can note that a great number of fish bearing cycloid and ctenoid scales tend to have ones that that can qualify as “kaskeses”, one cannot claim that this would be a sufficient determinant of kosher status.

Others have suggested that some sort of kosher fish list be constructed for the benefit of consumers. There are several reasons why this suggestion is not viable. The first is the intrinsic inaccuracy of the use of common names. The same common name can be used to refer to a myriad of different fish. Not all “cods” are kosher; the burbot mentioned above is classified as a “gadidae”, technically making it a cod. In our office, we have encountered incidents with such fish as “torsk” (which can refer to both a kosher and a non-kosher fish), “escolar”(oilfish) which also refers to multiple specimens of varying kosher status, and Turbot (some are kosher, some not). Though the primary example of non-kosher (scaleless) Turbot is usually called “European Turbot”, the fish is actively produced through aquaculture (fish farming) in China and possibly other places. Let’s say for argument sake one could guarantee that a certain common name could refer to only one fish in the world. Surely then we could endorse such a fish list’s recommendation?

In truth, the consumer would be stuck with yet another concern, how does he know the sample he is trying to purchase in fact is the fish with this special common name? One cannot rely on someone who is not halachicly reliable to determine the status of a fish, which is exactly what a consumer who cannot determine the kosher status of a particular fish would be doing! For example, one cannot purchase “tilapia” based solely on the recommendation of a kosher fish list, if there is no way for him to verify that the fish in fact IS a tilapia.

Many cite the Orthodox Union’s renowned fish list, prepared by Dr. Atz. Surely one can purchase fish based on this list? Actually, Dr. Atz himself casts doubt upon the ability to identify a fish by common name. In an article he wrote for Tropical Fish Hobbyist in 1996, Dr. Atz chronicles the “Jewfish”. Dr. Atz shows how in different regions of the world from colonial times, almost every society had a “Jewfish”. Some were kosher, some were not. Dr. Atz concluded that the only thing the various fish had in common was that they were despised for some reason or another (and none was ever documented as having paid retail for anything). Common name is not a determinant.

The Kaf HaChaim also sees common names as inaccurate. In his Sefer (Yoreh Deah 83:5), he notes that discrepancies between different Talmudic accounts of the “shibbuta” must lead one to conclude that there were multiple fish called “shibutta” in the times of Chazal.

B’ezras Hashem, we will discuss in next week’s article how one would determine the kosher status of a fish, as well as a look at how the Talmudic rule of “kol sheyesh bo kaskeses yesh bo snapir” would be applied.