Gefilte Fishing

Parshat Vayakhel

So where do gefilte fish come from?

I know what you’re thinking… madlik has gone juvenile and is writing children’s stories.

Or maybe you’re thinking that our local post-orthodox blogger is trying to increase online traffic. IDEA! More people are interested in a food blog then a weekly Torah blog.

Well your probably both right.. but actually I was just using gefilte fish as a hook to understand the Torah…

It turns out that Gefilte Fish Yiddish:  filled or stuffed, (compare the German: gefüllte) was a Jewish invention to create boneless fish for Shabbat that would not require picking those annoying little bones out of the fish. As we shall learn, there’s an innocuous prohibition against winnowing chaff (the bad stuff) from your grain (the good stuff) which boneing a fish falls under.

In a very real sense… gefilte fish is the original processed food, and children around the world enjoying hot dogs and hamburgers, not to mention; fish sticks, have the Jewish people to thank.

Now to be factual.. the original gefilte fish was actually stuffed… meaning to say the mixed fish sans bones was ground and then stuffed into the skin of a fish (see picture below) :

My wife’s family (the Zilberstein’s of Tel Aviv) serve slices of this; the pictured fish.. and I always complained because it didn’t look like the sterile gefilte fish balls we Americanos are used to:

but of course my wife and mother-in-law are right..

So back to gefilte fishing…. Who gets the credit for this great invention? After reviewing the biblical and rabbinic sources, it appears that it was the editor of the Bible who gets the credit….. which means that it’s a variable choice answer.

Feel free to make your own choice of Biblical editor:

[ ] God [ ] Moses [ ] Ezra the Scribe [ ] J [ ] E [ ] D [ ] P [ ] Other

see chart below for variations of the last choices and a description of Wellhausen’s Higher Biblically critical Documentary Hypothesis:

In any case… regardless who the editor of the Torah was… he (or she) chose to insert a particularly strong admonition regarding the observance of the Sabbath.. right before the portion of the Torah, where we are informed that every design detail of the tabernacle described in earlier sections, was actually done to spec and unlike similar plans provided by Congress.. was paid for in advance.

1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’
4 And Moses spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing which the LORD commanded, saying:
5 Take ye from among you an offering unto the LORD, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the LORD’S offering: gold, and silver, and brass;
6 and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair;
etc. etc. etc.
10 And let every wise-hearted man among you come, and make all that the LORD hath commanded:
11 the tabernacle, its tent, and its covering, its clasps, and its boards, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets; etc. etc. etc (Exodus 35:1-11)

וכו וכו

Rabbi Hanina bar Hama learns from the fact that the admonition of the Shabbat is mentioned next to the description of the actual building of the tabernacle that the labors forbidden on the Sabbath in Exodus 35:2 correspond to the 39 labors (lit. forty less one”) necessary to construct the Tabernacle. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 49b.)

Rabbi Judah haNasi may not have been satisfied with this explanation or may have wanted to supplement it, but he taught that the words “These are the words” in Exodus 35:1 referred to the 39 labors that God taught Moses at Sinai. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 97b.)

Still another opinion is that the term melakhah (work) found in the discussion of the Sabbath also appears thirty-nine times in the Bible, Scripture is thereby teaching that there are thirty-nine categories of proscribed work on this holy day.

In case you’re curious… here’s the list of the 39 prohibited activities that the Rabbis suggested were used to build the tabernacle and therefore to be forbidden on Shabbat:

The main classes of activity [melakhah] are forty less one: sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves; threshing, winnowing; sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking; shearing the wool, bleaching it, beating it, dyeing it, spinning, stretching the warp on the loom, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads; tying a knot, untying a knot, sewing two stitches; tearing in order to sew two stitches; trapping a deer, slaughtering it, flaying it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it up; writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters; building, pulling down; extinguishing, lighting a fire; striking with a hammer; carrying from domain to domain these are the main classes of activity: forty less one. (Mishna Shabbat: 7:2)

For a complete and wonderful explanation of each and every one of the 39 types of labor … feel free to visit Wikipedia Activities prohibited on Shabbat, in particular see the treatment of: winnowing/sorting Hebrew: בורר which is responsible for the invention of Gefilte Fish.

Sorting or “winnowing” usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, but in the Talmudic sense it refers to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish.

Any Yeshiva Bochur knows that the Rabbis of the Talmud provided rules by which biblical texts could be interpreted such as the Thirteen Rules of Rav Yishmael found in the morning service of a traditional prayer book.

[For a discussion of these types of rules and how they may be similar to rules created by the Greek rhetors see Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture in Hellenism in Jewish Palestine by Saul Lieberman]

To my knowledge, you will not find a rule such as that used here by Rabbi Hanina bar Hama that when facts or incidents are placed near one another in the Bible, one can derive a lesson from just that juxtaposition.

If I were writing a Biblical commentary I would suggest that the writer or editor of the Bible, by juxtaposing the Shabbat to the Tabernacle, was suggesting that the ends don’t justify the means, and that when you go ahead and build your Priestly temple… you should still remember the revolution of the workers that started this whole movement… and don’t work or have the workers work on the Sabbath.

Be that as it may…. you can in any case see that the Rabbis were fumbling to find a reason for an oral tradition of 39 activities… that they already knew about.

The truth is, it could have been a lot worse! There were Jewish sects around at the time that were a lot more restrictive. Josephus says that the Essenes are “stricter than all the Jews in abstaining from work on the Sabbath” (Jewish Wars. II.147).. In all probability, the Essenes sat in the dark on the Sabbath rather than benefit from a lit candle and the Samaritans were even stricter then the Essenes. … Those (good!) Samaritans are reported to have refrained from travelling from house to house and even from taking their hands out of their sleeves and even remain in the position in which he was overtaken on the Sabbath, until the Sabbath was over. It seems that these Samaritans had a very strict interpretation of Exodus 16:29, “Remain every man where he is; let no man go from his place on the seventh day”. According to Josephus, the Essenes would not move a vessel or …… go to the bathroom on the seventh day! (Josephus Jewish Wars. II.147).. See: The Samaritans: Their Religion, Literature, Society and Culture by Alan David Crown , Mohr Siebeck, 1989 – History – 865 pages pages 315 331-332 see also fellow heterodox blogger anadder and his blog entry: No Shitting on the Shabbat.

The take away … or gefilta fish take-out.. is twofold:

1) The idea of what constitutes Shabbat rest is not written in stone (!)… even during the Rabbinic period it was under discussion, it is an evolving discussion in which we are all invited to partake

2) As restrictive as the Rabbinic Shabbat might seem, it could have been a lot worse and, in fact, the Rabbis may have been alluding to a bias towards leniency and enjoyment (oneg) of the Shabbat by referring to the 39 activities as forty less one (see Why are there 39 types of work forbidden shabbat). In any case, anyone who has ever observed an Orthodox Shabbat knows that the Rabbinic Shabbat, refined over time and enriched with traditional foods, songs and home rituals… can be magical.

And so… to that anonymous editor who put the paragraph regarding the Shabbat next to the construction details of the Mishkan… I guess we should have a little gratitude.. if not for all 39 forbidden activities then at least for a wonderful recipe for stuffed fish.

… and that, boys and girls… is where gefilte fish comes from!


Filed under Bible, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Gefilte Fishing

  1. Orna


  2. excellent post. Here is my recipe for Gefilte fish- its originally from the NY Times

    Alaskan Halibut And Salmon Gefilte Fish Terrine

    1 hour 30 minutes (plus chilling time)


    * 2 pounds halibut fillets, skinned and boned
    * 1 pound salmon fillets, skinned and boned
    * 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferably kosher for Passover
    * 4 medium Spanish onions, peeled and diced
    * 4 large eggs
    * 6 tablespoons matzoh meal
    * 1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
    * 2 teaspoons ground white pepper
    * 2 tablespoons sugar
    * 1 tablespoon lemon juice
    * 2 tablespoons snipped dill, plus more for garnish
    * 2 large carrots, peeled
    * Parsley for garnish


    Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut the fish into large chunks, and place in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse about 20 times: do not puree, but grind fine. Place in the bowl of an electric mixer.
    Heat oil in a large frying pan, and saute onions until soft and transparent. Let cool.
    To the fish mixture, add the onions, eggs, 2 cups of cold water, matzoh meal, salt, white pepper, sugar and lemon juice. Beat in an electric mixer at medium speed for about 10 minutes. Add the dill, and grate in the carrots; mix well, using a paddle attachment.
    Pour the mixture into a greased 12-cup bundt pan. Smooth the top with a spatula, and cover with foil. Place in a larger pan filled with water that is almost boiling.
    Bake in the oven for 1 hour, or until the center is solid. Cool for 5 minutes, or until mold is cool to the touch. Run a knife around the edges. Place a flat serving plate on top, then flip over, inverting onto the plate. If the mold doesn’t come out easily, give the plate a shake. You should feel or hear it give.
    Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Slice as you would a torte, and serve as an appetizer. Garnish with the parsley and remaining dill, and serve with red horseradish.

    • yumm…. can’t wait to try it! This might be the beginning of a wonderful relationship…. a weekly parsha recipe blog…
      ” Mortal, feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll… and I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey to me” (Ezekiel 3:3).

  3. happy to contribute to this idea. i think that certain things should be prepared in group, though. Why have more than one home stink like GF????

    • Liz – Thanks for joining the discussion and subscribing to the blog!

      I don’t know about Gefilte Fish… but Chulent used to be cooked in a communal oven…
      “Ashkenazi-style cholent was first mentioned in 1180, in the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna. In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other cities in Israel before the advent of electricity and cooking gas, a pot with the assembled but uncooked ingredients was brought to the local baker before sunset on Fridays. The baker would put the pot with the cholent mixture in his oven, which was always kept fired, and families would come by to pick up their cooked cholent on Saturday mornings. The same practice was observed in Morocco, where black pots of s’hina placed overnight in bakers’ ovens and then delivered by bakers’ assistants to households on Shabbat morning” See

  4. Great ideas! A very interesting Torah lesson. One needs time to go deeper into the meaning, I promise to do that. Keep up the good work.

  5. Actually there is a cooking/parsha blog that I follow that is really quite good

  6. Pingback: Gefilte Fish Terrine (sustainable) – Much Ado About Stuffing

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