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All About Kosher Fish

All About Kosher Fish

Parshat Shemini

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The Torah gives two signs that determine if a fish is kosher—fins and scales. 1 In order for a fish to be kosher, it must have both of these signs. According to the Talmud,2 any fish that has scales also has fins. Thus, if one knows that a particular fish has scales, it is considered a kosher fish.3

As with the other laws of kosher, the Torah doesn't give a reason as to why only a fish with these signs is considered kosher. These laws are considered a chok (a decree beyond comprehension).4

Definition of Scales

Certain fish have scales while in the water, but they shed their scales when caughtIn order to render a fish kosher, the scales must be visible to the naked eye5 and they must be easy to remove from the skin of the fish, either by hand or with an instrument.6 If the scales can be only be removed after soaking the fish in scalding water, there are differing views as to whether the fish is considered kosher.7 Sturgeon is one such fish, and, in practice, it is not considered kosher.

If a fish is not completely covered in scales – it only has several scales – it is still considered kosher.8

If a young fish belongs to a species which develops scales when they mature, it is kosher even if it has not yet developed them.9 Conversely, if a type of fish has scales when it is young but not when it matures, there are differing views as to whether or not it is kosher.10 A swordfish is one such fish, and the accepted rule is that it is not kosher.

Certain fish have scales while in the water, but they shed their scales when caught and brought to dry land. These fish are considered kosher.11 (I have heard that the Spanish mackerel is one such fish.)

Partial List of Kosher Fish:

  • Albacore
  • Bass
  • Cod
  • Flounder
  • Grouper
  • Perch
  • Salmon
  • Snapper
  • Trout
  • Whitefish
  • Many (but not all) tuna
  • Mackerel
  • Pike
  • Carp
  • Herring
  • Tilapia
  • Many species of sardines

Partial List of Non-Kosher Fish:12

  • Catfish
  • Eels
  • Freshwater cod
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Sturgeon
  • Seafood (see below)

See our Kosher Fish List for a more exhaustive listing of kosher and non-kosher fish.

Purchasing Kosher Fish

One should ask the fish monger to thoroughly wash the knife and boardWhen purchasing fish from a store that does not have kosher supervision, it is necessary to personally see the scales on the fish, or at least the indentations in the skin where the scales were before they were removed.13 It is not sufficient that the sign in the store identifies it as a kosher species of fish.14 If the fish is filleted, and one sees scales on one of the pieces, the entire fish can be considered kosher if the pieces "match."15

I have heard that one may eat salmon even if one does not see the scales on the fish because the distinct color is sufficient evidence that it is salmon.

When purchasing fish from a store that also sells non-kosher fish, one should ask the fish monger to thoroughly wash the knife and board that he will use to fillet the fish.16 Some people prefer to bring their own knife and board for him to use.17

If the fish monger filleted a kosher fish with a knife that was not properly washed, one must wash the area that was cut and scrape it off with a knife in order to remove any non-kosher residue.18

Seafood

Any sea creature that does not have fins or scales is not kosher, regardless of whether it is scientifically classified as a fish or whether it actually resembles a fish.19 This means that whales, prawns, shellfish, crabs, octopus, lobster, and shrimp are all not kosher.

A Fish Inside a Fish

If a kosher fish is found inside the belly of a non-kosher fish, it is kosher. If a non-kosher fish is found in the belly of a kosher fish, it is not kosher.20

Caviar / Roe

The eggs of a non-kosher fish are not kosher, while the eggs of a kosher fish are kosher.21 In order to establish that the roe is kosher, one must know that it came from a kosher fish. Therefore, caviar should not be purchased unless it has a reliable kosher certification.

When Are Fish Considered Dead?

It is forbidden to eat a fish while it's aliveIt is not necessary to slaughter fish in a ritual manner, because as soon as a fish is removed from the water it is considered slaughtered.22 It is, however, forbidden to eat a fish while it's alive.23

If a fish dies in the water, it may be eaten.24

Fish Blood

Fish blood is kosher.25 Nevertheless, it is forbidden to drink fish blood if it is removed from the fish, because others may confuse it with animal blood. However, if there are scales in the blood, it is permissible, as it is clearly not animal blood.26

Fish and Meat (or Dairy)

According to the Talmud, it is harmful for one's health to eat fish and meat together. See Fish with Meat or Dairy for more information.

Some argue that, for health reasons, fish should also not be eaten with cheese. See the above link for more information.

FOOTNOTES
1.

Leviticus 11:9-12; Deuteronomy 14:9-10.

2.

Niddah 51b. See also Tosafot d.h. Kol Chulin 66b.

3.

See the Talmud ibid. as to why the Torah does, in fact, mention the fins as a requirement.

4.

See Yoma 67b. See also Maharsha there.
Nevertheless, several commentaries do offer explanations. Nachmanides (Leviticus ibid.) writes that fish without fins and scales generally dwell deep under the surface of the ocean. As a result, they accumulate more impurities and are therefore not healthy to eat. The Tzemach Tzedek (Ohr HaTorah Shmini 807) writes that fish represent souls of the highest order. The fins represent the love and fear that every soul should have for G‑d, while the scales represent the Torah and mitzvot in which every soul must garb itself.

5.

Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De'ah 83:15.

6.

Nachmanides ibid., Beit Yosef beginning of Yoreh De'ah 83. If they cannot be removed they are considered part of the skin, not scales. Scales are referred to as "garments" (see Talmud, Nidah ibid.); i.e., something that can be removed.

7.

Noda B'Yehuda Tinyana, Yoreh De'ah. 28; Aruch HaShulchan, ibid. 13; Pitchei Teshuvah, Yoreh De'ah 83:1.

8.

Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De'ah 83:1. See there that even one scale is sufficient, but see Rama there that some say that the one scale must be under its cheek, fin or tail. This is to ensure that the scale did not simply fall on it from another fish (Aruch HaShulchan, ibid. 14).

9.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid.

10.

See Tzitz Eliezer vol. 9, 40.

11.

Talmud, Avodah Zara 39a. Rashi on Leviticus ibid., quoting from the Torat Kohanim 11:84, bases this on the verse: "Anything that has fins and scales in the water etc."

12.

See Talmud, Chulin 63b, that there are 700 types of non-kosher fish. The number of kosher species exceeds that (Aruch HaShulchan, ibid. 8).

13.

Darkei Teshuvah, ibid. 17.

14.

See Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 118.

15.

Ibid., 83:4.

16.

See Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 91, Shach 3 and Taz 2. See also Taz 6 on Y.D. 89.

17.

See Taz 2 on Y.D. 91. See also Shach 89 on Y.D. 69.

18.

Pitchei Teshuvah 5 on Y.D. 96.
If one is unsure whether the fish was cut with a clean knife, one may be lenient and not wash the piece (See Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 96:4 with Rama, Shach, and Taz.).

19.

Aruch HaShulchan, ibid. 5, but see there 6-11 that according to Maimonides, any creature that doesn't resemble a fish is not kosher even if it has fins and scales.

20.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 83:9-10.

21.

Ibid. 8. See there that certain shapes and colors can be used as identifying factors as to the status of the roe. An unrelated point: It is interesting that the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 7:1, as interpreted by the commentaries there), which was written over 1,500 years ago, says that female fish lay their eggs in the water, and the male fish then fertilize them externally. This is, of course, also the view of modern science.

22.

Talmud, Chulin 27b, based on the verse in Numbers 11:22: "If you were to slaughter sheep and cattle for them… if you were to gather all the fish of the sea, etc." Thus the Torah compares the gathering of the fish to the slaughtering of animals. See also Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 7:2.

23.

Rama on Yoreh De'ah 13:1 See there that the laws of eiver min hachai do not apply to fish.

24.

Maimonides, Laws of Shechitah 1:3.

25.

Talmud, Kritut 20b; Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 66:1 This is derived in Kritut 21b from the fact that fish need not be slaughtered.

26.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 9.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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Discussion (20)
July 21, 2014
A fish in a fish
You are correct. It is the first fish listed that is kosher.
May you go from strength to strength,
Aryeh Citron
Surfside
July 18, 2014
A Fish Inside a Fish
Please help me to understand the word "it" as used twice in "If a kosher fish is found inside the belly of a non-kosher fish, it is kosher. If a non-kosher fish is found in the belly of a kosher fish, it is not kosher." Is the "it" in both cases referring to the first listed fish or the second listed fish? I'm assuming the first listed fish but just want to be sure. My wife and I have made great progress this last year to diligently eat kosher. Thank you for the helpful article.
Andy
Hillside
January 27, 2014
Rambams' advice and whether the nose knows
The sense of smell is not the same for a child or young adult, as an adult. Many "food smells" are repulsive to a child or young adult, but don't bother older people at all. Beer, pickles, strong-smelling cheeses, brined foods in general, distilled drinks and other foods are generally very repulsive-smelling to a young person or child. But, they're perfectly fit for consumption and very agreeable to an adult. There are some "smells" that are offensive to many people, but not to other full grown adults, and vice versa. In other words, there is no "blanket advice" regarding what foods may or may not be eaten in regard to the sense of smell.

A number of foods that one culture finds truly delicious, edible and "nice-smelling", another culture would throw in the trash and discard for their sense of "evil-smelling". So, the question is much more complex than the Rambam would have us believe.
Eleazar Shlomo ben Yakov Goldman
Guanajuato, MEXICO
January 27, 2014
Hake
According to the fish list on this website, hake is a kosher fish. When in doubt, just look for the scales. If it has them, it's kosher.
Aryeh Citron
Surfside
January 27, 2014
Is Hake kosher?
Lecile
South Africa
September 9, 2013
Kingclip
Re the kashrut of the kingclip fish, a search on google comes up with a fascinating article regarding this. The South African Bait Din considers it kosher. Others question this as they consider the scales too small. So the short answer: I don't know
Aryeh Citron
Surfside
September 9, 2013
kosher fish
Is the fish Kingklip Kosher
joel gerard
stanmore, middlesex
chabad.co.za
August 19, 2013
Regarding bad smelling foods and the RAMBAMS' advice
Rabbi Citron, Thanks for researching that bit of advice from the great Rambam, possibly part of The Guide for the Perplexed. Nevertheless, I will have to disagree with him regarding certain foods that have a "bitter" taste, such as good beer or maybe even vodka would fall into that category, along with certain "smelly" foods, like various cheeses, of which there are many super-good ones like brie and camembert that have a strong smell. But, I would never eat evil-smelling fish, chicken, beef or any other kosher meat if they had a "bad" smell, and agree with the Rambam in general that the nose knows.
Eleazar Shlomo ben Yakov Goldman
Guanajuato, MEXICO
August 18, 2013
Malodorous fish (and food)
Re the Tuyo fish and other smelly foods, I just came across the following in Rambam, Laws of De'ot, 4, 9:
"There are foods which are extremely harmful and it is proper that one should never eat them... and any food with a bad smell or a very bitter taste. These are like poison to the body."
Aryeh Citron
Surfside
August 14, 2013
Tuyo fish kosher?
Even if a fish, such as TUYO FISH, has scales and fins, but stinks terribly when cooking it, it may have "kosher" status according to halachah, but why would a person want to eat a vile-smelling fish? I would trust my nose in that case.
Eleazar Shlomo ben Yakov Goldman
Guanajuato, MEXICO
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