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Fins and Scales

Fins and Scales


Sept. 11, 1941:

In Arlington, Virginia, the U.S. Department of Defense starts construction on its new headquarters, the Pentagon.

On the same day, a new immigrant to the U.S., Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, later known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, writes in his private journal concerning two traits that make a moral and productive human being: “fins” and “scales.”

A few days later, the German army captures Kiev, capital of the Ukraine, and massacres 100,000 people in a ravine named Babi Yar.

Sept. 11, 2001:

The world is shocked when passenger airliners crash into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, killing thousands.

“This may you 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.”1

The Talmud states: “All [fish] that have scales also have fins [and are thus kosher]; but there are [fish] that have fins but do not have scales [and are thus unkosher].”2

This raises two questions. First, why are fins and scales the characteristics that distinguish kosher fish? Second, as the Talmud itself asks, why are fins presented as an identifying sign for kosher fish when they are redundant, since scaled fish inevitably have fins as well?

Food’s Force

The Kabbalah teaches that the physical attributes of fish, and of all animals, reflect their psychological and spiritual qualities. It further explains that the food a person consumes has a profound effect on his or her psyche. Therefore, when one eats the flesh of a particular creature, the “personality” of that creature affects the person in some way.

Drive & Direction

On September 11, 1941, the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote in his journal:

As the armor that protects the body of the fish, scales represent the quality of integrity, which protects us from the 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.

Fins, the wing-like organs that propel fish forward, represent ambition. A healthy sense of ambition, knowing one’s strengths and wanting to utilize them in full, gives a person the impetus to traverse the turbulent sea of life and to maximize his or her G‑d-given potential. It propels us to fulfill our dreams and leave our unique imprint on the world.

Right On or Enron?

Which of these two qualities is more important to cultivate in life—fins or scales? What ought to be the main function of education? Should we concentrate primarily on providing our children with the confidence and skills necessary for them to become accomplished human beings? Or ought we to focus more on raising children with principles, teaching them that it is more important to do right than it is to do well? Are the two equally significant?

The Talmud teaches that all fish that have scales also have fins, but that there are fish that have fins but no scales, and that such fish are not kosher. Symbolically, this means that a human being who possesses ambition but lacks integrity is “unkosher.” Such a person may be full of confidence, driven to make an impact on society. Yet educating ambitious and confident children does not guarantee their moral health. Some of the executives of Enron and WorldCom are examples of humans who have “fins” but no “scales.”

On the other hand, the Talmud tells us that all fish with scales have fins. While integrity is fundamental, ambition is also important. By mentioning fins as one of the signs of a kosher fish, the Torah teaches us that it is not enough to maintain our own integrity; we must also have a positive effect on the world. The lesson of the Talmud is that if we teach our children to approach life with awe before truth, with an unyielding commitment to serve a transcendent, moral G‑d, they will certainly succeed and develop “fins” as well. Regardless of their other abilities, they will find the drive to improve themselves and to make the world a better place.

Blind Ambition

The events of September 2001, like those of September 1941, dramatically altered our view of the world. They demonstrated the destructiveness of people with fierce ambition and zeal whose morality is corrupt. In his diary entry of September 11, 1941, I believe the Rebbe was emphasizing that if we don’t want evil to triumph, we must stand up with great determination against human fish who possess fins but lack scales.

Niddah 51b.
Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson is editor of, a website of Jewish news and commentary in English and Yiddish. Rabbi Jacobson is also a popular and widely sought speaker on chassidic teachings, and the author of the tape series “A Tale of Two Souls.”
Originally published in Kosher Spirit
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Anonymous January 20, 2016

i didnt know mahimahi was kosher Reply

Anonymous fortgratiot April 18, 2015

this was interesting Reply

Angela Winston hills, NSW August 10, 2012

which fish have fins but no scales? Reply

Anonymous cordoba, argentina March 24, 2011

very inspiring!! Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA March 22, 2011

Great article. A teaching which I'd lilke to meditate on. Some might take it some might leave it. It is up to each individual.
The teachings of Lubavitcher Rebbe have profound meanings, I have great respect for his memory. Reply

Robert Slater BrynMawr, PA April 10, 2010

Rabbi, I am not so sure the Rabbis of the Talmud had that lesson in mind, but it is a great fish story! -Bob Reply

Anonymous March 28, 2010

please let the world know this already, it is sore without this knowledge!
thankyou, incredible information in this article Reply

Anonymous bklyn, ny March 27, 2008

Thankyou for that awe-inspiring insights!!!!! Reply

chaim April 11, 2007

Dear no one agrees with this:
That seems to be exactly the point. EVEN when nobody seems to be focused on the important aproach to life and the majority of mankind seems to take an attitude hilighting the "fins" we must still shine forth with all the innocence and purity within our reach.
Especially when dealing with children.
G-d Bless. Reply

Linda Haniford Buffalo, NY April 8, 2007

No one agrees with this... Reply