“Gefilte fish” is fish prepared in a certain manner, a dish traditionally enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Before discussing gefilte fish, let’s first take a moment to discuss why it is customary to eat fish on Shabbat. Here are a few of the reasons given:
- In the Torah’s account of the creation of the world, the word “blessing” is used three times. The first is regarding the creation of fish, the second regarding the creation of man, and the third regarding Shabbat. When a human eats fish on Shabbat, he is thus the beneficiary of a triple blessing.
- Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a gematria (numerical value). The letters of the Hebrew word for fish, dag, add up to seven. We therefore honor Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, by eating fish.
- At the time of the messianic redemption, there will be a feast at which the Leviathan, a giant fish, will be served. Shabbat, the day of rest, is a microcosm of the messianic era. As such, the fish we eat on Shabbat is in anticipation of the “day which will be a complete and perfect Shabbat.”
- Perhaps most importantly: eating fish is an integral part of oneg Shabbat—the obligation to enjoy and engage in pleasurable pursuits on Shabbat.
Now, to answer your question about gefilte fish:
In Yiddish, gefilte fish means “stuffed fish.” Originally, the recipe for gefilte fish called for the flesh of the fish to be removed from the skin, ground up and mixed with other ingredients such as eggs, spices, and ground onions and carrots. The mixture was then stuffed back into the skin, and cooked or baked. The laws of Shabbat prohibit removing bones from fish, making fish consumption a bit tricky. Boneless gefilte fish circumvents this problem. In addition, including all the additional ingredients in the ground fish stretched the amount, so that poor families would have enough for the entire household.
Nowadays, the gefilte fish mixture is usually not stuffed back into the skin, but the name remains. Gefilte fish can be bought ready-to-eat in jars, in frozen rolls—or you can prepare your own. Click here for some recipes.
All the best,
Rochel Chein, for Chabad.org