Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha scream the colorfully illustrated posters hanging in Jewish homes and synagogues all over the globe during the month of Adar, in literal affirmation of our escalating sense of joy.
Designs may vary, but the vivid imagery of fish is common to many if not most of them.
At first glance, the sign of the fish is not quite the emblem one would envision as fit to represent the mazal of Adar, let alone the pinnacle of our spiritual transcendence. For sure there’s more to the unobtrusive aquatic creature than meets the eye. And there, precisely, lies one powerful lesson: In the depth of their watery abode, fish reside far from prying and envious eyes and thus avert the blight of the evil eye, the ayin hara, to which we are so susceptible.
By virtue of their humble existence, fish also serve as a model of unpretentiousness – which just happens to be a fundamental trait in the realm of spirituality and no doubt linked to the age-old mystical phenomena of the reincarnation of righteous souls in – you guessed it – fish.
Just about anyone reading this will recall the sensation created by allegations of a talking fish in Rockland County, New York, that made waves on dry land everywhere in 2003.
Cynics were quick to voice derision at the mere mention of the story. But though implausible to a modern intellect that stubbornly insists on viable proof, the account was far from the first of its kind. And those who accept the story at face value would argue that as a people of faith we should believe that in the realm of Hashem, anything is possible.
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According to an oft-told story dating from the early 1900s involving the then-Pupa Rebbe, R. Yaakov Yechezkieh (also known as the Ba’al Vayaged Yaakov), with the proper emunah fish can even be called on to dance for you.
The remote European village was abuzz with excitement at hosting the tzaddik on his vacation, and by Thursday afternoon the heavenly aroma of home cooking and challas baking wafting through the balmy outdoor air attested to Shabbos preparations well under way.
The fish, however, weren’t biting, lamented the fishermen at the market where the women had gone to purchase their standard Shabbos fare. When the rebbe was made aware that they might not have fish lekavod Shabbos, he seemed unfazed. Not to worry, he assured his rebbetzin; they would have fish for Shabbos, God willing.
Friday morning the anxious rebbetzin again brought her concerns before the rebbe. This time he advised her to set the pot cooking in readiness for the fish – because “with the right emunah it will be.”
R. Yaakov Yechezkieh then headed out with his gabbai (personal assistant) to the far side of the lake for ritual immersion. Just as the rebbe immersed himself in the sparkling water, an amazing scene mesmerized the gabbai who stood by holding the rebbe’s Shabbos clothes; a big, beautiful fish had suddenly surfaced and was circling the tzaddik with its fins flapping, as though appealing to the rebbeto take it home for Shabbos Kodesh.
On their walk back through the village streets, they were quite the sight – the gabbai, fish in one hand and rebbe’s weekday clothes in the other, following closely behind the rebbe. To those who wondered aloud about where the elusive fish could have been found, the gabbai remarked simply, “The rebbe said that with the right emunah, it will be!”
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In Vienna’s oldest Jewish cemetery (Rossau), there is a sculpture of a fish, mouth open, tail in the air. A Jewish fisherman who had netted a large fish to feed his family stopped short of clobbering it senseless when the fish emitted a heart-rending Shema Yisrael. The rav of the community resolved that the fish merited proper burial rather than consumption.
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Not all fish with a lofty quest are equally outspoken. Take the time that members of a Jewish community in a distant city invited Reb Baruch of Mezibush for a Shabbos and managed to procure an extra large fish for their esteemed guest (a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov).
The tzaddik was immensely pleased with their prize find and insisted on divvying it up and personally serving everyone assembled at his tish (table).
Later, R. Baruch regaled them with the following story:
There once lived a God-fearing and learned young man who was beloved by all he came in contact with. As the Yiddish saying goes, he was tzu Got un ztu leit, finding favor in the eyes of God and man alike.
His wife ran a small merchandising outlet that allowed the talmid chacham to study to his heart’s content. Satan, however, had difficulty handling such virtuosity and wrested divine approval to put the righteous individual to the test.
Their modest business soon took off and the young wife, unable to bear the brunt of the increased workload, beseeched her husband to forgo some learning time in order to help out.
Eventually the need arose for some business transactions to be conducted away from home, so the young man began mingling in the outside world where he gradually picked up unsavory habits. One faux pas led to another until the once gentle and pious man’s scruples left much to be desired.
Once, while on the way to commit an unspeakable indiscretion, his ears picked up disturbing sounds of weeping. Investigation on his part revealed an entire family held captive in a dungeon due to being arrears to their landowner.
The young man wasted no time in paying off the debt to gain release of the imprisoned individuals, and his meritorious deed awoke in him acute regret for having fallen from grace and angering his Maker.
Grief-stricken, he contemplated all his wrongdoings and wondered what would keep him from spiraling downward again in the future. The tormenting thought left him so disheartened that he jumped off his wagon, dove into a nearby body of water and drowned.
The heavens were up in arms. On the one side were all of his maasim tovim of earlier years, as well as the massive achievement of his last day on earth; on the other there was the argument that though he repented on his last day and performed a great mitzvah, he nonetheless committed a grave misdeed by taking his life.
The Heavenly Court ruled that his soul would be reincarnated as a fish whose consumption as Shabbos or Yom Tov fare would absolve him of all sin.
Reb Baruch of Mezibush concluded by saying they had all participated in the poor soul’s rectification. The tzaddik then gathered ten men with whom he studied Mishnayos the entire night, assuring the neshama’s return to its rightful place.
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Is there an ethereal connection between tzaddikim and fish? The following incident testifies that there might just be.
Once in his younger years when the Chozeh of Lublin, Reb Yaakov Yitzchok, arrived at the court of the Maggid of Mezritch on an erev Shabbos, he happened upon the bustling preparations of the fish. Without ado, he announced he would not depart from his longstanding practice of preparing his own and promptly helped himself to a piece, salted it, and placed it among the others still requiring cooking.
The maggid’s talmidim who viewed the incident were amused by the young man’s notion of having prepared “his” portion of fish, which would be tossed together with dozens of others and set before the maggid to be apportioned randomly as shirayim (the custom of partaking of the food the rebbe has tasted).
Reb Shneur Zalman (later to become known as the Ba’al HaTanya), was one of the young men present. Intrigued as to how the incident would play itself out, he marked the pre-salted piece of fish by threading it with a piece of string.
Friday night, as the maggid’s uneaten “leftovers” were rationed to the many eager seudah participants, R. Shneur Zalman’s eyes did not veer from the identifiable portion of fish.
He watched as the threaded fish was handed to someone other than R. Yaakov Yitzchok. The recipient was immediately gripped by a fever that quashed his appetite and he weakly nudged the fish portion toward R. Yaakov Yitzchok, who sat near him, with a “take it I’m not feeling too well.”
Just as soon as R. Yaakov Yitzchok took the piece of fish from him, his tablemate regained his prior robust state of health and asked for anther piece.
In later years, when the Baal HaTanya would retell the story, he’d add that as the outcome unfolded, he understood the newcomer possessed a spiritually elevated essence.
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And then there’s the anguish of the soul that almost missed its tikkun. The episode took place about a century ago and involves a highly respected talmid chacham known as Reb Avraham Mekubal. Despite the meager stipend he received from the local kehilla in the tiny, close-knit community, he was able to indulge his passion for learning without much disruption. And so he chose a modest albeit peaceful existence over a more lucrative but stressful position in a larger city.
When a devastating fire impoverished the kehilla, Reb Avraham was left no choice but to accept a rabbinical post elsewhere.
As he and his family approached their new surroundings on an early Friday morning, they stopped to take respite at the premises of a Jewish innkeeper who was thrilled at the rare opportunity to perform the mitzvah of hachnossas orchim. Intent on hosting his eminent guests for the duration of Shabbos, the innkeeper prepared the best accommodations at his disposal and looked eagerly forward to some spiritual stimulation.
A longstanding tradition had the poritz, the landowner, coming by every Friday evening for an overflowing mug of schnapps and generous helping of fish. He arrived this night just as Reb Avraham and his family were being served the fish course, and a place setting was duly set for the visitor.
But as the poritz lifted a forkful to his mouth, a loud commotion ensued. Reb Avraham, seated at the head of the table, had collapsed in a heap on the floor. The poritz dropped his fork and rushed to join the others trying to revive their esteemed guest.
In a short while, Reb Avraham was well enough for everyone to resume the meal. The poritz opened his mouth in anticipation of relishing a tasty morsel when Reb Avraham fell to the floor again. This scene repeated itself over and over until a vexed poritz, resigned to the realization that some force was at work to prevent him from indulging in his favorite weekly repast, left his fish whole and strode out.
During the night, Reb Avraham was awakened by moans and cries for help. The innkeeper, he was informed, was suffering severe abdominal distress and appeared to be on the verge of expiring. Still weak from his earlier ordeal, Reb Avraham took pains to approach his host’s bedside.
“Be aware,” he said with all earnestness, “that your suffering is linked to my fainting spells. The holy books teach that righteous Jewish souls in need of spiritual rectification infiltrate the type of foods we purchase in honor of our holiest days; this affords the neshama a tremendous aliyah.
“By allowing the poritz to satisfy his physical appetite by way of the Shabbos fish, you may have cancelled out tikkunim of more than one bereft Jewish soul. On this Friday night, it was your father’s neshama that sought rectification at his own son’s table. As the poritz was about to indulge his craving, the neshama’s distraught cries echoed through the atmosphere. Unable to withstand the soul’s anguish, I lost consciousness, and your affliction is penance for your father’s pain.”
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The inconspicuous inhabitants of the sea have featured quite prominently on our Jewish landscape, even as they tend to remain hidden from view.
And therein lay Haman’s folly. Fish, he scoffed, as he scrutinized the astrological signs of each month to determine the most opportune one for his malicious plan, are easily devoured.
What he could never fathom was the Jewish heart, concealed from the outsider like the fish that reside in the hidden depths of the ocean. What he failed to ascertain was that water is a metaphor for the divine attribute of kindness and that the continuously open eyes of fish allude to God’s constant watch over His beloved children. What Haman did not figure into his equation was our unbreakable bond with our Maker via the life-sustaining waters (of Toras Chayim) in which we are constantly immersed.
Notwithstanding that God alone determines the fate of the people of Israel (those who follow His ways bypass the astrological influence of the stars), all of God’s creations – among them the wondrous and intriguing constellations – were intended as lessons for His most intelligent of creations, the human being.
Fish, symbolizing the month of Adar, are likened to B’nei Yisrael and teach us the most profound of lessons.
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.