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Among the most popular delicacies that traditionally grace the Shabbat table is a first course consisting of fish.1 This might be because the Hebrew word for “fish” has the gematria of “seven,” suggesting that we are to eat fish on the seventh day. Some authorities even say that eating fish on Shabbat is a Torah obligation.2 Most others, however, rule that there is no true obligation to eat fish, though it is highly recommended.3 As with anything one eats on Shabbat, personal gastronomic preferences and conveniences take priority, and one who does not enjoy fish is not obligated to eat it.4 So too, if fish is too expensive, one need not purchase it for Shabbat.5

Although fish is especially appropriate for the Friday night meal, it is considered ideal to eat fish at all three Shabbat meals.6 However, if one only has enough fish for one meal, it seems it should be saved for the daytime meal7 while some authorities say the third Shabbat meal is the ideal time to eat fish.8 The great Sages were known for personally tending to the fish dishes of Shabbat, from purchasing the fish in the marketplace to seasoning and cooking the fish for the Shabbat meals.9


One of the reasons we eat elaborate meals on Shabbat is based on the Talmudic teaching that anyone who partakes of “delights” in honor of Shabbat will be blessed with all his heart’s desires.10 Fish is specifically named several times as one of these Shabbat delights.11 Eating fish on Shabbat also represents the three-part continuity in the order of creation: fish were created on Thursday, man on Friday, and Shabbat on Saturday.12 Similarly, it is customary to begin the Shabbat meal with fish and then proceed to the meat dishes to recall that fish were created before the land animals. Others suggest that eating fish on Shabbat represents the feast that will take place in Olam Haba, the Next World, in which the Leviathan fish will be served.13 Serving fish at a meal is also said to signify that the meal is a festive one.14 In Talmudic times, the shibuta fish was a common Shabbat delicacy15, and it is noted that its taste resembles that of pork.16

It is also taught that fish were created from the water, while animals were made from the earth. Therefore, fish are a preferred Shabbat dish because they were created from and are sustained by water, the highest of the four elements (water, fire, wind, and earth). It is especially appropriate to eat foods from the highest element on a day that is itself the highest and holiest of all days. Furthermore, fish is a food that essentially does not require any further preparation in order to be eaten. They do not require shechita and can even be eaten raw. So too, Shabbat is a day that symbolizes completion; all preparations needed in order to enjoy the day must be completed before Shabbat begins each week.17

Some sources teach that we eat fish because they were the only species that did not share in the corruption that took place in the days of Noach that eventually led to the flood.18 Similarly, fish always remained pure and never mated with other species. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov chose to live in Mezritch because fish were abundant in that city, which ensured that he would always have fish to eat on Shabbat.19 It is also taught that eating fish increases the desire for intimacy,20 and Shabbat is considered an auspicious time to engage in marital relations.21

It is interesting to note that most of the traditional Shabbat foods did not evolve culturally but for reasons of halacha and hashkafa. For example, gefilte fish was developed as a way to avoid the Shabbat prohibition of borer, the prohibition against separating unwanted matter from wanted matter. When eating fish, one is often required to first remove the bones (unwanted matter) from the fish (wanted matter) before eating it. Gefilte fish was created to bypass this problem and allow us to enjoy fish without worrying about violating Shabbat, since gefilte fish is ground up, cooked and ready to be eaten without the need to remove the bones or skin. Similarly, cholent evolved as a rebuttal to the Karaite claim that the Torah’s requirement that “no fire should burn on the Shabbat day” includes a prohibition to eat anything warmed by fire. According to oral tradition, however, one is permitted to keep warm and in certain cases reheat a fully cooked food on Shabbat, as long as the fire or other heat source was on before the arrival of Shabbat. Therefore, we eat cholent to demonstrate our faith in the Oral tradition.22

One who enjoys a warm fish dish should endeavor to eat it on Friday night, as heating fish on Shabbat morning can be problematic from the perspective of halacha.23 Indeed, there used to be a custom to defer the cooking of fish until moments before the onset of Shabbat in order to ensure that it would be hot and fresh.24 For kabbalistic reasons, Rabbi Chaim Eliezer Shapira would not use a fork and knife when eating fish on Shabbat but would eat his fish with his fingers.25



  1. Shabbat 35b, 118b; Kohelet Rabba 7:23, 9:10.
  2. Beit Hillel, YD 218.
  3. Tzemach Tzedek 28, s.v. “Harei”; Machazik Bracha, OC 242:3.
  4. Mishna Berura 242:1, 2.
  5. Ibid., 242:2.
  6. Magen Avraham 242:1; Mishna Berura 242:2.
  7. OC 271:3; Mishna Berura 271:9; Yam shel Shlomo, Gittin 38b; Yeshuos Yaakov, OC 242:1.
  8. Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 291:1; Ta’amei Haminhagim 305; Yesodei Yeshurun, vol. 5, p. 448; Ohr Tzaddikim 48:6.
  9. Shabbat 119a; Kiddushin 41a; Leket Yosher, pp. 34, 47; Noheg Katzon Yosef, p. 150.
  10. Shabbat 118b.
  11. Shabbat 35b, 118b, 119a. See also Nechemia 13:16 and commentaries.
  12. Ta’amei Haminhagim 305.
  13. Bava Batra 75a; Rashi, Bereishit 1:21. The Leviathan is a giant fish that was created on the fifth day of creation. God created one male Leviathan and one female. The male, we are told, was castrated, and the female was set aside for the special banquet discussed above. See Tehillim 74:13–14, Iyov 41, and Yeshayahu 27:1 for biblical references to the Leviathan.
  14. Magen Avraham 533:8; Shevet Halevi 1:18.
  15. Shabbat 119a.
  16. Chullin 109a.
  17. Ben Ish Chai, Vayeira.
  18. Chizkuni, Bereishit 6:12.
  19. Pardes Yosef, Vayikra 11:9, 10.
  20. Sefer Hamiddot, s.v. “Achila,” “Hirhurim.”
  21. OC 280:1.
  22. Rema, OC 257:8.
  23. Aruch Hashulchan, OC 271:9.
  24. Bach, OC 256.
  25. Darkei Chaim V’shalom, p. 121.

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Rabbi Ari Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He teaches halacha, including semicha, one-on-one to people all over the world, online. He is also the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (9 volumes), the rabbinic director of United with Israel, and a rebbe at a number of yeshivot and seminaries. Questions and feedback are welcomed: [email protected].