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When the Jews complained about the manna they received in the wilderness, they nostalgically spoke about what they ate in Egypt, saying, “We remember the fish (dagah) that we ate in Egypt for free…” (Num. 11:5). Dagah is clearly related to the common Hebrew word dag (“fish”), but in what ways do the terms dag and dagah differ from each other? Our study on different words for “fish” in the Hebrew language begins with this question, and then continues by exploring other Hebrew and Aramaic words for fish and the differences between them.

Most of the sources that deal with the difference between dag and dagah focus on the word-change regarding the aquatic creature that swallowed up the prophet Jonah. Initially, that fish is identified as a dag (Jon. 2:1) but afterwards, the prophet uses the word dagah (Jon. 2:2).

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The Talmud (Nedarim 51b) explains that dag denotes a “big fish,” while dagah can denote either “big fish” or “small fish.” Accordingly, the Talmud explains that Jonah was first swallowed up by a big fish (dag) which then spit him out, whereupon Jonah was subsequently swallowed by a second, smaller fish (dagah). According to this, when the Bible reports that during the Plague of Blood, the fish in the Nile died, it uses the word dagah (Ex. 7:18) because both big and small fish died. But in the context of Jonah, the Bible switches from dag to dagah to denote the change in size from the first fish to the second one. Accordingly, when the Jews reminisced about eating dagah in Egypt, this could mean either “big” or “small” fish.

Alternatively, other sources (like Rashi to Jon. 2:1 and Yalkut Shimoni §550) explain that the first fish (dag) that swallowed Jonah was a male. The male fish’s belly was quite spacious, so Jonah was not as alarmed by his situation. Afterwards, however, G-d caused the male fish to spit Jonah out and a female fish (dagah) then swallow him. This second fish was “pregnant” and its abdominal cavity was not as spacious, which caused Jonah to realize the straits he was in and pray to G-d to save him.

According to the explanation that dag means “male fish” while dagah means “female fish,” it is hard to understand why the Jews in Egypt would have specifically eaten female fish and why the Plague of Blood would have only killed female fish. (Perhaps this lends credence to the talmudic view (Yoma 75a) that “eating dagah” does not actually refer to eating fish, but to illicit sexual activity, in which the Jews were free to engage while they lived in Egypt.)

The Zohar (Beshalach 47b-48a) also takes note of this word switch and explains that at first, Jonah was swallowed up by a live fish. Later, G-d decided that Jonah was too comfortable inside the fish, so He caused the fish to die, which put Jonah in a more uncomfortable situation and spurred him to begin to pray. As the Zohar explains it, the earlier word dag denotes a “live fish,” while the word dagah used subsequently means a “dead fish.” The Zohar further adduces this understanding from Ex. 7:18 which uses the word dagah for the dead fish in the Plague of Blood. The Zohar’s explanation is echoed by Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Num. 11:5 and Kad HaKemach, cf. his comments to Num. 22:33) and Rabbi Avraham bar Chiyya ha-Nasi (in Higgayon HaNefesh). Based on this, it seems that when the Jews in the wilderness recalled eating fish in Egypt, they used the word dagah because they ate dead fish (especially because eating a live fish is forbidden, see Rema to Yoreh Deah §13:1).

Ibn Ezra (to Ex. 7:18) explains that dagah refers to the entire species of fish, as opposed to individual fish (see also Rashi to Jer. 6:6 and Malbim to Jon. 2:2). This does not help us explain the word-switch said about Jonah, but it does explain why the word dagah was used to denote the fish the Jews ate in Egypt and the fish that died in the Plague of Blood – it implies that they ate all sorts of different fish there.

Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe (1820–1892) takes the opposite approach, writing that dagah refers to a specific type of fish that was native to Egypt. He explains that this is why dagah is prefaced both in Numbers and Exodus with the letter hey as the definite article. He too does not account for why the story of Jonah switches from dag to dagah.

Interestingly, besides dag and dagah, there is a third variant in the primary Hebrew word for “fish:” When Nehemiah reports that Tyrian merchants would bring fish to sell to Jews in Jerusalem on the Sabbath (Neh. 13:16), the word dag in that passage is spelled dalet-aleph-gimmel (but still read dag). Ibn Ezra (there and in Sefer Tzachut) explains that the root of dag is triliteral, either dalet-yud-gimmel or dalet-vav-gimmel, but in this case, the middle letter of the root is replaced with an aleph. On the other hand, Pseudo-Rasag (there) interprets the presence of an extra aleph exegetically, explaining that it alludes to their bringing extra “worries” (da’agah) to the world by engaging in commerce on the Sabbath.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) traces all these fishy words to the biliteral root dalet-gimmel which refers to fecundity and quantitative increasement. According to him, dag (with or without an aleph) means “fish” – a species of creature known for its highly-productive fecundity, while dayag (Isa. 19:8) and davag (Jer. 16:16) refer to a “fisherman” who tries to catch such creatures (according to Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, and Radak the vav is part of this word’s root). There is also a special type of boat used by fisherman known as a dugah (Amos 4:2), which also derives from this root.

Jacob (in Gen. 48:16) uses a verb form of the word dag – v’yidgu (“and you shall become fish-like”), i.e. you will be fruitful and multiple like fish – when blessing Joseph’s sons (Gen. 48:16). As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) points out, this is the only instance of the verb form of dag in the entire Pentateuch! Everywhere else, cognates of dag only occur as nouns that refer to “fish.”

Among the earlier grammarians, only Menachem sees this verb as deriving from the same root as dag, while Ibn Janach and Radak understand its root to be the triliteral dalet-gimmel-hey, although Radak seems more open to the idea of it being related to dag.

Indeed, the root dalet-gimmel-hey appears in Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Balaam’s list of verbs that are derived from nouns. However, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) understands the opposite to be true: the primary meaning of the root dalet-gimmel-hey is fecundity and quantitative increase, while the word dag in the sense of fish is actually borrowed from that usage. Rabbi Marcus uses this assertion to explain away why the Pentateuch never uses the word dag/dagim (e.g., in the creation narrative of Genesis or when detailing kosher and non-kosher fish in Leviticus), and if anything, it only uses dagah/digat or v’yidgu. (I must point out though, that the word digei does appear once in the Pentateuch (Gen. 9:2), and that word seems to be the construct form of dag.)

Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim also connects two more words to this root that the other commentators do not necessarily see as related: da’agah and dagan (“grain”). As Rabbi Pappenheim explains, da’agah refers to a minimally-justified sense of apprehension that leads to a person “worrying” about something. The worrier simply sees some signs of a possible danger and this already leads to his apprehensiveness. Rabbi Pappenheim connects this to the words dayag/davag because the fisherman also decides to go fishing at a specific place simply because he has some vague signs that point to that location’s usefulness in fishing, but he has no solid proof or reason to think that there will really be any fish there. The three major Hebrew lexicographers (like Menachem, Ibn Janach, and Radak) all see da’agah as deriving from its own triliteral root dalet-aleph-gimmel.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that dagan relates back to dag because grains are especially fertile and fecund, as one seed can beget grains with many seeds, just like one fish can father many more little fish. The three important lexicographers mentioned above all see dagan as deriving from its own triliteral root dalet-gimmel-nun.

The word dugmah (“example”) appears twice in the Mishnah (Shabbat 10:1 and Eduyot 5:6), and numerous times in the Talmud. This word refers to a specimen or pattern, and is said to be a loan word sourced in the Greek deigma. However, given Rabbi Pappenheim’s understanding of the biliteral dalet-gimmel, we may conjecture that this word is derived from that root as well (with the mem extraneous to the root itself), in the sense of an example being a mere sample of a quantitatively larger pool.

As an aside, Menachem does agree that the name of the Philistine god Dagon derives from the same root as dag, because the idol that represented that deity was fish-shaped. I wrote about this at length in the encyclopedic section of my book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018) in my entry on that deity.

Earlier in this essay, we spoke about big fish versus small fish. Interestingly, if you look in the Talmud, you will find many Aramaic words that Rashi defines as “small fish”:

Rashi (to Sukkah 18a) writes that avruma (or avdumah according to the Sefer HaAruch) means “small fish.”

Rashi (to Sanhedrin 49a, Avodah Zarah 29a, and Ketubot 60b) also writes that munini means “small fish.” In some places, the Talmud specifically mentions munini brine (see Rashi to Shabbat 105b and Gittin 69b), and the term munini itself eventually became synonymous with brine (see Shabbat 110b which refers to grasshopper brine as “munini of grasshoppers”). Rabbi David Golomb (1861–1935) parses this word as comprising the diminutive mem and the Aramaic nun (“fish”). Rabbi Moshe Batzri, on the other hand, reads this words as a portmanteau of the phrase mei nuna (“water of fish”).

The word gildna refers to a specific type of fish (Rashi to Sanhedrin 100b, Rabbeinu Gershom and Rashbam to Bava Batra 73b), and elsewhere, Rashi (to Horayos 12a, Brachot 44b, and Ketubot 105b) clarifies that gildna are some sort of small fish. Ichthyologists (mentioned by Dr. Moshe Raanan) identify this fish with the Flathead Grey Mullet (Mugil cephalus) or with Gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata).

Rashi (to Megillah 6a, Brachot 44a) explains that tarit refers to the fish we all know as “tuna.” Elsewhere, Rashi (to Shabbat 39a and Chullin 66a) also identifies the fish referred to as sultanit and Spanish kulyis as “tuna.” According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Nedarim 6:3), in Babylon people called a tarit a tzachanta (which Rashi to Sukkah 18a and Sanhedrin 49a defines as a “small fish”). Modern scholars (cited by Dr. Moshe Raanan) identify this fish with either sardines or anchovies.

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.