Throughout the Bible, Joshua is described as either Yehoshua or Hoshea bin Nun. “Nun” means fish, which leads a certain Midrash of dubious origin to claim that Joshua was put into a river as a little child and swallowed up by a fish. According to this fanciful tale, the fish was caught and brought to the Pharaoh, and when it was cut open, little Joshua was found inside. He was subsequently raised in Pharaoh’s house and rose to the position of Chief Executioner.
Other traditions claim Joshua was called “bin Nun” because he was destined to swallow up the 31 Canaanite kings like a fish (Midrash HaBeur to Haftarat Shelach) or because G-d was ready to hear Joshua’s supplications (tachanunim) once he entered the Holy Land (Megaleh Amukot 27).
Interestingly, the letter nun in the ancient paleo-Hebrew script (Ktav Ivri) actually looks like a fish, but “nun” in the sense of fish never appears in the Bible. Why not? Why is the common word for fish in Biblical Hebrew “dag” instead?
Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) theorizes that “nun” was excised from Biblical Hebrew because the Canaanites and other nations deified the nun and made it the name of a god.
“Nun,” though, remains the standard word for fish in Hebrew’s sister languages like Aramaic and Ugaritic. In fact “nun,” “nuna,” and “nuni” are the standard words used by the Targumim in translating “dag,” and they appear numerous times in the Talmud.
For example, the Talmud (Kiddushin 25a) relates that the people of a certain town mocked Rav Hamnuna, whose name sounds like “cham nuna” (hot fish), by calling him “kar nuna” (cold fish).
Rabbi Marcus argues that at the core of “taninim” (sea-monsters – see Genesis 1:21) is the word “nun.” In offering this explanation, Rabbi Marcus explicitly rejects scholarly speculation that “taninim” is a Sanskrit loanword.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch also suggests that “tannin” is derived from “nun” but adds that “nun” itself is derived from “nin” (offspring or, in Modern Hebrew, great-grandson). He compares “nun” to “dag,” which primarily denotes fecundity, but also carries the additional meaning of fish.
Rabbi Ron Yosef Chaim Masoud Abuchatzeira takes the exact opposite approach. Whereas Rabbi Hirsch maintains that “nun” comes from “nin,” Rabbi Abuchatzeira submits that “nin” comes from “nun.” The Talmud (Brachot 20a) relates that fish are fruitful and multiply in large quantities because they aren’t susceptible to the Evil Eye. Thus, explains Rabbi Abuchatzeira, we use the word “nin” – which comes from “nun” (fish) – to describe offspring in order to deflect the Evil Eye from them.
Rabbi Abuchatzeira fascinatingly notes that Tunisian Jews (especially those from Djerba) customarily give their children names related to fish to help immunize them from the Evil Eye. Examples include masculine names like Hayuta/Hauita (fish in some North African dialects of Arabic), Manani (merou or grouper fish), Bugid (striped red mullet), Hadir (torpedo fish), Karutz (bass), Uzifa, and Wurgana and feminine names like Shelbia (Salema porgy), Svirsa, Murgana, Manana (a feminized form of Manani), and Baharia (mermaid).
Another possible derivative of “nun” is Nineveh. Rabbi Avraham (b. Hillel) Rivlin argues that Nineveh is a portmanteau of “nun” (fish) and “naveh” (home). And in fact, the cuneiform symbol for that city is a fish inside a house. When Jonah refused to go to the city of Nineveh, G-d punished him by making him experience the meaning of the city’s name and thus was swallowed by a fish, which became his home.
Rabbi Nissim Paniri notes that Jonah is spelled with the same letters as Nineveh except that Jonah’s name is missing a second nun. Jonah needed an extra nun, Rabbi Paniri writes, so that he would identify with Nineveh and agree to be G-d’s emissary to it. G-d, therefore, placed him inside a fish (nun).
Rabbi Aryeh Moshe Teicholtz suggests that Nineveh is related to the Aramaic “nun” and recalls the fish-god worshipped there. In order to stress the urgency of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, G-d had the prophet swallowed up by a fish (nun) so Jonah would remember about their idolatrous fish-cult and agree to help them repent.
The Talmud contains several other words for fish. One of them is “kavra,” although it’s not clear if this word refers to all fish or a specific type of fish (see Tosafot to Moed Katan 11a).
Dr. Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) notes that the Mishnaic word “kaveret” means beehive or basket (see, for example, Sheviit 10:7, Bava Batra 5:3, Keilim 8:1, and Ohalot 5:6), leading him to argue that “kavra” refers specifically to any live fish kept in a cauf (a basket). The Talmud (Chullin 109b), though, states that “kavra” is a type of fish that tastes like the girutha bird.
The Mishnah (Bechoros 8:1, Karetot 1:3, Niddah 3:4) discusses a miscarriage that yields a fetus shaped like a “sandal,” which the Talmud (Niddah 25b) says is the shape of a fish. Rashi and his son-in-law the Rivan (to Yevamot 12b) write that the sandal is a specific type of fish (see also Jerusalem Talmud, Niddah 3:4). The Meiri writes that a sandal resembles a free-floating piece of meat that doesn’t have clear limbs (perhaps a jellyfish?).
Another fish mentioned in the Talmud is “shibuta.” In Mesechet Chullin (109b), the Talmud relates that the brain of a shibuta tastes like pork and is a kosher substitute for it. Rava (see Kiddushin 41a) would personally salt a shibuta fish in preparation for Shabbat.
Jastrow says “shibuta” is probably a themulle fish, while others identify it as the sturgeon or porpoise fish. Drs. Zohar Amar and Ari Zivotofsky identify it as the shirbot/shabout. This identification aligns with the Jerusalem Talmud’s statement that the shibuta can be found in Babylonia but not the Holy Land (Taanit 4:5).
Remarkably, according to an ancient tradition, a certain type of fish doesn’t swim on Shabbat (Radak to Genesis 2:3, Yalkut Reuven to Genesis 2:2, Shevet Mussat ch. 11). Based on this tradition, some sources connect “shibuta” to “Shabbat” (see Megadim Chadashim to Shabbat 119a).