“This may you eat from everything that is in the water: All things that have fins and scales in the water, in the seas, or in the rivers, those you may eat. All things that do not have fins and scales in the seas and in the rivers, of all creatures that swarm in the waters, and of all the living creatures that are in the water, they are a detestable thing to you. They shall be a detestable thing to you; you shall not eat from their flesh, and their carcasses you shall detest. Anything that does not have fins and scales in the water, is a detestable thing to you.” (Vayikrah 11:9-12)

In these four verses, the Torah provides the guidelines for determining what sea or river creatures are kosher. Two physical features are required for an aquatic animal to be kosher: it must have fins and scales.  In reality, one only has to look for scales since, as the Talmud (Chulin 66b) points out, “whatever has scales, has fins.” Thus, if one finds a piece of cut fish and there are scales on it, it is kosher even if the fins are not visible. Crustaceans, such as lobsters, crabs and crayfish are therefore not kosher and are included in the phrase, “of all creatures that swarm in the waters.” Sea mammals, such as dolphins, whales and seals are likewise not permitted and are included in the phrase, “and of all the living creatures that are in the water” (see Sifra/Torah Cohanim 11:10). What about fish, such as snoek, who shed their scales when they are removed from the water? These are kosher because the Torah stresses (in verse 12) “anything that does not have fins and scales in the water” – implying that the requirement to possess scales is only when the fish is in the water.

Over the centuries, there have been certain fish whose kosher status has been unclear. This has to do with the nature of their scales. Ramban (Vayikrah 11:9) rules, “[The kaskeset] are the round scales that have the appearance [shine] of fingernails and can be removed from the skin of the fish with one’s hand or a knife. But any scales that are permanently attached to the skin of the fish and cannot be removed from the skin at all, are not considered scales and such fish are prohibited.” The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 83:1) rules likewise. There is also the question of the quantum of scales required. Rabbi Yosef Karo (Shulchan Aruch, ibid) rules that even if the fish has only one scale, it is permitted. However, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, in his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch, rules that if the fish has only one scale, it is only permitted if said scale is under the fish’s jaw, tail or fin. There are also some fish that possess minute, indiscernible scales. In such instances, the Shulchan Aruch (ibid paragraph 2) states that if the fish is wrapped in a garment and placed in a container full of water, it will be permitted if a scale appears in the water. Another option is to put the fish in a sunny place. This will allow one to view the small scales in the sunlight (B’eir Heitev). 

This brings us to the humble South African kingklip, Genypterus capensis, Genypterus blacodes, Genypterus chilensis and others. On first inspection, the skin of the kingklip appears to be smooth and scale-less.  However, if one knows where and how to look for them, one will find very thin scales under a mucous-like covering. Because of these difficult-to-find scales, the kingklip has been the subject of controversy for many decades. An excellent article chronicling the debate and the relevant halachic issues was written by the Torah scholars and scientists Rabbi Dr Ari Zivotofsky and Dr Ari Greenspan and can be found at https://hakirah.org/Vol14Zivotofsky.pdf

One of the first and most colourful accounts of the controversy appears in a book written by the former Chief Rabbi of the Transvaal, Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz (1906-1984, from Shabbat Lights, published in the 1950’s): “There is, in South African waters, a fish called Kingclip, and when I came to this country [in 1945] it was universally accepted by the Jewish Community that kingclip was not a kasher fish. Now, unlike in the case of poultry where one has to rely upon tradition, one can easily ascertain whether a fish is kasher or not.  It may be a coelacanth, or it may be some other exotic fish which no human eye has ever beheld. If it has fins and scales it is kasher; if it has not it is treifa. When therefore we were informed by a large firm of fishmongers that kingclip had fins and scales, that humble denizen of the deep was afforded a signal honour.  The Chief Rabbi accompanied by four learned Rabbis descended upon it and subjected it to an examination.  That examination proved conclusively that the scales had been wrongly weighted against the innocent fish.  It possessed scales and was kasher, and we duly made an announcement to that effect. The result was astonishing.  It was met with reactions varying from total unbelief to vigorous protest. How can anyone dare to assert that kingclip is kasher? “Die mame hot gezogt” that it was treifa, and against what “die mame hot gezogt,” no decrees of Rabbis, however eminent or authoritative, were of any avail. I have often thought of that experience as an excellent example of the two manners in which the doctrines of Judaism are inculcated in the heart of the Jew, and of the infinitely greater impact which the one makes on its subject as compared with the other. On the one hand there is the formal education which the teacher imparts to the pupil, the education of bench and desk, of blackboard and chalk, of exercise book and homework. It is the education of precept, and none will deny its vital importance or its effect. And on the other hand there is the education which comes in no formal way. There are no fixed lessons and no text books. It is the education of example which the child sees in the home. It is this education which is reflected in the verse which I have taken as my text, and which finds its close parallel in a similar verse in the first paragraph of the Shema. It is the teaching which is given not at formal sessions but “when thou sittest in thy house and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down and when thou risest up.” It is the manner in which the father conducts himself in casual sitting at home, in the manner in which he conducts himself outside the home when walking by the way. It is the education which is given, so to speak, even while apparently asleep, and it is as effective as that which is given when one rises up. And it is that education which makes an infinitely greater impression upon the plastic mind of the child than the formal conning by rote.”

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!  Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/3ORlyqIfmOQ?si=ullEl5hfeULhB8Ri


This Shabbat we read the last of four special parshiyot (portions) that began with Parshat Shekalim. The parsha is called HaChodesh, literally “the month,” and it describes the mitzvah to sanctify the new moon, in particular the month of Nissan, as well as the preparations for the Seder and the Exodus from Egypt. This is an appropriate reading as we enter the month of Nissan and the run-up to Pesach. 


Nissan contains the festival of Pesach. It was also the month during which the Tabernacle was dedicated over a twelve-day period in the wilderness (see Bamidbar chapter 7). Due to the festive nature of the month, the Tachnun prayer is omitted as are eulogies and fasts, other than the Fast of the First-Born on Erev Pesach. For more on Pesach, please consult the Pesach Newsletter. The Molad (appearance of the new moon) for Nissan is on Monday 8 April at 22h57 and 7 chalakim (a chelek, literally a “portion”, is a Talmudic measure of time equal to one-eighteenth of a minute, or 3 and 1/3 seconds).  

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