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As before reading all my articles in the Farbrengen, read my Introduction to the category to take this in context.

Is Seafood not Kosher? How? Why?… And are we Sure??

It is well known that the bulk of what is considered “Seafood” is not Kosher. Of course many types of fish are Kosher, but the wide variety of mussels, oysters, bivalves, clams, scallops, crabs, shrimps, lobsters and other such delicacies are not.

This holds true weather they live in fresh, salt or brackish water. Besides these mollusks and crustaceans which are prohibited, so are quite a few types of fish.

The first question is Why?

Of course, the direct reason is that today’s Halakha tells you so.. basically any Rabbi (any real Rabbi at least) will tell you that these foods are not Kosher, and they have not been so for many centuries, that is for sure.

But where do these rulings actually come from? Enter Leviticus 11 (9-12).

A typical translation reads:

This is what you may eat of all that in the water: You may eat any creature that lives in the water, whether in seas or rivers, as long as it has fins and scales.

[On the other hand], all creatures in seas and rivers that do not have fins and scales, whether they are small aquatic animals or other aquatic creatures, must be avoided by you. They will [always] be something to be shunned. You must avoid them by not eating their flesh.

Every aquatic creature without fins and scales must be shunned by you.

So, at first sight, it looks relatively clear, Jews may eat aquatic creatures with both fins and scales, and no others.  But even a quick look at the original Hebrew paints a much less clear picture… as the above translation is filled with the very Rabbinical interpretation which created the stated Kashrut regulations.

Leviticus 11:9 says:

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ סְנַפִּיר וְקַשְׂקֶשֶׂת בַּמַּיִם, בַּיַּמִּים וּבַנְּחָלִים–אֹתָם תֹּאכֵלוּ.

We have the word: סְנַפִּיר  as “Fins” and the word קַשְׂקֶשֶׂת as “Scales”.   What immediately is striking that word translated as “Scales”, Kashkeshet is in a clear singular form, which would be an odd thing for scales to be in. At the very least, the correct translation should read “scale” and not “scales”. So a Kosher fish should have one “scale”? Perhaps it means a singular form of covering, or hard protection as a whole, as opposed to an individual scale. Yes quite possible, and this starts to sound really similar to a “Shell” instead of “scales”.

What however, has fins AND a shell? Not very many things, that is for sure… (stretching the definition a bit, crustaceans like shrimp which are considered not Kosher would be about the only things, as shrimp are often considered to have a shell which we usually peel off before eating, and they have small fins). Keep the shrimp in mind, as it is a perfect example of how scales and shell can easily be confused linguistically, which we will get back to.

So the law requiring aquatic animals to have fins AND a shell would be quite limiting. So where is this crucial “And” in the text? Our complexities just begin, because in Hebrew, an “and” and an “or” can be the exact same word.. just the letter Vav, ו. 

Before you quickly scream about the vowels (the “dots” in Hebrew text), hold your horses and I shall explain. Yes, it is true that the vowels that change this Vav from an “and” to an “or” are in the Jewish Bibles, but our Torah has no such vowels. They are inserted/assumed by the reader as he reads them. As it is the Rabbinical tradition to interpret this Vav as an “and” then of course, Rabbinical tradition writes it with the corresponding vowels in the various texts. But as anyone who has ever seen a real Torah (the Jewish Bible, the 5 books of Moses) up front knows, be it in today’s modern Synagogue or the 2000 year old ancient Dead Sea Scrolls,  the Torah contains no vowels.

For elucidation, let us back up a few words:

You may eat any creature that lives in the water, whether in seas or rivers

This entire English construct of “weather in seas OR rivers” in the Hebrew text is simply no more than the same one letter Vav. It is literally “seas  ו rivers”. Because here logic clearly points out that the aquatic species live in EITHER saltwater or freshwater, the Rabbis seemed to have had no problem interpreting this Vav as “or” instead of “and”. They probably would have been surprised to find out that there are species which live in fresh and saltwater. Had they known this, they could have interpreted this Vav as an “and” and severely restricted the allowed aquatic species!

The choice seemed clear. Either this Vav was to be interpreted as an “or”, or Kashkeshet was to be interpreted not as shell, but something that species tend to have as well as fins; namely the plural “scales”.

The Hebrew text gives us a very important clue as how it would explain necessary but not sufficient parameters when it comes to dietary laws. The paragraph immediately prior to the relevant paragraph here is about the dietary laws concerning land animals (usually also translated incorrectly as “mammals”). Leviticus 11:3-8 deal with land animals which (according to generally accepted translation, a problem we will hold off for another article)  must chew their cud, and have true cloven hooves. In order to show that in this case, both conditions are required, the Torah goes into examples of how animals with one, but not the other are still forbidden. The camel, the pig, and the more problematically translated “hare and hyrax” are also included in this list. These animals are either true cloven hoofed, or chew their cud but not both.

The very next section has our discussion about aquatic creatures. No such emphasis and explanation is included about the “scales” and “fins”. No examples of animals with one but not the other are included.  Ironically, later Rabbis themselves thought this was odd and out of context, and so asked the question of why the Torah omits this seemingly important information.

The Mishnah (Niddah 51), apparently trying to answer this question, states that all creatures with scales have fins, though there are those with fins that do not have scales. This implies that we have no need for the two way explanation of  “if one but not the other” as we do with chewing cud and cloven hooves.  The Gemara on tractate Chullin 66, however goes on to realize that if there are no creatures (or fish) with scales and no fins, then it would have been sufficient to prohibit aquatic foods without scales. The fins are completely superfluous since it follows that if all with scales have fins, and all those with scales and fins are Kosher, then all with scales are Kosher.  No need for a requirement of fins at all. The Gamara explains:

We have learnt elsewhere:
All [fishes] that have scales have also fins, but there are some that
have fins but no scales. Those that have fins and scales are clean, but those that have fins and no
scales are unclean. But consider, we rely upon scales, the Divine Law then should have stated scales
only [as the distinguishing mark] and not fins!

The Famous Irony

The answer that the Talmud goes on to conclude is of course, is that the fins are included in order “to exalt the Torah and glorify it.” What is implied here is that the author of Torah had to have known that in all the fathoms of water in the world, fresh and marine, there is no creature with scales that has no fins. How could a human author know this? Modern Rabbis actually love to use this facet of Kashrut law as the a proof of the divine penmanship of the Torah. We will come back to this irony built on ironies in just a moment… first let us actually analyze what lies in between the question and the conclusion of this very interesting Gemara:

Had the Divine Law only stated scales and not fins
I might have said that the word for scales [Kaskasim] meant fins, and even unclean fishes [would have been permitted]; the Divine Law therefore stated fins as well as scales. But even now that the Divine Law states fins as well as scales, whence do we know that the term Kaskasim means [the scales that cover the fish like] a garment? — Because it is written: And he was clad with kaskasim [a coat of mail]. This being so, the Divine Law need not have stated fins at all but only scales [kaskasim]!

So before it arrives at conclusions of glory, the Sages readily admit that they do not know the meaning of the term Kashkeshet which they find difficult to write in the singular form when meaning “scales” and so refer to as Kashkashim (plural) though it misquotes the Torah. The Rabbis admit that there would be a danger of them misinterpreting Kashkashim for fins, rather than scales if the word was mentioned alone. But then they ask the question, of how in fact we know what “Kashkashim” refers to; the answer being the reference to Goliath in Samuel 17:5  being clad in Shyiryon Kashkashim (armor of Kashkashim). The accuracy of this statement, we will leave aside for a bit, and the conclusion the Gemara makes is that they in fact would not have been confused about the meaning of Kaskasim because of this other reference. It is hard to say it distinguishes from scales and shells, but it is true it makes the meaning being “fins” unlikely. So if there would be no confusion anyway, the Torah need not have stated fins at all… and thus the final conclusion of the Gemara mentioned above: it was to “exalt and glorify” the law.

The irony of course is that the Rabbis inadvertently show the difference between divinity and human limitation. There are of course species with scales and without fins in the ocean’s waters. Of course, they are uncommon and the Rabbis would not have known about them. What is amusing is that they, being human, thought it impossible (divine) that another human would have known something so difficult to know which they thought they themselves knew. As it turns out, they in fact were all too human and did not know what they thought they knew, and yet they thought it Gdly if someone else had “known” what they knew.

The Alternative

To go back a few steps, instead of this tangled mess, let us open our mind and consider the alternative. The simple alternative is that this blessed Vav in the Torah means “or” instead of  “and” which is why nothing is further elaborated about these conditions, since they are both sufficient in and of themselves. Now that we have a “fins OR scales”, our “scales” can turn into our more logical singular “shell” and do we have something that makes sense?

Sure, perfect sense… there are two types of aquatic foods which may be eaten: creatures that have fins (ie fish), and creatures that have shells (ie shellfish). Funny enough, these are common enough types of seafood, either fish or other creatures which have a shell such as oysters, scallops, clams, mussels etc. What would be excluded then? All sorts of other creatures which have neither: sea slugs, sea snails, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, sponges, and all sorts of other slimy un-finned and un-shelled critters inhabiting the waters.  When you think about it, it is odd that fish without scales are also not Kosher and it has caused a lot of unresolved controversy. Catfish, swordfish, sharks, halibut, and sturgeon (hence caviar!) are all debated as science finds they posses scales of some sort at least some part of their life cycle but the classical Rabbis did not. There seems little logical sense in scale-less fish, so similar in every way to other fish, being unclean, especially without further emphasis such as is explained about the land animals.

So we have a nice theory.. the singular Kashkeshet is actually “Shell” instead of “scales” and the Vav is actually an “or” instead of an “and”. So fish and shellfish are kosher under this regimen instead of just fish with scales.  All right then, firstly is there any evidence of this possibility, and what about Goliath’s coat of armor?

Tractate Chullin quotes a Mishnah (more ancient than the Gemara) by Rabbi Yehuda which states that an aquatic creature must have two Kashkashim and/or (same Vav!) one fin to be Kosher. This has been interpreted to mean that there must be at least two scales present, but this is actually a very telling piece of information.  One fin is clear enough, as virtually everything we normally call a “fish” will have at least one fin (though plenty of swimming aquatic creatures may not), but TWO scales? Firstly, what aquatic creature at all is disqualified by this rule? More clearly, what in the world has one scale? And what has two? Three?

It is reasonable to assume the Rabbis in wanting to clarify what qualifies as a creature with scales, would want to include a minimum number of scales. One can imagine an aquatic species whose body is almost entirely devoid of scales, but has a few in some extremity and clarification would be needed here. But for this purpose we can imagine a ruling that either declares a proportion (ie that most of the body be covered in scales) and/or at lest a higher number of minimum scales since they usually run in the hundreds if not the thousands on most fish. Could this ancient ruling instead be remnant of a time when the phrase was still understood correctly?

Again, when we change Kashkeshet to shell, and the Vav to an “or” this Mishna suddenly makes perfect sense. For purposes of finned species, one fin is enough to qualify the organism as Kosher, while two shells are required for shellfish. Though the number two has little meaning when speaking of modern scales, it is inherently meaningful when speaking of shells. Today, we scientifically call these organisms bivalves (two shells); mussels, oysters, scallops, clams etc as opposed to single shell species such as a limpets, snails, abalone and other Gastropods. The reasoning for this could be simply the notion that bivalves are fully enclosed in their Kashkeshet, while single shelled organisms may be half exposed. Much like an un-shelled sea slug is not Kosher, a half shelled one (half exposed) should not be either.  Furthermore, the very important “at least” or “minimum” are missing from this Mishna:

שני קשקשים וסנפיר אחד

Roughly, “Two ‘Kashkashim’ (again it changes the Torah’s singular to plural), or one fin.”  We don’t usually find shellfish with 3 or more shells, so a requirement of two shells makes sense, whereas finding fish with ONLY two scales would be  near impossible. However, this logic would apply to the fins as well, and there makes less sense since most finned species would have more than one fin. A thought either way.

Ancient Ruling about Shells

There is even more hints of an earlier understanding of the law in the older parts of the Talmud and Mishna. In a section dealing with what is permissible to perform during a Shabbat meal, the Mishna rules that “Bones and Shells” may be removed from the table, while other leftovers may not.  The idea here is that work is not allowed during Shabbat, but certain activities like serving food, warming it, and some level of cleaning after or during the meal may be necessary.  Leaving bones and shells on the dinner table for 24 hours would be less than hygienic.

The words used are

עצמות וקליפין

“Bones and Shells” in Aramaic. When The Talmud refers to peels, rinds, flakes and smaller casings like that of grains and legumes it uses different words. This word for “shell” is only used for harder larger protective enclosures like for Almonds (קליפי אגוזין) and Pomegranates.

In either event, by the time of the Gemara, the Rabbis were all firmly convinced the Torah meant “fins and scales”. Unfortunately, they then set out on a path where each generation, believing the words of the previous one must be the word of Gd at Mount Sinai, continued to take the rulings to their sometimes absurd logical conclusions.

Tractate Bechorot 7a-b tells us that clean (Kosher) fish breed, and unclean ones lay eggs (also goes on to state that bats lay eggs). This implies that all fish eggs must be from kosher fish (who apparently have fins and scales).

Rabbeinu Tam (Rashi’s grandson) wrote in Tosafot on Chullin 64a,  “And this is what we rely upon to eat the fish called barbata in [Old] French–we do not know if its scales fall off as it is drawn from the water; we rely upon the signs of its eggs.” And on Tosafot on Avodah Zarah 40a, “Rabbenu Tam learned from here that the signs of fish eggs are from the Torah, and therefore the catfish is permitted.”

Summing Up What Happened

It is important to note what has happened here. First, a Rabbinical interpretation decided (perhaps incorrectly as I am suggesting) that Kashkeshet means scales. It is taken as divine. Therefore, scale-less fish (such as catfish) are not Kosher (as they are not considered to be today). Then the next generation of Rabbis declared that Kosher fish do not lay eggs (ie scale-less fish do not lay eggs). This too is now considered divine and beyond reproach. So subsequent Rabbis, finding that the seemingly scale-less catfish lay eggs (cannot be!) conclude the only thing that is possible. Catfish do (they must) have scales, and they are permitted and Kosher. It must be that the scales fall off as it is drawn out of the water!

Back in the Talmud, in Tractate Avodah Zarah 40a they disagreed about whether non-kosher fish lay eggs. According to Rabbi Dostai, non-kosher fishes do not lay eggs at all, while Rabbi Zeira said that even some non-kosher fishes lay eggs, but hatch inside the body (ovoviviparous).  Of course, many fish, with and without scales lay eggs.  There are also scaled fish that can be said to release live young (live-bearers, with planktonic larvae or otherwise). And of course, we are told all of these apparently and erroneous and conflicting statements were given to Moses at Mount Sinai as part of the Oral Law…

So it is possible that the Rabbis got something wrong here… but again is there any direct evidence supporting a different meaning of Kashkeshet? Ask, and ye shall receive…

The Evidence

We saw that the most ancient ruling in the Mishna held the possibility of Leviticus still being understood as referring to shells. The first ancient sources that are sometimes pre-Rabbinical (or almost) that we can always turn to are the Aramaic Targums (translations) of the Torah and the Septuagint (the legendary Greek translation of the Bible by  72 Jewish Sages in Alexandria). How does the best known Targum, Onkelos, translate the problematic Leviticus passage?

צִיצִין וְקַלְפִין

Tztizin and/or Kalafin (or Kalapin). Tzitzin as fins is interesting enough, quite similar to today’s Hebrew Tzitzit and roughly translates to “fringes”. Fair enough, it is obviously a reference to the less-than solid nature of fins after the main body ends, a bit webbed, a bit like fringes. Now for a crucial KalafinAramaic for Shell! The very word used for the mentioned ruling allowing “bones and shells” to be removed from the Shabbes table!

So much so that this Aramaic root Kalap makes its way to today’s Scallop.  From the old French “Escalope” meaning shell. Take away the medieval French tradition of adding an “S” or “Es” to words and what is left is the  “Calop”.  To be sure, this root is so ancient (and more on that later) that it is difficult to tell what came from what, but the related Hebrew root קלפה (Klipah) is a shell (in modern Hebrew)  (or to peel), even the modern Greek  Kelipos is used today for shell.  The Polish Klops (for scallop) shows us that the S is not original, but a French addition.  The Hebrew root קִלֵּף  is not in the Hebrew Torah, (though it is used in modern Hebrew), but is an Akkadian, Syriac and Aramaic root for shell related words (it may have been introduced by Indo-European languages later, hence the connection to European languages in scallop, scalp, etc). In Arabic, Kalib or Qalib is a shell, from where we get “Caliber” – the dimensions of our (shooting) shells.  Kalef or Qalef  as the verb form is to “peel” also in Aramaic, Akkadian and Arabic. Even better, the Arabic cognate “QS” is the root for shell-like words, the same partial root as our original Biblical Kashkeshet.

Most agree the pronunciations today of our “kashkeshet” actually uses a soft version of the Hebrew “Shin” which has an “S” sound (without the “H”). So the terms in question are Kaskeset and Kaskasim respectively. This pronunciation is the same as the Arab root QS or Qas for shell-related terms. In fact, one of the most striking resemblance is today’s Spanish “Casco” for “helemt”. In Old Spanish this term meant helmet or skull. The etymology is unclear to linguists due to the related Indo-European roots already mentioned, however it may very well have been introduced into Spanish from Arabic during the long Muslim Occupation of Spain (along with hundreds of other words) or perhaps even earlier by Levant immigration and influence  Hebrew or Phoenician. It makes its way into our modern English as “cask” and “case” also denoting  an enveloping covering like a shell and not like a scale. “Casings” are ammunition shells just like the Arabic “Qalib” for the same shells.

Now, it is a very positive support for our present theory that the root קלפה is not in the Torah, because if it was, the question would be why it was not used instead of Kashkeshet. Instead this a later Aramaic/Indo-European root that made its way into many languages including modern Hebrew. This leads us to the opposite question; if the Rabbis correctly identify Kashkeshet as “scales”, then what Hebrew word in the entire Torah is a shell? The truth is that the traditional translation of the entire Bible has no word “shell”. Hard to believe. Again, to test our theory by reversing the situation, would there be other words that would be “scales” if Kashkeshet was “shell”? Well yes indeed.

The Hebrew root Pach פָּח and related Chaspach,  occur many times in various forms throughout the Tanakh. They are used much like flake, sheets, and scales are used in modern English. Metal can be beaten into Pachim, and said beaten thin plates are part of the decoration of the Ark of the Covenant. Sheets of gold are also hammered out in Exodus. Exodus 16:16 describes the Mannah Gd gives the Children of Israel in the desert as a “fine scale-like thing” using the same root.

Scales mentioned in the Tanakh

The closest anywhere in the Tanach (the entire Bible) that the text comes to clearly be referring to what we would call scales on a fish, interestingly enough, is Ezekiel referring to the Leviathan. Though this word in modern Hebrew means “whale” Biblically it seems to be more dragon-like, as he breathes out fire and has scales. These scales are clearly described as the Hebrew “Magenim” (shields or protectors). This would be a perfect time for Kashkeshet to be used if it meant fish scales, but it is not yet again. Of course, since this beast is sort of mystical and easily identifiable to a real species, this proof is not definitive; one could always say that this dragon-like whale actually had large shields instead of scales. However, it is noteworthy to point out that the Rabbis had no problem accepting these “Magenim” as scales, since the Talmud tells us (Chullin):

It was taught: R. Yose, son of the Damascene, says: The leviathan is a clean fish, for it is
written: His scales are his pride, and it is also written: ‘Sharpest potsherds are under him’.
‘Scales’, these are the scales that cover him; ‘sharpest potsherds are under him’, these are the fins
wherewith he propels himself.

Here the Magenim are being translated as “scales” and “potsherds” is also a very related term in the ancient world to scales, blades, flakes, etc  and is being translated into fins, and thus the Leviathan is Kosher. Why would the Tanakh not use Kashkeshet or at least the plural Kashkashim to refer to the scales of the Leviathan?

There are other “scale” like words in the Jewish Bible such as the root mappal (related to “fallings” so is used for “cascading” things like scales are and often used in the Bible for folds or flakes, such as in Amos (for wheat), and Job).

If our Aramaic Kalafin was better translated as “shell”, what would the Aramaic be for “scales”? Fittingly enough, the same Hebrew root we mentioned earlier for “scales”, “plates”, “sheets”, transforms in Aramaic to חַסְפָּא Chaspa for “potsherd”, and חַסְפָּנִיתָא Chaspanita for specifically a scale of a fish.

Modern Arabic seems to have inherited both forms of this root for “covering-like” meanings. Qalafa (close to the Aramaic’s Kalafin) is bark, while words from the root QS (like our original Hebrew Kashkeshet, root KS), are all shell-like. For example, the Arabic Qisra means shell, eggshell, husk, or peel.

The Indo-European Dilemma

So after exhaustively analyzing the Aramaic translation and the original Hebrew words, our other ancient source is the Septuagint’s Greek. Ironically, I believe it is due to the relation of shell and scales in Greek (and other Indo-European languages), that this issue was not identified earlier by many. The Greek manuscripts seem to use some form of lepis (λεπίς ). As luck would have it, lepis in ancient Greek (as in other Indo-European languages) can be a scale, shell, flake or husk.

Basically, the Greek here at least at first sight does not do us much good because of this very fact, and it probably is part of the reason why this issue has remained unaddressed through the ages. A reading of the Septuagint quickly supports the reading of Kashkeshet as “scales” to those who wish to look no further. Though the usage of lepis does not necessarily support “shell” over “scale”, it certainly does not do the contrary either. Of note is that my research in this regard was less than complete. The Septuagint is an ancient translation but only if one has an ancient manuscript, it has been corrupted through the ages. More on that shortly.  Suffice to say for now, the Greek seems to leave both options open.  Subsequently, we will come back to address this linguistic scale/shell phenomena.

The Vav

Some readers may be thinking that the alternative meaning of Kashkeshet is plausible, but be finding the “and” to “or” change of the Vav harder to accept. A further note on that issue. The Biblical Vav equals our modern “and” often when it is simply proceeding a chronological story “And the Lord said to Moses…And there was light etc”. There is also the tense inversion function of the Vav, which is  a fascinating and little understood grammatical function (Vav reversive). However, when listing requisites like in this example, it can be argued that the Vav most always means “or” and not our modern “and”. The conjunction between the words separates them in some way, whereas when the two concepts must be possessed together the Torah often uses no conjunction. This can be seen in action simply by looking at the previous Leviticus section about clean and unclean land animals. Frankly, our translation has been very weak there as well, but the issue is far more complex. What is translated as “true cloven hoofed and chews its cud” is actually three different characteristics. Two are a a bit unclear and related to the paw or hoof and separated by a Vav, while the third follows immediately with no conjunction “chews its cud”. It is possible that the original meaning refers to the requirement for Kashrut being either the first condition, OR the second one AND the third (or the first OR second one, but always with the third). Without sidetracking any further, the idea is that the Torah actually joins necessary terms together by not using any conjunction at all, whereas the Vav often weakens their connection (more “or” than “and”).

Back to the Evidence

Having left off putting the ancient Greek aside for a moment, assuming now that there is at least linguistic evidence in Hebrew, Aramaic and other Semitic languages that our Kashkeshet actually meant “shell” and not “scales”, it stands to reason that until the interpretation error was made by latter Rabbinical authorities, the Jews (Hebrews) understood it correctly for some time. Is there any evidence outside of the Bible (or within it) of Jews (kosher Jews that is) eating shellfish?

Let us review some extra-Biblical ancient sources that may refer to the dietary laws of the Jews. There is the Letter of  Aristeas wihch very unfortunately only speaks about the land animal prohibitions and not the aquatic species. Philo of Alexandria goes into a relatively detailed account of the Jewish dietary laws and expands upon them by offering reasons behind them.  When it comes to aquatic creatures, he uses the Greek

πτέρυξι και λεπίσι

Firstly, the Greek και gives us the same problem as the Hebrew Vav, as it is used for “and” as well as “or”. The word for “fins” is from the root “wing” and in plural usually refers to “feathers”. This again is consistent with the “fringes” concept, as well as that a fish can be considered to fly through water as a bird does through air. For the alleged “scales” we have Lepisis, from that same Greek root which can mean shell or husk. Polybulus seems to use it for silver “plates”, Heron of Alexandria uses it though I could not find it, and Aelian, in De Natura Animalium (Book 10 Ch 24) defines with other “shell-like” words (testa and conchis in the Latin version) describing the unbreakable armor of some animal, perhaps a crocodile.  In any event, Lepisis not the common Classical Greek for fish scales. More importantly is Philo’s explanation for the reason behind the law.

Philo says that animals lacking either of the two will succumb to the current, but those with them can stand against it. This explanation, weather Philo inherited from a more accurate earlier version and tried to fit it to the current understanding of these words, or he developed it himself, makes little sense for “scales”. However, again the theory is a great fit for fins and shells. Both the finned fish, as well as the hard shelled species (such as mussels, or oysters) seem to be able to “fight against” the current while finless, shell-less species are often at the mercy of the currents (like the common Jellyfish). Other soft bodied finless creatures like sea slugs may also have appeared at least to be at the mercy of the currents. It is difficult to see how scales, even to the understanding of the ancients could indicate any ability to fight back against the current.

Josephus on the other hand does not mention the prohibition on aquatic creatures at all, and stays focused on land animals when he deals with the subject.  If fish and shellfish were both allowed, and only “odd” aquatic life with neither fins nor scales was prohibited, this omission would make more sense as the Jewish diet in this respect would differ little from the Greeks and Romans he was addressing. Where it does differ significantly (pork, sinew, birds of prey etc), Josephus does elaborate.  If his understanding of the prohibition was that it included (forbade) shellfish, this would be a major difference between Jews and the Greco-Roman seafaring world he was addressing. In any event, as long as we remain in the Greek realm, it will be difficult to distinguish the precise meaning of any Lepis related word.  So when in fact do we have the first unmistakable use of the word “scales” by ancient (outside the Talmud of course, whose theory we are testing) sources?

Clear reference to “Scales” and not how we would expect

Enter Pliny the Elder (alive during the pre-Rabbinical Second Temple period), who writes of a special type of  Garum (a well known Mediterranean fish sauce) the Jews make:

quod fit piscibus squama carentibus

Alas, Squama is finally here, and unmistakably fish “scales”. With such an ancient source, this would be a great blow to my theory if he had meant that these “scales” were on the fish the Jews must eat! Instead, the above passage reads clearly “with scale-less fish”! Pliny tells how the superstitious or pious Jews make a Garum made with fish devoid of scales! The entire passage roughly translates:

Another kind, again, is dedicated to those superstitious observances which enjoin strict chastity, and that prepared from fish without scales, to the sacred rites of the Jews. In the same way, too, Garum has come to be manufactured from oysters, sea-urchins, sea-nettles, cammari, and the liver of the surmullet; and a thousand different methods have been devised of late for ensuring the putrefaction of salt in such a way as to secure the flavours most relished by the palate.

Now, this passage leaves us with a few options. The first, believed by most everyone presently by logical necessity, is that Pliny simply is mistaken.  If we assume our Kashkeshet is “shell” for a moment, then it is simply curious that the Jews would have a custom of making Garum of fish without scales. They would certainly be Kosher, but so would fish with scales, so why would Jews specifically make a Garum from fish without scales? Three options here:

  1. They simply did… as a custom (or recipe), and not necessarily due to any Kashrut Law. Alternatively, as an enhancement of Kashrut Law (similar to a Rabbinical addition) in that a scale-less fish is somehow more pure.
  2. The complex possibilities of the Vav being “and” or “or” manifest themselves here. It is possible a group of Jews thought that aquatic species had to have either scales or fins to be kosher but not both. Note that even in English “or”, “other”, “either”, and “neither” have very similar etymologies.  So these Jews would restrict themselves to the relatively hard to find finned scale-less fish (like the catfish).
  3. The most interesting possibility is perhaps the easiest to overlook. “Fish” in the ancient world does not denote our modern “fish” which already indicates “fins”. The fact that Pliny is clearly denoting scale-less fish, meaning “soft bodied” could actually be due to the fact he is referring to shellfish. Shellfish ironically enough, have shells but Not scales. Hence the subsequent “In the same way, too… from oysters, sea urchins…”.  First Pliny explained the regular Roman Garum from fish. Then he goes on about this special Garum of the Jews. Pliny could have meant that that the Jewish Garum was made from some type(s) of scale-less fish (ie shellfish), and that is why he elaborates on other related types (“In the same way…from Oysters…“). To the modern mind, scale-less fish denotes the few exceptional marine fish without scales, but this is due to our ingrained understanding of “fish” as already something bony and finned. To the ancient, where “fish” are all sorts of marine creatures, emphasizing “without scales” is similar to “without fins”.  The soft bodied, “squama”-less creatures are the very mollusks who often are enclosed in a shell.
Pretty powerful, but there is more.  Leviticus and Deuteronomy make it pretty clear that these unclean aquatic species are not only unclean for eating, but unclean to touch and must be avoided completely. The linguistic evidence starts to add up in favor of an alternative to the traditional Rabbinical interpretation of “fins and scales” in Leviticus. Our next stop is the famous ancient pigments, royal Tyrian Purple, Techelet and a Argaman.

The Guys who started it All

The Phoenicians (who incidentally lived next to the Hebrews, and assisted King Solomon with materials for the Temple as well as his Navy) were famous throughout the ancient world for Royal Blues/reds/Purples that they produced. Long lasting traditions were established that only royalty or aristocracy could wear these colors (usually only they could afford them to begin with). They were able to produce these dyes from certain mollusks that lived in their shores (present Northern Israel and Lebanon). The Phoenicians gave the ancient world, especially via the Greeks, much of its early knowledge including a phonetic alphabet (no coincidence, it is named after them!). Instead of going around painting pictures of the word you mean to write (be it Asian writing systems, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, or Sumerian Cuneiform and others), someone (Abraham? Hebrews, Phoenicians, early Semites?) in the neighborhood figured out you could just mean the first sound of the word of the picture you are painting, and then by putting different pictures together, mix those sounds to make many more words with far fewer pictures to memorize.  So “Gamal” for example in Hebrew and related languages is “camel” and sounds just like the letter “Gimmel” or “G”. Anyone familiar with the scriptive Gimmel knows it is basically a “hump” like a camel’s. Early semites would write the picture of a camel (Gamal), and mean just the first sound of the word: “G”.

In any event, that is phonetics in a nutshell and the Phoenicians as a seafaring people taught this knowledge to the ancient Greeks who then transferred it to the Romans. It is for this reason that the Hebrew alphabet, though seemingly alien, is congruent to today’s modern Latin (Roman) alphabet used in most languages around the world. The Hebrew “Aleph, Bet Gimmel, Dalet” becomes the Greek “Alpha, Beta, Kappa, Delta” and the Latin “A, B, C, D”. Amazing isn’t it?

Hopefully excusing that inexcusable tangent, let us return to the issue at hand. The Phoenicians made these dyes, one apparently more expensive and rare than the other, and a few different mollusks were apparently used. Now, the Torah mentions a few related dyes including something often translated as “onyx” as an ingredient used in the Altar. But putting that aside, the two most important are Techelet and Argaman. Both are blue/purple dyes used for the holy purposes. Techelet most importantly is mentioned 50 times in the Hebrew Bible, and is used for the holiest purposes including dying of tapestries adorning the Tabernacle (the Ark), clothing for the High Priest and coloring the Tzitzit (yes related to our earlier “fringes” or fins, Tzitzin in Aramaic) of the undergarments or more famously, the Tallit (prayer shawl).

Techelet Lost

At some point after the destruction of the Second Temple, the identity of the animal used to make the Techelet, as well as the method was lost. The Talmud tells us the animal used was the חילזון Hilazon – a word used as “snail” in modern Hebrew, found off the coast of present day Northern Israel/Lebanon. The High Priest and Tabernacle covered in dye from shellfish? No less absurd than a dye made from pigs… let us dig deeper.   Though earlier parts of the Talmud seem to know exactly what this (Hilazon) meant, by the later portions of the Talmud, it is apparent that the Rabbis had lost this knowledge.  Some of this confusion may come from the all too often ignored fact that to the ancients, a “fish” is not what it means to us today, but a far broader term for aquatic life. This, combined with the refusal of the intermediary generation of Rabbis (when the knowledge was lost) to believe the animal used for such holy purposes was not Kosher (by the rules they now had interpreted) probably went a long way in the knowledge being lost. Later talmudic sources, seem confused of the identity of the animal between a fish, a squid and a shelled mollusk.  There is also great difference in this regard between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud. The Sages in Babylonia were far from the coast and more removed from the ancient dye making knowledge.

In any case, the arguments on the identity of the species used to obtain Tyrian purple, Argman, and Techelet span a dozen languages, hundreds if not thousands of sources, modern scientific inquires, archaeology, and actually have led me to graciously desist from including them in this already lengthy report. It is a fascinating question and perhaps to be the subject matter at another point, but the complexity is not warranted here by our ends… Unlike the question proposed here (on the real meaning of Kashkeshet), Techelet and the other dyes have been the subject of ongoing study for generations. So it is suffice to say that though the scientific name of the specific organism used for each (murex sp. is most often cited) is uncertain, the evidence is overwhelming and virtually all scholars agree that at least the first two were made from shellfish. As for the most important Techelet, modern scholarship (religious and secular both) tend to believe either a shellfish, cuttlefish or snail as suspects; in either case, a non Kosher mollusk.

Avoiding the complexities of this issue, let us just read Pliny the Elder once again, in a fascinating quote (as translated here) on Tyrian Purple (probably Argaman):

The most favourable season for taking these fish [i.e., shellfish] is after the rising of the Dog-star, or else before spring; for when they have once discharged their waxy secretion, their juices have no consistency: this, however, is a fact unknown in the dyers’ workshops, although it is a point of primary importance. After it is taken, the vein [i.e., hypobranchial gland] is extracted, which we have previously spoken of, to which it is requisite to add salt, a sextarius [about 20 fl. oz.] about to every hundred pounds of juice. It is sufficient to leave them to steep for a period of three days, and no more, for the fresher they are, the greater virtue there is in the liquor. It is then set to boil in vessels of tin [or lead], and every hundred amphoræ ought to be boiled down to five hundred pounds of dye, by the application of a moderate heat; for which purpose the vessel is placed at the end of a long funnel, which communicates with the furnace; while thus boiling, the liquor is skimmed from time to time, and with it the flesh, which necessarily adheres to the veins. About the tenth day, generally, the whole contents of the cauldron are in a liquefied state, upon which a fleece, from which the grease has been cleansed, is plunged into it by way of making trial; but until such time as the colour is found to satisfy the wishes of those preparing it, the liquor is still kept on the boil. The tint that inclines to red is looked upon as inferior to that which is of a blackish hue. The wool is left to lie in soak for five hours, and then, after carding it, it is thrown in again, until it has fully imbibed the colour.

Please notice Pliny, when clearly speaking of a shellfish, refers it to a “fish” and our modern day translations add the ” [shellfish]” (just as Wikipedia does). Pliny if you may remember, told us of the Jewish Garum made from “scale-less fish”. Perhaps I was on to something there after all.

Philo and Josephus refer to the Argaman as made from a “shellfish”. Now, though widely quoted one must note that this is also from a widely accepted and ancient Latin translation. The original Greek also simply says, “fish” again showing that fish has a much wider connotation in the pre-classical world than it does today.  Josephus says the special dye is made from :

πεφοινῖχθαι τῶν ἰχθύων

Roughly from the “red blood of the fish”. So what real evidence is that Josephus even meant a “shellfish” other than that the 3rd-6th century Latin translator(s) thought so? The term ἰχθύων is not exactly the same as our usual “fish” ἰχθύς. This type of conjugation often refers to products that have been “fished” out of the water as opposed to “fish” themselves. This has survived though less so in English, in modern Romance languages such as in pescado (as opposed to pez)in Spanish which is something (usually an aquatic species) that has been fished. To highlight the strength of this point, even in today’s modern English, something that has been “fished” and hence was obtained by “fishing” is characterized by Wikipedia as:

The term fishing may be applied to catching other aquatic animals such as molluscs, cephalopods, crustaceans, and echinoderms.

Furthermore, though Biologically, when we use “fish” today we often mean what Biologists often term “finfish”, “finned fish” or “true fish”, in modern fisheries the term “fish” easily refers to mussels, scallops and oysters among others as much as it does to sardines and herring.  To illustrate, again let me quote Wikipedia (on “Fisheries”)

In fisheries – the term fish is used as a collective term, and includes mollusks, crustaceans and any aquatic animal which is harvested.


Though this is true today, it was far more true (and obvious) in the ancient Greco-Roman World. Josephus meant the “shellfish” as the source for the Biblical dye Argaman not only because of the above reason, not only because since ancient times it has always been understood that Josephus meant the shellfish, not only because this mollusk was a famous source of this expensive dye throughout the ancient world, but because Josephus names it clearly by name πορφύρα. “Purpura” was not only the name of the royal dye, but also the name of the mollusk (most likely a Murex species) from whom it was extracted. A host of sources (and archaeological evidence of thei dye factories) name and describe the Murex including Aristotle who describes in detail as a single shelled organism (as opposed to a Bivalve) and refers to it exactly as Josephus does.

Josephus and Philo also refer to Techelet specifically, in the original Greek ὑάκινθος (Hayakinth) or “Blue”. This is the same name used for dark blue flowers who Greek mythology tells us sprung from the blueish blood of Hayakinth or Ajax (much like the dye from the Murex family of mollusks). Other ancient Greek sources use it for a rare blue precious stone, most likely sapphire. The Talmud often uses Techelet to refer to both dyes, and other times separates them into Argaman and Techelet.

In any event, again it is suffice to say modern scholarship overwhelmingly agrees (as did ancient scholarship) that both dyes were made from two “unclean” mollusks. The question of course is self evident: How could the two holiest dyes in Judaism, present on the Ark of the Covenant itself, the Tabernacle, and the High Priest’s clothing be unKosher? It is no less odd than if the Holy Temple, the Ark, and the High Priests were all covered in pig’s blood. The prohibition against unclean aquatic species is to avoid them completely (not to touch), and not just to not eat them. Moreso, Philo and Josephus, who both mention the two holy dyes, and also discuss the dietary laws, make no mention of this conflicting dilemma or try to explain it in any way.

Non Kosher Dye?

The Rabbis from the latter Talmud sections struggled with this… especially since an old Talmudic ruling said that only Kosher materials were used in the Ark and the Tabernacle. Some focusing on the “fish” references try to argue the dye must have been made from a Kosher fish. However, most could not escape the overwhelming evidence known about the dye making process, descriptions of the animal in their own older traditions,  and the word חילזון Hilazon. This word and very close variants mean a form of shelled “snail” in Aramaic, Syriac, Assyrian Arabic and even modern Hebrew. Other sections of the Talmud go into complex arguments about why the material extracted from the mollusk would be Kosher even if the animal was not.

Let us move on to archaeological evidence. This from what is available is easy to summarize. It has long been known to (and impressed) archaeologists that Jewish settlements will not contain pig bones while those of other peoples will. Be them Canaanites, Philistines, Hellenized peoples or anyone else, all their settlements anywhere in the Holy Land contain pig bones, while Jewish ones invariably do not. This remains true until long after the Classical period upon the spread of Islam (which also prohibits pork). On the other hand, all sorts of seashells are usually found in all Biblical era towns in the Holy Land, whether they be Jewish or otherwise. In fact, sometimes huge amounts of shells are found, when dye making plants were present in the costal settlements of northern Israel and southern Lebanon. Not too much attention has ever been paid to this this fact because of a few main reasons.

Firstly, the shells are quickly dismissed as either remnants of the dye making process, or in use as decoration or tools. Nothing directly indicates that they were eaten so eye brows are not raised. However, the stark contrast with the complete lack of pig remains is telling.

Secondly, in ancient times, seafood invariably is eaten drastically less and less as the distance from the coast increases. In a time before refrigeration, this is especially true of shellfish since they were not dried or preserved as often as fish were for consumption further inland. Additionally, any form of preservation method that could be used (such as Pliny’s shellfish Garum), is likely to still take place at the coast upon catching, and then carried inland without the shells. Invariably, shells are found in significant numbers only in the coastal settlements  (though everywhere in smaller numbers) and so make less of an impression than if for example, many were found in Jerusalem. Note that shells, including Murex species have indeed been famously found in Jewish digs in Jerusalem as well.

Back to the Greek

Now that we have Aramaic, Hebrew, archaeological, Biblical, Extra-Biblical and logical evidence for our current theory, let us go back to the pesky Greek that wasn’t being very conclusive in this case.

There are two major Greek references to the alleged “scales” that we looked at. There is the Septuagint (LXX) and Philo’s explanation on the dietary laws also in Greek.

Philo uses λεπίσι. This traditionally is also translated as scales, but it is a bit odd. It is not the usual conjugation used in ancient greek when referring to fish scales. Other times it has been used are for example:

Polybius in his Histories uses the identical conjugation when referring to Golden plates on columns. If translated as “plates” one can see a close resemblance to “scales” but they could also be “coverings” or “enclosings/enclosures” or even outright “shells” as they are metal encasings over the column. Interestingly, the same root is used in the very sentence to state that they were “stripped” during Alexander’s invasion. The point is reminiscent to the Aramaic root (today’s modern Hebrew root) Qlipah / Qalef which is a shell, peel and to peel (like the peel of an orange). So that leaves us with some ambivalence though it is interesting to note that a form is used here by Philo that in no other source is used to indicate fish scales.

The Septuagint (LXX) has the following line:

 πτερυγια ουδε λεπιδες

This phrase is taken from the negative commandment in Leviticus where Jews are told they should NOT eat certain aquatic species (as opposed to the previous which is that Jews are allowed to eat what has…). Firstly, the ancient Greek here finally comes through with a very strong support to the present theory as it clearly translates “Fins NOR “Scales/Shells”. This conjugation is often used as the modern “nor” or “neither” but would not be appropriate when trying to explain that species without BOTH these characteristics cannot be eaten. In fact, it is stating that species with NEITHER one or the other cannot be eaten. Again, in our ancient Hebrew, this conjunction is the same “Vav”, that depending on context can vary in meaning.

On the crux of the matter, λεπιδες is used as the usually translated “scales”. Again, this is a very odd choice for fish scales. In modern Greek, the word means “blades” (usually related to shells, which are sharp and were used as cutting tools). The word is used once in the New Testament to describe what falls from Saul’s eyes, but with the qualifier “like”. So things as if or like these fell from his eyes. Anyway, this is a much later reference and it most likely took the word from the Old Testament’s Septuagint.

Besides this reference, Josephus ironically uses this conjugation for the golden coverings of columns that Polybius used Philo’s conjugation for. Interesting but alone, does not tell us too much, other than that the normal terminology for fish scales was not used in both cases.

A brief look at ancient Greek sources can clarify what a more common terminology could be:

The Lepis root λεπίς comes from “peel” and just like the modern Hebrew root, can be used for any covering that one “peels off” like egg shells, orange peels, nut shells, mollusks shells and to a lesser extent, fish scales. In fact, the Lepis root is not often used for fish scales. When it is, the conjugation is λεπίδος.

Aristotle, in describing the scales in fish, calls them λεπιδωτὸν (in today’s Greek would be a “flakiness or “scaly”).

We have seen various sources use the root for metal protective encasings.

While the connotation for Lepis root words is that they enclose and protect something, much like shells, peels and the metal plates, the true nature of scales is the cascading or mosaic-like nature to them. Where as one scale is much like a shell in that it protects, scales are most often in great numbers. The more appropriate root for this in ancient Greek is φολίς and is used many times for scales and mosaics.

The conjugation φολιδωτά is most often used for scales for both reptiles and fish. Aristotle at one point uses both roots together for apparently a crocodile in λεπιδωτὰ ἢ φολιδωτά (these are apparently scales in that they are mosaic like, but also protective, plate-like and shell-like individually). This usually is translated as horny scaly plates (probably more from observing a crocodile today than studying the phrase.

κόγχαις is another more modern root for more specific shell. It means mussel, and perhaps evolves to the Latin conchis which is clearly shell. Interestingly, it is related to the Onyx which is another ingredient used in the holy Ark which appears to be a shell.

Most importantly is that Ancient Greek has a clear word for the scaly skin that covers fish, which is really what tradition has translated Lepis to.  ἰχθύα is the skin of the fish and is used in many ancient Greek sources, especially when speaking about foods (like drying, peeling and pickling fish, etc). Had the ancient Jewish translators wanted to describe the scales of fish in ancient Greek, they, much like their Aramaic counterparts, could have used much more precise and accurate language. Instead, their terminology leans towards shells.

The Root of the Confusion

The real root of this confusion that unlike in ancient Hebrew, in Indo-European languages the words “scales” and “shells” are extremely related. Though at first thought they seem to us completely different, by now any reader has begun to see the relation. Scales and Shells both essentially cover something, and both must usually be “peeled” or “stripped” off. The proto-Indo-European root for both words is the same, and comes from an original verb of “cutting” or “peeling”. It is easy to realize even in modern English, “scale”, “shale”, “shell” are very similar.

It begins with the Proto-Indo-European root kel or skel, “to cleave, cut or peel”. So things that must be peeled off end being called by a similar noun (much like the peel of an orange is called a peel). So often times, these are thin, scaly or flaky things so we get words from the same root meaning “peel, scales, plates, sheets, and flakes”. But other times these are other things that simply cover or protect items, “husk, rind, shell”

In German, a “schale” (right in between “scales” and “shells” and from the Old German scala) is a peel, skin, shell or scallop. We already saw that “scallop” itself is from the same root.

The English “shell” comes from an old English “scell” itself from the Germanic “skelo” and above-mentioned Proto-Indo_European “(s)kel”.

In modern Dutch, “schaal, schelp and schil” all can (not equally of course) variably mean shell, scale, husk and peel depending on context.

So Why did the Rabbis think Scales?

Undoubtedly, there is a large body of evidence supporting the case our original Kashkeshet really meant “Shell”. The question then shifts, what original evidence was there or is there left supporting the contrary. It is not insignificant, and it is not difficult to find, the Rabbis of the Talmud clearly tell us the reason that convinced them Kashkeshet could be no other than “scales”; namely that Goliath dons armor of Kashakashim.

This is strong indeed, the image of mail-armor or scale-armor and that of scales on fish is similar indeed, and definitely more similar than it is to that of shells. As most of the issues pertaining to this issue, it is so only on first glance. By the time of classical Rabbis, the scale armor we imagine was wide spread and well known. Roman armies had perfected it in the West, Scythians and Persians in the East wore their version as well. But this was not the state of armor in the Bronze Age, not the case during the First Temple period, and certainly not when Moses received the Torah at Sinai.

Crude helmets, breastplates, and a lot of leather padding were used for protection. In fact, the Romans who massively popularized the scale armor during called it Lorica squamata. squamata as we saw previously being the same word used for fish scales in latin. Each scale in the armor was called a squama, a “scale”. The Scythians from the East, and rivals to the Romans in power, were famous for their scale armor which they also described as being like the scales of fish. So anachronistically, during the Rabbinical period, reading the Biblical line about Goliath, conjures up visions of scales that would be difficult to shake.

This however, is not the situation in Biblical times. The Romans themselves, before using the Lorica squamata, used Lamellar armour which is much less fish-scale-like. This varied type of armor apparently existed for a long period in the ancient world, and even ancient Egyptian records depict them. But even lamellar armor was not common until early Roman times. The Ancient Greeks wore linothorax armor (not scale-like at all) and even that was mostly in the later classical period. Earlier Greek Hoplites made due with crude leather armor and breastplates. So “armor” in general did not mean the same in Biblical times than in the post Temple period, and in the former, the linguistic connection between “scales” and armor did not yet exist.

More precisely to the point, the Tanakh mentions “armour” many times, and only once Kaskashim. More accurately it never calls the armor itself that Goliath wears Kashkashim. Instead the normal word for “armour” in the Torah, Shiryon is used. In this one case, the Tanakh explains that the giant wore a Shiryon of Kaskashim. Apparently, Goliath obtained a more advanced armour (logical as one of the Greek “Sea-Peoples”) , closer to what we imagine as the Roman period scale-armor, and it the Tanakh is trying to describe it. In this light, “shells” is just as good if not better than “scales”. Shells conjure up the image of a protective cover, and this armour had many small “shells” on it.

Shells and Armor?

Any precedent for this? Why certainly. The very same ancient Greeks’s famous warriors, the Hoplites wore hoplon armour, ὅπλον, the same word Aristotle uses for the defensive shell of an animal. The German Panzer means “shell” and of course much more infamously, “armour”.

броня fronja, in Bulgarian is no different, “armour” and “shell”.

Across language families and across a continent, 갑 is the Sino-Korean word for “armor” and “shell”.

The Sino-tibetan and Kanchin are no different, sharing a word for shell and armor. The root, qrāp in sino-caucasian interestingly, shell and scale. It is not difficult to see that the idea of the protective “shell” of eggs, hard fruits and shellfish is a great way to describe the man-made protective layers a soldier wears to battle. Just as good if not better, than “scales”.

Finally, even linguistically there is a problem the Rabbis seemed to have ignored. The obvious one is that Kashkashim when in reference to Goliath’s armour is in plural, and Kashkeshet is in singular. Just like the Philistine’s armor was covered in “scales” so is a fish. Referring to the scales on a fish as a “scale” would be as nonesensicle as referring to scale armour as having a “scale”. Be them shells or scales, the Tanakh makes it clear they were more than one on the giant’s armour. The Rabbis simply ignored this particular problem and in the Talmud refer to the Biblical word in question as Kashkashim, in the plural as makes sense when speaking about fish scales without ever noting the Torah actually uses the singular. But grammatical issue is deeper than that…

To be accurate, nothing assures us that Kashkashim even IS the plural of Kashkeshet. These two instances are the only two in the entire Bible for this word root. It is clear they have the same Hebrew root, KSHKSH, but small changes in a root’s conjugation and prefix can significantly change a word’s meaning. Normally, if one is given the word Kashkashim (masculine) as a plural, its singular form would be Kashkash.  The related word Kashkeshet is a feminine variation of the word and could mean something quite different. Kashkashot would normally be the plural of Kashkeshet. A simple example:

The Hebrew root for guarding related words is שומר.  A “message” in Hebrew is a Messer, מסר.  Many messages are Messerim (ie Kashkashim), מסרים, masculine plural. But Massoret (fem singular, ie Kashkashet) is “tradition”.

Similarly, a guard is a Shomer, שומר. Many guards are Shomrim. A Mishmeret however is a “shift” (ex: a guard’s night shift).

A Barber is a Sapar. Many Barbers, Saparim, but a tiSporet is a Haircut. There are many better examples as well, but the point is that in Hebrew just like in modern languages that conjugate gender (English much less so), plural masculine, singular masculine, and singular feminine words most often do not have the same meaning. Ratones in Spanish means “mice” while a Raton is but a single “mouse”. One Rata however, (what in English could be thought as a “mousette”) is a “rat”.  The singular feminine of a word is not the same as its singular male counterpart. To illustrate the point to the reader, even in English which typically has no grammatical Gender, a cigarette is not a cigar, a table not a tablet (tablette in French), nor a a barrette the same as a bar.  In languages with Grammatical Gender, this is far more true, constant and common.

This simple characteristic of Hebrew was completely glossed over by generations of our leaders who first pretended Kashkeset is the singular of Kashkashim (which it isn’t), and then assumed that Kashkashim are “scales” (which I doubt), and for a finale acted as if their resulting single “scale” actually said “scales” in order to make the sentence work.  The point is that even if Goliath’s armour was made of scales, Kashkashim, it does not necessarily follow that a “scalette” Kashkeshet, is a single scale. In fact, it can be said that it necessarily follows that it does not. The world can basically have any meaning EXCEPT the same one as its male plural counterpart.  And a “scalette” can very easily be a “shell”.

Not Conclusive

The case is strong, but as lengthy as my report on this fascinating issue is, it is far from complete. There are materials I unfortunately have no access to that would be very important, and I welcome the input from all those that may have it (or any other opinion, question or comment). There are ancient fragments of Leviticus found among the Dead Sea Scrolls such as the  PaleoHebrew Leviticus Scroll (11QpaleoLev) which would be crucial. Is the wording identical to our Masoretic text of today? Other ancients scripts, and fragments among the Cairo Geniza would also be helpful. The text of the Samaritan Bible and the Syriac Bible are a must as well.

The published archaeological data on seafood found in Jewish sites is very slim, since no one has addressed this issue (since no one seems to know it’s an issue!). Without doubt, there is much on the unpublished record that would be of great help. The greatest weakness in my report is the on the ancient Greek terminology. A more thorough comparison of Philo, Josephus and the Septuagint’s terminology to each other and to other ancient Greek references to shells and/or scales would be very important. A comparison among ancient Septuagint versions is also in order, as is a comparison of the other Targum versions in existence besides the Onkelos I quoted here.   These are but a few of the many more ways the issue could be explored further, but it just may be that though our responsibility and privilege of many mitzvot are great indeed, Hashem may have intended us to enjoy a nice Paella in Toledo or Torremolinos.

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9 responses to “Kashrut and Seafood”

  1. Has anyone come forward with further materials or critical arguments? I would love to know more.

    • Erik says:

      Thank you… I would really like to see something myself, a big part of the reason why I wrote the article is to hopefully find evidence to the contrary. Nothing definitive yet… just a few conceptual arguments so far….

  2. Synapse says:

    The whole article falls apart because of the mistaken assumption that a word lacking a plural is automatically in the singular when it is more evidently a group noun, and worse likely came to that conclusion as it’s not a group noun in English. Not to mention that you didn’t even apply the exact same logic to the word for “fins” in the same sentence which is also in the singular meaning you should have read “fin and scale,” but completely ignored that implication. Not a good start for making such a radical suggestion as this…

    • Erik says:

      Thanks for the comment. The explanation is quite in detail, and English is used only as an example to illustrate to English only readers. The group noun concept is explored in detail, the main point is that it is used in the plural form when speaking of Goliath’s armor. Why would Goliath be clad in “scales” and a fish in “scale”? The point made was precisely the opposite, that it seems this this issue is ignored by the Rabbinical discussion as if they were identical words.

      As far as the word for “fins” that is a fair point, and it did not go unnoticed by me, but the article as you can see is lengthy enough as it is. Analyzing “Snapir” in detail would take a whole different set of research, but in general, there is no issue with “fins” actually being in singular. It even makes sense; a fish or other aquatic creature must only have one fin to be Kosher. If the word was “fins” it would also leave doubt if a fish with only one fin would be kosher and/ or how many fins it needed to be Kosher. The article does mention that the Mishna did tackle that issue and declares that one fin is enough (while two “scales” or arguably “shells” are required). That is a truly ancient Mishna indeed, and the article draws it on it quite a bit.

      • Synapse says:

        Thanks for the response. I thought of some additional points during the day. For one, I don’t think it is entirely fair to draw parallels to Rabbinic Hebrew. Rabbinic Hebrew has many differences from Biblical Hebrew and as it is literally hundreds if not a thousand years later; it is hard to say that it bears any relation. There are many ways in which Rabbinic Hebrew is less careful (possibly because it was more academic than a true daily language) with grammar, and throwing a plural on an already plural word could have evolved much later. I can’t judge the Greek as carefully, but so too was the Septuagint written several hundreds of years later and it’s hard to say that the writer accurately reflected the meaning of the original text, or may himself have reflected some mistaken notion that developed in the intermediate time period.

        As for your point about the “strange” qualification of the requirement of two scales, I believe this is not a significant problem I thought of my own solution which is more in line with Rabbinic thought and would explain their reading here. Requiring two scales seems overly pedantic unless you realize that they could very well be making a distinction regarding animals that are transitional between not having scales and having scales, and there are such animals, e.g. swordfish, and in that case one scale would not yet be a sufficient kosher sign for eating. This is further backed up by their use of a very similar measure on humans. One sign which determines whether a child has become an adult is by requiring the presence of two (really meaning two or more) pubic hairs. One, theoretically, would be insufficient to change the child’s status.

        Also, regarding your last point, having checked the Dead Sea Scrolls Leviticus text, they are exactly the same as the Masoretic Text, as is the Samaritan text the same.

        • Erik says:

          As far as the Rabbinical Hebrew, I tend to agree with you, but the Hebrew I was referring to was biblical as well. The two instances of Kaskeset/Kaskasim are both in the Tanach. The Rabbis, actually quote the second instance (Goliath clad in “scales” armor) in-order to understand what the first one means. So the article makes the point that firstly, the Rabbis in a sense admit that they are not too sure about the term, as is the case in many Biblical terms, and look elsewhere in the Tanach for help. When they do find it, they ignore the different tense (plural/singular) of the word.

          Now as far as the issue of the odd requirement of “two scales”, you make a very good point. I can think of no other point that could fit the alternative. If the number was three, or higher, that would be more clear, but “two” is subject to be interpreted not just as literally “two” but also in a sense of more than “one”.

          Finally, what do you mean about checking the latter documents? Is this available online somewhere? The published Dead Sea scrolls that I could find include only the major scrolls and not the relevant Leviticus portions. And they have minor differences with the Masoretic Text in some parts. That would be great indeed to see, same with the Samaritan text in the original.

          • Synapse says:

            Regarding checking, you wondered about possible variants in other texts. For the Dead Sea Scrolls, you won’t find it online. You have to consult the “Discoveries in the Judaean Desert” book series at a university library (the original publication series of the text of all the scrolls). For the Samaritan text, you can find it online in Google books. There’s also a really nice version that compares it with the Masoretic text in the Digitized Book Repository on the national library of Israel’s website.

  3. Sara Ovits says:

    Tractate Bechorot 7a-b tells us that clean (Kosher) fish breed, and unclean ones lay eggs (also goes on to state that bats lay eggs). This implies that all fish eggs must be from kosher fish (who apparently have fins and scales).

    my response: is there an editing error here ? 'unclean ones lay eggs' then contraditction: that 'all fish eggs must be from kosher fish'… then below: 'Rabbis declared that Kosher fish do not lay eggs' then contradiction 'ie scale-less fish do not lay eggs'. PLEASE CLARIFY. thank you.

    Rabbeinu Tam (Rashi’s grandson) wrote in Tosafot on Chullin 64a, “And this is what we rely upon to eat the fish called barbata in [Old] French–we do not know if its scales fall off as it is drawn from the water; we rely upon the signs of its eggs.” And on Tosafot on Avodah Zarah 40a, “Rabbenu Tam learned from here that the signs of fish eggs are from the Torah, and therefore the catfish is permitted.”

    Summing Up What Happened

    It is important to note what has happened here. First, a Rabbinical interpretation decided (perhaps incorrectly as I am suggesting) that Kashkeshet means scales. It is taken as divine. Therefore, scale-less fish (such as catfish) are not Kosher (as they are not considered to be today). Then the next generation of Rabbis declared that Kosher fish do not lay eggs (ie scale-less fish do not lay eggs). This too is now considered divine and beyond reproach. So subsequent Rabbis, finding that the seemingly scale-less catfish lay eggs (cannot be!) conclude the only thing that is possible. Catfish do (they must) have scales, and they are permitted and Kosher. It must be that the scales fall off as it is drawn out of the water!

    • Thank you for the comment Sara. You are precisely correct, that is a typo… Tractate Bechorot tells us that un-kosher fish are viviparous (live birth), and Kosher fish lay eggs. So that sentence is inadvertantly reversed.

      As for you summary, that is precisely correct, (with the above-mentioned reversal).

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