National Geographic

Gefilte Fish: Why, Oy Why?

Jewish stories are brimming with miracles. When Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews, frogs fill up his bed, the Nile turns to blood, and the skies rain hail and fire. Later, a small unarmored boy uses a slingshot to slay a giant. Sometime after that, in the Holy Temple, a day’s worth of oil lights a menorah for eight. But for this shiksa, the biggest Jewish miracle of all is the acquired taste for gefilte fish.

I first encountered this flaccid culinary specimen in September 2007, when celebrating Rosh Hashanah at my new boyfriend’s parents’ house. It was my first time meeting them, and my first Rosh Hashanah, and I was trying my damnedest to blend in at the long table full of friendly Jews. I dipped apple slices into honey and (slowly) sipped Manischewitz. When somebody suggested the Gentile visitor put on a yarmulke, I complied and posed for a toothy photo.

So far, so good. Then my boyfriend’s mother, Marlene, came around behind me with a platter of brown-gray gelatinous lumps.

“Gefilte fish?” she asked.

“Um, what is it?” I said in the most polite voice I could muster.

“It’s fish mixed with bread,” said Howie, my boyfriend’s brother, eagerly forking one from the platter.

“OK, sure,” I said. I looked down at this supposed fish on my plate and took a tiny, tepid bite. I did not like it, which I guess was obvious from my face. Everybody laughed. “Well, you tried it!” Marlene said.

For the uninitiated: Gefilte fish is ground fish mixed with other ingredients, typically matzo meal, onions, vegetables, eggs, and seasonings. Small patties of this batter are poached in fish stock, chilled, and served cold and slimy.

Some gefilte recipes are sweet, others savory. The split appeared a couple of hundred years ago from something known as the “gefilte fish line” in Poland. Jews living west of the line ate sweet gefilte, whereas those east of the line ate a peppery version. (According to one Jewish historian, the fish line overlaps with a linguistic border between two types of Yiddish.)

Some Jewish families relish their homemade gefilte. “These recipes are sacred, held close and carefully passed from generation to generation,” says Aimee Levitt, a writer at The Chicago Reader. “My own family’s comes from my maternal great-grandmother, who only relinquished it mere months before she died. Every Passover, someone marvels at what a close call we had.”

Levitt’s Passover tradition is in jeopardy this year, she writes, because of a whitefish shortage in the Chicago area. Some Jews are resorting to tilapia or, gasp, to the many varieties of jarred gefilte found on grocery store shelves (the source of my first and only bite):

Mmmmmmmm.

But seriously. Why?

Fish in general has been a Sabbath tradition for a long time. The first Jews thought fish encouraged fertility. “They believed the intoxicating odor on the Sabbath table would encourage couples to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — which in Jewish tradition is encouraged on Friday night,” writes Tamara Mann of My Jewish Learning.

There’s also symbolism in the word itself. The Sabbath happens on the seventh day, and so many foods traditionally eaten on the Sabbath correspond to the number 7, explains Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin:

The Hebrew word for wine is yayin, spelled יין, yud-yud-nun. If one adds up the gematria of יין, it equals 70.

After Kiddush, everyone then washes and returns to the table to say the blessing on and eat challah bread. The gematria of חלה, challah, is 43, and 4 and 3=7.

After they eat the challah, of course they have gefilte fish. The word “fish,” דג (dag), is spelled dalet=4 and gimmel=3, equaling 7.

Alright, this is all starting to add up. I’m down with eating fish on the Sabbath. But why gefilte? Why butcher it so?

“The gastronomic considerations of this delicacy may seem the most obvious,” writes Rabbi Zushe Blech, of Monsey, New York. I beg to differ. Luckily the rabbi also provides a more credible reason*:

Shabbos is a day of rest where many types of labor are prohibited. One of the activities in which one may not be engaged on Shabbos relates to the separation of chaff from grain, which is known in Hebrew as Borer. This restriction extends to many types of separation, and the rules governing which types are permitted and which are not can be quite complicated. Eating fish is a common situation where Borer becomes a problem, since fish is often served whole and bones are not removed before serving. In order to avoid this concern, a custom developed, whereby the fish was filleted, ground, and stuffed back into the skin and then cooked.

That’s where the name comes from, by the way: Gefilte is derived from געפֿילטע פֿיש, the Yiddish word for “stuffed fish.” But wait, gefilte fish isn’t stuffed! What happened? I can’t find an explanation online, other than laziness: It was just easier to poach the stuffing rather than jam it back into the skin. I can’t help but think how much more appetizing the fish would be had the skin stayed in the picture.

I’m headed back to Marlene’s house tomorrow evening for Passover. She’s my mother-in-law now, so I don’t have to worry about fitting in. When she comes around with the gefilte platter, I’ll just say, “No, thank you,” and take two helpings of charoset.

*This is the most popular explanation for why Jews eats gefilte, but some scholars are skeptical of it. Haym Soloveitchik, a Jewish historian at Yeshiva University, wrote in 1994:

“Popular lore has it that gefilte fish was introduced into the Sabbath menu to avoid the very problem of borer. [But] gefilte fish is an East European dish, and Jews had been eating fish on Sabbath for some fifteen centuries before this culinary creation. Even in Eastern Europe, I know of no instance of someone being labeled a mehallel Shabbas and run out of town for eating non-gefilte fish.”

Which, I must say, makes me feel a bit better about my aversion to the stuff.

There are 13 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. PalMD
    April 13, 2014

    OK, Ginny, here’s some advice for seder. First, you need really, really good horseradish, not from the jar. Easy to make by grinding horseradish in the food processor (with a bandana over nose and mouth) and adding canned or cooked beets, vinegar, and sugar. You’ll by looking for excuses to eat it, even gefilte fish.

    If you’re stuck with jarred stuff (Great Lakes white fish is the best, but…) then simply heat up some onion, carrot, and celery in water and poach the fish in it for about 5 minutes. This revives it and gets rid of the jarred flavor.

    And never, never, ever agree to make it in your own home. If you must make it, use a kitchen with good ventilation.

    Next year in Jerusalem!

  2. Virginia Hughes
    April 13, 2014

    Haha, thanks, Pal!

  3. Phil
    April 13, 2014

    Great post! I’ve been making homemade gefilte fish for about 15 years, using my granmother’s recipe. Strangely enough, she was from Russia (actaully Ukraine), but did use sugar in her recipe. I even managed to make gefilte fish for passover each year during the 4 years I lived in China. Carp was easy to find but I had to improvise on the other types of fish (according to my grandmother it is obligatory to use at least 3 different kinds of fish! On the question of why the name gifilte, meaning stuffed, fish when there is no skin in site, I read and article a while back that explained that true gifilte fish is indeed stuffed back into the skin and then sliced, and that the patties which we popularly call gifilte fish were, in Eastern Europe, know as gehakte (chopped) fish. In any event, there is no comparison between homemade and what comes in a jar!
    As the old jewish ladies used to say – Try it, You’ll like it :-)

  4. Robert C Brooke
    April 14, 2014

    With so many restrictions on what kinds of labor may be done on the Sabbath,I’ve sometimes wondered if burial of the dead would be permitted.My father was a national cemetery director for many years and I can remember only one occasion where he attended a funeral on a Saturday.I understand that among Jews it is customary to bury the dead the day after death whenever possible.

  5. deb
    April 14, 2014

    i love gefilte fish and manechevietz wine, ALL YEAR LONG!!!! and I’m not even jewish :)

  6. Things can _always_ Get Worse
    April 14, 2014

    You could’ve done a *lot* worse when choosing disgusting ethnic fare to adopt.

    Haggis, anyone? ( https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=haggis )

    With a side of lutefish, perhaps? ( https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=lutefisk )

    And a side of *fresh*, writhing Klingon gagh? ( https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=klingon+gagh )

    (Gagh is why Klingons often say “Today is A Good Day To Die.)

  7. Mike
    April 15, 2014

    All these years eating gefilte fish without knowing the origin. Thanks for this explanation. My grandmother used to go down to the open air market in Philadelphia and pick out her fish while they were still flopping around. My mother (wisely) decided she could make fish that tasted almost as good (and certainly close enough) by doctoring up fish from jars (but only the kind with liquid broth, not jelly). My wife continues this tradition today. One benefit we found with our kids long ago — there are very few sources of protein better for young children than gefilte fish. They also seem to like it, even without horse radish — no acquired taste issues. However, we Jews are not the only people with this culinary issue. My son married a young woman of the Norwegian persuasion and tried ludefisk on a visit to her relatives. Now THERE’s an acquired taste.

  8. PNG
    April 16, 2014

    I have no Jewish lore to share, being an ordinary Anglo-Saxon Texan. I cooked up a science project for my nephew a few years ago that involved making peroxidase from fresh horseradish (you can do nifty colorimetric reactions with it), and my nephew didn’t tell me until we got into it that he had make himself sick on horseradish once and couldn’t stand the smell of the stuff. Not my finest pedagogical moment.

    On another note, the genetic genealogy of the Jews would be an interesting topic for you sometime, rife with controversy and all.

  9. Kaleberg
    April 17, 2014

    My Ashkenazic grandmother used to make really good gefilte fish from scratch. It was much better than the stuff sold in jars. Now, we make our own gefilte fish in a Sephardic style with lots of onions, garlic, cumin and coriander.

  10. Dennis
    April 18, 2014

    Great article! חג שמח!

  11. Dan
    April 18, 2014

    While I like gefilte fish, I can understand if some people don’t, and would have sympathized with the author as being one of those – until I saw that the gefilte fish she tried was from a jar. Jarred gefilte fish is disgusting. Why anyone would market it at its existing level of quality is a mystery deserving its own blog post. If home-made gefilte fish is not in the cards, any city with a Jewish community will have delis that offer decent gefilte fish. Trying gefilte fish from a jar and wondering why Jews invented that stuff is like drinking a box of cooking wine and wondering wondering why the French hold wine in such esteem.

  12. Gregg
    April 28, 2014

    There’s nothing disgusting about gefilte fish. Grow up please. People all over the world eat minced fish. There’s’ fish balls in soups from Asia. There’s kameboko and naruto in Japan which in America is basically the same as imitation crab used in nearly all California roll.

    Gefilte fish is delicious. In fact I’d be you $1000 that if I put it in a casserole or made a meat loaf from it (which is pretty much already is) and I didn’t tell you what it was you’d have no clue and totally enjoy it. It doesn’t have a strange taste at all. It’s tastes no more strange than a fish stick.

    The only thing that makes it look cross it it’s appearance in the jar but lots of things look gross coming out of a container. Many condensed soups look gross coming out of a can. Most chill looks gross when it’s cold and it smells like dog food. But then it’s heated up and taste great.

  13. Amy Goins
    May 8, 2014

    As I took my classes I have laughed with my Jewish friends that I could never convert because I could not deal with some of the food. Gefelti fish? Matzo? OMG. But I celebrated my first Passover as practicing Reform Jew and I will make my conversion official later this month. I’ve learned to enjoy matzo but Gefilte fish is just not for me, lol (My cat loves it though!)

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