The swordfish debate: Is it kosher?

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By Emilia Hofman
For Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

Despite being Jewish, my family and I have never been concerned with keeping kosher. Truthfully, a week ago, if someone had asked me if I knew of the debate occurring in the Jewish community in regard to whether or not swordfish is kosher, I would have said no. I was taught the basics of kashrut (keeping kosher); yet I seem to remember the laws of kosher as being quite simple. The rabbi who I heard speak about keeping kosher used terminology that was so straightforward that I was unaware that anyone even considered there to be room for interpretation. 

Chabad.org provides a basic explanation: Only specific animals and their byproducts are allowed to be eaten, meat and milk must not be mixed, animals must be slaughtered in a regulated and humane process called shechitah and any fruits, vegetables or grains consumed cannot be contaminated with insects. Furthermore, all processed ingredients and restaurants must be certified by a rabbi or kashrut supervision agency to ensure that there is no presence of non-kosher products. 

Chabad also cites a specific list of rules regarding on which forms of meat are not acceptable to eat. Mammals are not kosher unless they possess split hooves and chew their cud, fowl is usually not kosher if it is a predatory or scavenger breed, reptiles, amphibians and insects are not kosher with the exclusion of four types of locust and fish and seafood are not kosher unless they possess fins and scales. In accordance with these rules, swordfish is treif (unfit to consume). 

For further clarification, it is important to review the swordfish’s history among the laws of kashrut. In an article for The Jewish Press, Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin explained that a list of kosher fish was printed in 1933 by Agudas HaRabbonim, a right-wing Orthodox rabbinic organization, which at the time was led by Rav Eliezer Silver. The list included swordfish. Furthermore, in 1934, the list was edited and reprinted under the direction of Rav Yosef Kanowitz due to complaints over certain fish being included. Yet swordfish remained on the list. In his defense of swordfish being kosher, Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin also cited the Talmud and Tosefta’s mention of a fish known as achsaftias being cited as kosher. Achsaftias, he argued, is the “Aramaicized version of a Greek word. This appears to be the Greek word xiphias, which refers to the swordfish (based on the Greek xiphos, which refers to a sword).” 

This claim is bolstered by the fact that swordfish is a part of a group of fish with “swordlike projections” named billfish. Bills of billfish are usually shorter and “round in cross-section—like spears—” with the exception of swordfish whose bills are “flat in cross-section, like swords.” This implies that a fish called “sword” would be an allusion to swordfish. Also, swordfish are the most abundant of billfish variations in the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, it seems that swordfish is kosher because the Talmud would not cite a different species of billfish as kosher and create confusion as to whether it was referring to the more prevalent swordfish. 

Swordfish was again discussed in the work of halachic authority Rabbi Chaim ben Yisrael Benvenisti called the Knesses HaGedolah. He states, “It is a widespread custom among all Jews to eat the fish with the sword, known in vernacular as fishei espada, even though it does not have any scales, because it is said that when it comes out of the water, due to its anger, it shakes and throws off its scales.” 

With this level of support in mind, the question becomes “when did swordfish’s place among kosher fish become worthy of debate?” According to Rabbi Chaim ben Yisrael Benvenisti, in 1951, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler studied swordfish and did not encounter the presence of scales. As such, he came to believe that swordfish was not only non-kosher but also not the fish written about by the Knesses HaGedolah. The result: Rabbi Tendler began a crusade against swordfish. 

As for the earlier mention of fish and seafood requiring both fins and scales to qualify as kosher, in an article for The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Brody states that despite the Torah’s above statement, a custom organized by Halacha makes clear that “all fish with scales necessarily have fins.” Furthermore, for a fish to be kosher it must have “scales attached to their body which can be peeled without damaging the fish’s skin.” It is also said that fish with scales which fall off as it develops or is removed from water, or scales which form as the fish matures, are tolerated. However, Shlomo Brody does point out that as of yet it is still a puzzling process to “identify which fish possess the biological traits that match these halachic criteria.” 

Ultimately, eating swordfish is generally permitted by Conservative groups, but it is prohibited by United States and Israeli Orthodox kashrut agencies. From what I have gathered above, it is my belief that history of Judaism, experts on kashrut, and current science are in favor of swordfish qualifying as kosher. With that in mind, I say dig in.

Courtesy of Seaview Crab Company, “A swordfish emerges from the water.”