Some people fish for food, others fish for relaxation. Still others fish for compliments or are said to be going on a fishing expedition. Then there is the spelling "ghoti" which, as astute readers will surmise, is pronounced "fish" ["gh," as in rough; "o," as in women; and "ti," as in nation].

Although at first glance it looks straightforward, the Hebrew word for fish, (dag), is no less kaleidoscopic. Turn it around and around and you'll discover all sorts of fascinating patterns. First of all there is the proximity of the sound of (dalet– yod– gimel), "to fish," to that of (dalet– gimel–heh), "to multiply." Forefather Jacob squashed the two verbs together in his blessing of the sons of Joseph, saying (ve-yidgu la-rov), "like fish may they grow to a multitude."

Another quirky route followed by our root goes through the name of the Philistine god, Dagon, half-man and half-fish. When he became the Philistine god of grain, he didn't even have to change his name. The Hebrew word for grain, not related to (dag), fish, is (dagan).

Fish is central to Jewish lore. The whale in whose belly the prophet Jonah lands is not precisely a whale; rather the text mentions a (dag gadol), a "big fish." When the Israelites in the desert complain to Moses about the menu, they do so by remembering the fish they had in Egypt, (zakharnu et ha-daggah). Is that perhaps why Israelis today call the fried filet of flounder they eat on Thursday evenings (dag moshe rabbeinu), literally, the fish of Moses our Teacher? Those Israelis who call salmon (dag shelomo) do so for another reason entirely--the proximity of the sounds "salmon" and "Solomon." Along the Dan River in today's Israel is a fish restaurant where the tables are placed alongside the flowing water filled with trout. Naturally, the restaurant is called (dag al ha- dan).
JHOM - Fish - Hebrew

Some fish you eat, some you wear and some you merely observe. Bite into a (dag malu'ah) and you'll savor the salty taste of a herring. Tie a (dag malu'ah) underneath your shirt collar and you'll be wearing a bow tie. There, the connection is purely visual. When you talk about (dagei rekak), you are referring to small fish, that is, the common folk.

The zodiac sign for the month of Adar - a lucky month for the Jews - is (mazal dagim), "Pisces." In Eastern Europe, if you wanted your son to grow up lucky, you gave him the Yiddish name Fishl. Did you know, by the way, that there is one character in the Torah named "Fish?" Give up? It's Nun, the father of Joshua. Nun means fish in Aramaic.

There is a theology of fish and a philosophly of fish. The Talmud tells us that, in the world to come, the righteous will dine on a gigantic fish called (livyatan), from which we get the English word Leviathan. To get a foretaste of the heavenly world to come on Shabbat, many Ashkenazi Jews eat (dagim me-mula'im), "stuffed," or gefilte, fish. Curiously, not respecting the meaning of the words, the gefilte fish most Jews eat today is not "stuffed fish" but merely the stuffing that used to be put into the fish.


Dr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language. His most recent book is Hebrewspeak: An Insider's Guide to the Way Jews Think (Jason Aronson, 1995). You can visit his site at

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