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
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
gimelheh), "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."
JHOM - Fish - Hebrew
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
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
(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
(dag al ha- dan).
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.
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 http://www.ivrit.org
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