The desire for offspring has remained strong among traditionally oriented Jewish women. The search for efficacious substances, either to be taken internally or applied externally, to rid the woman of the "curse of barrenness" continued after the biblical period. The substances resorted to belong to several categories, including those of mineral, vegetable, animal and human origin. The number of charms whose ingredients derive from the animal kingdom is much greater than that of those taken from the vegetable world. We will focus in this article on fishes which are, with the Jews as well as with a number of other peoples, the animals par excellence used for the attainment of all kinds of sexual potencies in general, and pregnancy in particular. 

The fish is a symbol of the male organ of generation among various people.[1] In the folktales of many peoples we find the motif of pregnancy resulting from eating fish: so, for instance, in Slavonic, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Russian, Indian, Brazilian, English, Nordic Icelandic, and Breton tales.[2] The practice corresponding to these tales, namely that of eating fish in in order to attain pregnancy, also is widespread.[3] Among the Palestinian Arabs, a woman who has only daughters will eat fish in order to bear male children.[4]

In popular Jewish thinking, too, the fish is perhaps the most prevalent sexual symbol. Jacob blessed Ephraim and Menasseh, saying, "let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth."[5] The Hebrew verb yidgu, rendered here "let them grow," is derived from the noun dag, "fish," thus meaning precisely to be like fish, to multiply like fish. The Messiah whose appearance will, according to Jewish legend, bring a wonderful fruitfulness to the whole world,[6] is called in one ancient collection of Jewish legends Nun, "fish."[7] The fish served as a symbol for the Messiahs of several peoples.[8]

Concerning the meaning of the word "daga" in the verse "We remember the fish we did eat in Egypt freely,"[9] there is a controversy in the Talmud between Rav and Shmuel. "One of them said [daga means] 'fish'; the others said 'sexual license.'"[10] To this the great medieval commentator Rashi remarks, Daga (fish) is a name for sexual intercourse."[11] Elsewhere he explains in a similar fashion the name "Leviathan" (whale).[12] According to a talmudic passage, the eating of fish increases the blood, wherefore it should be eaten the day before and the day after the letting of blood.[13]

Oriental and occidental Jewish books of charms, remedies, and customs equally enjoin the eating of fish upon women who have ceased to bear children. The following advice, addressed to the husband, is found in quite a number of seventeenth — and eighteenth-century collections: "Take a fish which was found inside another fish and the stomach of a hare, and put them into a pan, and they should be fried until they become dry, whereupon grind them with four and put into them water and mix together, and let her drink it and she will conceive."[14] Another seemingly corrupt version of the same prescription says, "Take a fish which was found in the stomach of a hare, dry it...," etc.[15]

According to another book of charms:

"A fish found within a fish, dried and pounded, has the same effect if taken for three nights in wine."[16] Among the Moroccan Jews it is customary for the childless woman to swallow a fish in which there is another fish.[17] The symbolism of the fish within another fish, indicating the desired position of the child in the womb of the mother, is obvious enough.

Eliyahu Ba'al Shem (a wonder-working rabbi who lived in the sixteenth century in Helm, Poland) knows also of a third, more complicated recipe, one of the ingredients of which is the gall of a fish, "For pregnancy: Take the gall of a pike (hecht) and the gall of a wolf and enfold them into purple-blue woolen cloths, and let her put them into her womb, and at the time of intercourse let her remove them from there."[18]

[1] See F. Eckstein, Robert Eisler, Angelo de Gubernatis [back]
[2] See Sbeillot, Hartland, R. Kohler, Thompson [back]
[3] Hartland has collected several instances of it. See Perseus 1:155, and Primitive Paternity 1:48, 51 [back]
[4] Eilub Abela in ZDPV 7 (1884) [back]
[5] Genesis 48:16 [back]
[6] Patai, Adam va'Adama, 1:283 [back]
[7] Yalqut Re'euveni, Psalm 72 [back]
[8] See Otto Waser, G.A. van den Bergh van Eysinga, Wanda V. Bartels, Max Grunwald [back]
[9] Numbers 11:5 [back]
[10] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 75a [back]
[11] Rashi ad B. Yoma 75a [back]
[12] Rashi ad Job 3:7 [back]
[13] Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 29a, Berakhot 40a and 57a, speaking of the beneficial influence on the health and growth of the body of eating small fish [back]
[14] Toldot Adam, Eliyyahu Ba'al Shem (Wilmersdorf, 1808), 35a [back]
[15] Toldot Adam, 7a [back]
[16] Gaster, "Birth, Jewish," p. 656 [back]
[17] See Max Grunwald [back]
[18] Toldot Adam, 3b [back]

From On Jewish Folklore by Raphael Patai. Wayne State Univ. Press, 1983. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

FISH Table of Contents



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