The fish of ancient Egypt and Ashkenazi Jews

A human interest story by Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg draws a connection between the fish eaten by the Israelites in ancient Egypt and the fish eaten by Ashkenazi Jews today during Passover (Pesach). The Ashkenazi Jews of Israel and America are those who descended from Jews living along the Rhine River in Germany. Because of their movement to other areas, we think of them as having come from central and eastern Europe. Non-Ashkenazi Jews are known as Sephardic Jews. We typically think of them as having lived in the Iberian peninsula and Yemin, among other places.

Rosenberg paints a fascinating history of the gefilte fish which is eaten on the Passover and as the Sabbath (Shabbat) afternoon meal. He cites the work of the late George Freudenstein of Riverdale, New York. He calls Freudenstein “an eminent nutritional scientist and Hebrew scholar.  Freudenstein was chief chemist of the Jewish food giant Rokeach for 50 years and also an ardent talmudist.”

IN ANCIENT Egypt fish was a staple diet for the workers, and that included the Hebrew slaves. Not satisfied with the manna, they complained to Moses, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for nothing” (Numbers 11:5) and the Egyptian sources confirm that Rameses II, perhaps the pharaoh of the Exodus, gave his workers a free allowance of 10 kilos of salted fish each month. Under his descendent Rameses III, around 1150 BCE, it is recorded that the grave diggers requested an increase in this generous amount to compensate them for their heavy and unpleasant work.

In spite of the hot climate, Nile fish could be preserved by drying and salting, as evidenced by the discovery of a warehouse of dried fish at the Sun Temple of El-Amarna, in central Egypt.

Freudenstein quotes a German Egyptologist, who claims that the composition of the fish in the Nile Delta has hardly changed over the last five millennia and that there are 30 species still active from ancient times. These include carp, pike and mullet, and the species of Nile mullet is exactly the one that is in use for today’s gefilte fish, at least as produced by Rokeach.

Let it be noted that we do not concur that Rameses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, but that is for another time. Rosenberg’s fascinating article, “In praise of gefilte fish,”  may be read in its entirety here in the Jerusalem Post. We learn that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “is engaged in diplomatic moves” to resolve a USA export/Israel import issue dealing with the gefilte.

We noted that the ancient Israelites longed for the fish of Egypt (Numbers 11:5). After the return from exile in Babylon, Nehemiah informs us that the men of Tyre sold imported fish in Jerusalem.

The people from Tyre who lived there were bringing fish and all kinds of merchandise and were selling it on the Sabbath to the people of Judah– and in Jerusalem, of all places! (Nehemiah 13:16 NET)

Our photo today shows the Nile River immediately south of Cairo where it divides to go around the islands, such as Roda Island, in the river. Fishermen get ready to go out for the day’s catch.

The Nile River near Cairo. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The Nile River near Cairo where the river goes around the islands that are visible in the city. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

HT: Joesph I. Lauer

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.