A Fish Tale

A Fish Tale

King Solomon Goes Fishing

Religion and the lore of many ancient cultures are overflowing with tales of ocean creatures. Although the story of Jonah is the one most well known from the religious scriptures (Judaic, Christian, and Islamic), there is a lesser known fish tale associated with one of the Israel’s greatest biblical leaders – King Solomon. He was known for his wisdom, writings, and wealth. In particular, he was known for building the first Holy Temple, also known as King Solomon’s Temple (more on this later in the article). The building of this Temple is the focus of the Haftorah Parsha Terumah (תרומה) (in 1 Kings 5:26-6:13), which is recited this month (note: some communities read other Haftorah portions).

I’ll leave the particulars of theis Haftorah for your Rabbi to explain. Today, I am more interested in stories of Solomon and fish. There is a Hassidic tale which tells of Solomon, a fish, and a nasty demon by the name of Asmodeus, and the story is as follows:

Solomon captures Asmodeus to help build the temple, and subsequently held prisoner in the dungeons of the temple itself.  One day Solomon asks Asmodeus why demons have power over humans. The demon replies that if he is released from his chains and given Solomon’s “magic” ring, he will give him an answer.  Solomon, confident in his own power (against his own renowned wisdom), gave the demon his ring. The demon then threw him 400 miles away from Jerusalem, and the ring into the Ocean, which was then swallowed by a fish.  Asmodeus then pretended to be Solomon. For three years, Solomon wandered around as a beggar (G-d punished him for his three sins: too many wives (close to 1,000 according to Rabbies, both Jewish and Gentile), too many horses (4,000 stalls), and too much accumulated wealth). One day Solomon met a man in a market that took pity on him and made him a cook.  The king of the Ammonites enjoyed one of his dishes and elevated him to the role of the royal chef.  The king’s daughter (Na’amah) fell in love with Solomon. The king could not break them apart, and banished them both from the city.  While in exile, they were hungry, and went fishing. They caught a beautiful fish. You guessed it; the ring was in the belly of this fish.  When Solomon placed the ring on his finger, his rags turned to a velvet suit and he had a kingly aura around him.  Solomon marched into Jerusalem to confront the demon imposter.  When he barged into the palace, the demon got so scared he jumped out of his shoes which uncovered his claw-like feet, followed by his great wings (which stretched from heaven to hell). He then had a great feast where he married Na’amah, and they eventually had a child named Rehoboam (who became the initial king of a unified Israel after Solomon passed away).

Note: Greek historians may note that this story has similarities to story of Polycrates and his ring as told by Herodotus. Also note that I will be performing some research on Solomon’s “magic” ring and hope to turn my findings into a sub-topic of a future article.

Fossilized fragments of catfish and tilapia were found along side remains of early humanoids from 500,000 years ago. However, there is evidence of humans using fish for consumption and possibly other uses (food, tools, rituals, etc.) for at least 40,000 years, as evidenced by pictures found on rock walls.  A twelve thousand year old fishing hook, was discovered in Germany. A scene of ancient Egyptians fishing (also known as angling) has been dated to over 4000 years ago. The art of fishing has been discussed in many ancient cultures by Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and Jewish text. It is not known when Sportsfishing had begun, but its modern beginning is credited with the publication of the Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle in 1496 (although possibly copied in part from a treatise written almost a century earlier). Although the full history of fishing, its techniques, and developments is a fascinating subject (or at least I think so), it is not going to be discussed further in this article. Because fish dishes are so varied, I will also not be writing about all of the possible variations, but sticking two fish dishes which bave become strongly identified with Jewish people; pickled herring and lox.

Pickled Herring

Pickled fish, especially herring, is a delicious delicacy that has its roots in Northern Europe. Herring is usually found in the Northern Seas and is one of the few fish hearty enough to survive the waters of the Baltic Sea. However, from evidence found in Mesopotamia, the art of pickling goes back at least to 2400 BCE. The process of pickling herring may have begun sometime in the early medieval period as a way to preserve fish during times when meat was not to be eaten, such as during Lent.  The process to create the herring is performed in two steps. The first is to soak the fish in brine (the actual pickling), followed by removing the salt and adding the flavoring.  The flavoring of the herring can differ, and is especially dependent upon its geographic area.  In areas such as Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway, the traditional flavorings are onions, sherry, mustard, and dill.  In Germany, they roll up the herring with pickles or onions and call them rollmops. Ashkenazi Jews may flavor the herring in a cream sauce (my favorite), or it may be served in a dish of schmaltz herring or gehakte herring (also known as vorshmack).

Lox

This is one of those times that separate the foodies from the rest of the crowd.  I shall ask two questions.  Question number one; is smoked salmon the same thing as lox?  If you said no, you are correct and can take your chances answering the next question. For those that got in wrong can sit down on that Group W bench over there (sorry, writing this after Thanksgiving, and got a little sidetracked). Actually, if you got it wrong, read along carefully and you discover why your answer is incorrect.  Question number two; what is the difference?  The difference is in how the salmon (the main ingredient) is preserved.  Smoked salmon, as the name implies, is either hot or cold smoked fillets of salmon (and sometimes can be cured). Lox is salmon fillets that are brined (although may be smoked afterwards).

There are four different types of lox that are available:

  • Nova Lox: The most common is the Nova or Nova Scotia, which is brined, then cold smoked (at a temperature between 72 and 80 degrees). The name comes from a time when most of the salmon imported into NYC was from Nova Scotia.  Today, there are two ways to make lox, either with mild or not so mild brining, and the one with the milder brining is usually labelled as the Nova lox. The heavy brining lox is referred to as belly lox.
  • Scotch Salmon: Other spices, in addition to salt, is used to brine the salmon (dry-brining).
  • Nordic-Style: Salmon that is salt-cured, then cold-smoked is Nordic-style salmon.
  • Gravlax: Gravlax (or sometimes gravid lax) is prepared by coating the salmon with a spice mixture (e.g., salt, dill, and sugar). This has become more popular lately, and traditionally served with a dill-mustard sauce.

Now you know why the smoked salmon sushi you ordered does not taste like lox, no it’s not the rice and the seaweed. [Fast fact: Almost all of of the lox sold in the US today is made with farm-raised salmon, and not the Atlantic wild salmon our grandparents enjoyed.] The word “lox” is derived from the Yiddish word laks. Derivations of this root word are found throughout Europe and eastern Asia.  I do not have to tell most of you, the perfect way to serve lox is on a bagel (preferably toasted), with a nice heaping of cream cheese. Sometimes, it can additionally be garnished with tomatoes, onions, and even capers. Interestingly, about a week ago I was in a bagel store waiting on line and someone ordered lox on a croissant with butter. All I could do was shake my head.

Symbolism of Fish in Religion and Culture

Fish are symbolic in many religions and cultures past and present. Below are only a few that I have found (see thefisheriesblog.com for greater information on this topic):

Judaism

  • It is known as a symbol of fertility (they lay a lot of eggs)
  • Sephardic Jews use the fish symbol to ward off the evil eye (the Talmud states that fish are resistant to the evil eye)
  • Fish are part of the ritual of Tashlich during the high holy days
  • There are many parables throughout Jewish text that compare the Jewish people to fish

Christianity

  • Ichthus (or Ischthys) is the second most recognizable symbols in Christianity.

Ichthus

  • Note that the symbol of the Ichthus was not new to early Christians, and had been used symbolically for fish or ocean related people or themes by the ancient Greeks and pagans. In addition, the Ichthus also symbolized fertility (it represents a woman’s womb).

Islam

  • Fish is the symbol of eternal life and knowledge.
  • The prophet Al-Khid is often depicted as riding on the back of a fish

Hinduism

  • Fish (portrayed by Matsya is half fish & half man) play a key part in the story of creation according to the Vaishnavism sect.

Buddhism

  • Two golden fish represent one of the eight Ashtamangala (the 8 signs of Buddha). The fish symbol is called the shachihoko. When the two fish are placed on opposite ends of a roof, they symbolize diligence and ectasy.
  • Fish represent living in a state of fearlessness, happiness, and fertility.

Japan

  • Tabular streamers depicting fish (called koinobori) are displayed throughout Japan in May to celebrate Boy’s Day representing the fish’s struggle to swim upstream
  • Namazu is a giant mythological catfish that lives under Japan and causes earthquakes when it thrashes about.

China

  • Fish are symbolic of unity and fidelity, especially koi, which are usually seen swimming together in pairs (the fish (live, charms, and figurines) are often given as wedding gifts). Fish may also symbolize fertility.

Ancient Egyptians

  • Depending on the Dynasty, fish symbolized good and bad:
    • Rebirth and regeneration
    • Evil (a fish ate Osiris’ phallus)
  • The symbol of the fish is found in four different hieroglyphics with different meanings: abomination, administrator, stench, and fish.

Ancient Greece

  • Fish are symbolized for change and transformation, and may come from the myth about Aphrodite and Heros turning themselves into fish to escape from Typhon

Ancient Romans

  • Fresh fish (away from the coast) was a delicacy in Ancient Rome, and it symbolized wealth and extravagance.

Ancient Celtics

  • The symbol of fish (particularly the salmon) means knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, and prophesy. There is a Celtic tale that salmon received their wisdom from eating the sacred hazel nut, and if the eater of salmon would also gain their wisdom.

Norse Culture

  • Fish represented adaptability, determination, and the flow of life. Salmon were especially revered because of their strength and determination to swim upstream for spawning.

Astrology/Zodiac/Tarot

  • Pisces is one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and is represented by two fish in a circle head to tail (generally between the following two dates: February 19 to March 20).  Because of how they are depicted, Pisces generally are said to “go with the flow” and “do not make waves.”  Because there are two fish instead of one, there is supposed to be a duality about them, always balancing everything in their lives (from emotions to decisions).
  • In tarot, fish represent deeply stirring movements within the psyche and the soul. However, fish swim through the currents (good and bad) are able to absorb information, and adapt themselves to any given situation.

Native American

  • Since fish was one of the major staples of the Native American diet, and because their Nations lived all around the Americas, their stories, legends and symbolism is very diverse.
  • There are also many Tribes that had Fish Clans (a clan (traditionally there are seven) are a form of governance within the Tribe). The Fish Clans include the wise members of the Tribe that watch the sky and have knowledge of the sun, stars, and moon. They are usually the advisors to the Chief of Clans.

Modern America

  • To some a fish symbolizes nature (and freedom of the outdoors), to others fish represents the ruggedness and sturdiness of the old-school fisherman. To some, it represents peace and quiet for a few hours away from [you pick]. To most, fish just represents a good meal.

The Search for King Solomon’s Temple

The first fish story of this article featured Solomon, one of the great Jewish leaders of the bible. How he came to being a leader is often forgotten.  After Joshua died (he took leadership of the Israelites after Moses died; he was also one of Moses’ spies discussed in an article last year), the people of Israel was in chaos for the following four centuries, living under no king.  Eventually, one of the last of the great Hebrew “Judges,” Samuel convened the elders of Israel and convinced them to choose a king.  Their first choice, Saul, failed G-ds tests, and was dismissed.  Their next choice was a sheepherder by the name of David who was a great military strategist, as well as a great leader and brought the tribes of Israel together. David secured Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel (2 Samuel 7), and relegated the building a great temple (to match the temples of the other great nations), to his son, Solomon (2 Samuel 22). The building of the temple did not begin until four years after the death of David. The book of Kings provides some of the details that went into this mammoth seven year project.  There were hundreds of thousands of men employed (both Hebrew and foreign) in its construction, and used the finest of building materials. The book also provides details on such things as its size (sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high), as well as other it’s interiors and what type of wood it was to be lined with and some of the decorations (e.g., carved figures of cherubs).

What religious writings do not tell us is exactly where Solomon built this temple.  Archeologists and religious scholars are unsure themselves.  The most common belief is that it stands on the hill of the Temple Mount. However, exactly where on the hill is in question (with one politically abrasive theory placing it directly under the Dome of the Rock). Also note that there is very little evidence outside the bible that indicates that the Temple or even Solomon had ever existed. There is even a discrepancy between the Talmudic and modern secular rabbis, as to when the Temple was destroyed.  Talmudic scholars provide 422 BCE as the date, whereas 587 BCE, 165 years earlier, is the date believed by the secular rabbis. They do agree that it was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the destruction occurred on Tisha B’Av (the 15th day of Av in the Hebrew calendar, and a day of National mourning).

Because of the religious and political tensions related to a site held holy by both Judaism and Islam, no archeological excavations have been conducted since the 1860s (by Sir Charles Warren, whom discovered the tunnels (“Warren’s Shaft”) under the Temple Mount). [Fast fact: Warren is infamously also known for his role in the Jack the Ripper case, he was head of the London Police whom took the blame for not apprehending Jack the Ripper.].  Some collateral evidence has been found over the years such as on shards of pottery, ivory pomegranates, and the famed Jehoash Inscription (an artifact claimed to have been found on/near the Temple Mount, and contains a passage referring to the temple, but it’s authenticity is split between experts). However, some antiques from the time period of the first temple were found around the Temple Mount during the Temple Mount Sifting Project in 2006 (from soil removed in 1999), and a separate cursory above ground project in 2007 (including building material dating between the 8th and 6th century BCE). However, although the items found date to the correct time period, all of this evidence is circumstantial to having been for the temple itself.

An ancient wall discovered outside of the Temple Mount dating from the time of Solomon was found in 2010, which correlates to the a passage mentioning Solomon’s building of a wall around Jerusalem. This also contradicts many in the scientific community that believe the stories of King David and King Solomon are little more than mythological tales.  In 2014, six bullae (clay seals) written in early Hebrew, and dating from the period of David and Solomon were found in what is now Northern Israel, purports to the existence of an advanced government in Judea at that time. Evidence of David other than of the bible was unheard of for millennium until about 150 years ago, when a stone tablet mentioning the “House of David” was unearthed in Jordan (called the Jehoash Tablet), and another found in northern Israel, but it was not until recently (2013) that parts of the tablet was proven to have some truth to it by correlating the biblical accounts with their findings. In 2013 evidence of copper mines dating to the time of Solomon were found in Israel (at a site called Slaves Hill), collaborating the fact that large mining was performed at that time and may be Solomon’s Mines mentioned in the Bible. Maybe the next piece of evidence will be found in the belly of a fish?

Conclusion

Fish are mentioned a number of times in the Torah, and according to religious scripture, created on the fifth day along with birds and “sea monsters” (you read it right, but this will be the topic of a future article).  To add another fish tale to this article, the great Jewish scholar Rashi wrote about the existence of merpeople (mermaids and mermen) in his comment to the pshat Bechoros 8, discussing dolphins. I’ll let you think about that as we come to the conclusion of this article.  Fish are good source of stories, not just the ones about the one that got away, but also to use within the main plot of any tale. Fish, are also mighty delicious, which brings me to the final section, this month’s recipe . . . .

The Recipe

Poached Eggs n’ Lox is the dish I have chosen for this month.  Since herring and lox are pickled herring are already dishes in, and of, themselves, it made the choice hard.  I could provide tips on making the perfect bagel with lox, but that would be too controversial.  I could have provided a simple eggs and lox recipe, but there are plenty out there already, so I will provide one that I created across a few months ago after making shashuka (a Mediterranean dish where the eggs are poached in tomato sauce) the week before, and looking for another dish that encompassed poached eggs.

Ingredients (serves 2)

1 cup cooking sherry

2 tbs butter

1 onion (thinly sliced)

4 eggs

2 tsp salt

1tsp pepper

Directions

Step 1: Heat sherry in frying pan on medium heat, then add butter until it melts

Step 2: Add onions, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes on high heat

Step 3: On medium heat poach eggs in mixture (4-6 minutes, or until desired consistency)

Step 4: Serve warm with a side of buttered toast

Note: the original time I made this, I began by toasting sliced almonds in the pan with a little butter, then followed the steps as presented above.

Keep on Cooking,

Chef Lon

 

Sources

Books

Marks, Gill, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

Dery, Carol A, Walker, Harian (ed.), Fish: Food From the Waters (Oxford Symposium 1998) pp. 94-99

Online

 

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