Twice in his famous hasidic work, Bnei Yissaskhar, the great hasidic master Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynow (1783-1841) related to the spiritual valence of eating fish on Sabbath. Zvi Elimelekh noted that in the Genesis account there are three creations that God blessed.
On the fifth day of creation the Almighty blessed the fish of the sea: “And God blessed them, saying: Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth” (Genesis 1:22). On the sixth day, God blessed humans: “And God blessed them; and God said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). And then on the following day, the Almighty blessed Sabbath: “And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made” (Genesis 2:3).
R. Zvi Elimelekh explained: When a person who is blessed, eats fish that is blessed, in honour of the day which is blessed – we have a threefold blessing, “and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
The link between fish and Hasidism has deepened in recent years. A venture hatched in 2014 has grown into a company called “The Rebbe’s Choice” which offers various types and flavours of herring, each product inspired by different hasidic masters or dynasties. The Rebbe’s Choice sells a number of varieties courting different hasidic allegiances: Honey Mustard Sriracha Herring inspired by Kotzk; Zesty Matjes Herring inspired by Rimanov; Sweet Onion Herring inspired by Ropshitz; Jalapeno Matjes Herring inspired by Lelov; Sweet Black Pepper Herring inspired by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and; Smokey Zaatar Herring inspired by Reb Zusha.
For the uninitiated the company’s website explains the link between the flavour and the branch of Hasidism, and adds words of Torah in an earnest attempt at deepening the spiritual experience of eating herring (www.rebbeschoice.com).
Mystics teach us that equilibrium is preserved in this world but making sure that everything sanctified, positive, holy in this world is balanced by unsanctified, negative, mundane. This delicate balance ensures that people must still select a path between competing options. This is one way to understand the Mitnaggedim, the people who vehemently opposed the advent of Hasidism.
According to this line, had Hasidism been a lone spiritual force in the world, it would have won over every person seeking a true religious path. The Mitnaggedim provided a compelling counterweight to the spiritual force of Hasidism, ensuring that each person still needed to make a choice.
What is true about spiritual pursuits is apparently true about herring: hasidic herring would apparently be an unchecked force in this temporal world, so a mitnaggedic herring is nothing less than a mystical necessity.
The vacuum was filled by Flaum, a five-generation business specialising in kosher pickles, herring, and other fish spreads and salads (www.flaums.com). Flaum produces a purple matjes herring called “The Herring of Volozhin.” In Jewish collective memory, “Volozhin” evokes the prestigious Lithuanian talmudic academy founded by Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin (1749-1821). R. Hayim was a disciple of the Rabbi Eliyahu the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), and he became one the spokespeople for the Mitnaggedim. The herring is described in terms familiar to any student of the Lithuanian style of Talmud study: “A Herring that is Gavra and Cheftza – uniting subject and object – with the analytical prowess of Volozhin.” This herring is not just “inspired” by Volozhin; it is offered to consumers as the very herring of Volozhin. The mere mention of “Volozhin” is synonymous with the anti-hasidic faction and its herring an appropriate counterweight to The Rebbe’s Choice.
Flaum also markets a pepper jack schmaltz called “The Herring of Salant,” which is described as “A Herring with a Mussar Haskel – discipline of wisdom – steeped in the impeccable self-refinement of Salant.” This product recalls the Jewish ethical movement founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883). This decidedly non-hasidic movement, flourished in nineteenth-century Lithuania.
There was no official victor in Hasidic-Mitnaggedic controversy, yet it is patent that Hasidism is still alive and thriving. True, Hasidism jettisoned some of its wilder practices, bringing it closer in ethos to mitnaggedic norms. Yet the early Mitnaggedim had sought to eradicate the newfangled spiritual mode, and on this yardstick they failed.
It would appear that Flaum has a keen sense of hasidic history. Apparently concerned with the inevitable victory of hasidic herring, Flaum offers the taste of Hasidism to complement – or perhaps to counter – its Volozhin and Salant varieties: “The Herring of Breslov,” “The Herring of Ruzhin,” “The Herring of Apt,” and – in direct competition with The Rebbi’s Choice – “The Herring of Kotzk.”
The Breslov variety is a sweet shmatltz herring that recalls Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810) demand for constant joy: “A Herring that is Tomid Besimcha – perpetually happy – with the optimistic disposition of Breslov.” Flaum’s Kotzk line is a spicy matjes described as “A Herring that is Kurtz un Sharf – cuts straight to the point – with the wit and flavor of Kotsk.” Flaum’s richest product might the lox and matjes mix “that is Zahav Tahor – pure gold – luxuriating in the sumptuous splendour of Ruzhin.”
Flaum persuasively advertises their lines by declaring that “an eternal people deserve an eternal herring.” Regrettably, Flaum and The Rebbe’s Choice are only available in America. For those of us fortunate to live in Israel or elsewhere in the world, we have to make do with herring that is not named after hasidic greats … just as the hasidic greats themselves ate!
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at email@example.com.