Parshat Shemini: Fins, Scales, and Inspired Torah Study


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After describing the inauguration of the Tabernacle on the eighth day, the weekly Torah portion of Shemini (which literally means “eighth”) continues to discuss laws that are eternally applicable—even when the Temple is not standing. One of the most important of these topics is the dietary laws.

The Connection Between Sacrifice and Eating

As we have learned in the previous Torah portions, the word for “sacrifice,” (קָרְבַּן ), stems from the verb meaning “to come close.” When a person brings a sacrifice to God, he must awaken in his heart the willingness to give himself, or part of himself, to God. This brings him close to God, and enables him to receive the calling to go out and bring others close to God.

Some types of sacrifices are consumed, or eaten (in the idiom of the Torah), in their entirety by the fire on the altar. But, there are other types of sacrifices of which only parts of the animal are placed and consumed on the altar. The rest is eaten either by the priest, or in other cases, by the priest and the bearer of the sacrifice.

Holy Eating Effects Atonement

When the altar consumes the sacrifice, atonement is achieved for the bearer of the sacrifice. Likewise, when the priest eats of the sacrifice, this also affects atonement for the bearer. Ultimately, the inspiration that we receive from the Temple, even when it does not stand, is that we should eat in a holy manner.

Food contains many holy sparks of souls, and sometimes, even reincarnations of souls. When we eat food in holiness and according to all the dietary laws, we can atone for the reincarnated sparks or souls in that food. The food that is permissible for us to eat according to the dietary laws is the food that we are capable of elevating. Food that is prohibited is food that we cannot elevate.

You Are What You Eat

The foods brought as sacrifices in the Temple were only representative of the much wider range of foods permissible according to the Torah’s dietary laws (kosher food). Although fish is not sacrificed in the Temple, it is a very important factor in our diets, particularly appropriate as part of the festive Shabbat meals. While the scholar who studies the revealed portion of the Torah is likened to a land animal, the fish that swim in the water represent the scholars that study the inner dimension of the Torah. If a person desires to sharpen his mind to learn the revealed portion of the Torah, it is recommended that he eat meat. If he wishes to sharpen his mind for the study of the concealed part of the Torah, it is recommended that he eat fish. In Kabbalah, we are taught that the souls of great tzadikim (righteous individuals) are present in fish more than in any other type of food. When we eat fish in holiness, we incorporate the holy spark of the tzadik within ourselves, transforming ourselves into holy fish, as it were.

Fins and Scales

The Torah in the portion of Shemini states that fish are kosher if they have fins and scales. Our sages define fins as the appendages that allow the fish to swim. The scales are like the fish’s armor. They are small, overlapping shells. The sages point out that every fish that has scales is automatically assumed to have fins.

This leads to an obvious question. We know that the Torah contains nothing superfluous. If every fish that has scales has fins, why does the Torah specify that a kosher fish need have both scales and fins? Our sages explain that there is no reason to specify the fact that fish have fins other than to “increase and enhance the study of Torah” (יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה וְיַאְדִּיר ). King Solomon built a pool of water at the Temple, representing the sea of Torah. Rabbi Akiva likened the Jewish people to fish swimming in the sea of Torah. There is an intrinsic link between fish and the essence of the Torah, which specifies fins for the sole purpose of enhancing and beautifying itself.

Furthermore, the Hebrew word for “and enhance” (וְיַאְדִּיר ) shares a common root (alef, dalet, reish) with the Hebrew month of Adar (אדר ), whose mazal, or zodiac sign is the fish. In addition, “to increase” (יַגְדִּיל ) contains the Hebrew letters that spell “fish” (דַג ).

Nachmanides makes another interesting observation about fins and scales. He points out that fish with fins and scales usually swim close to the surface of the water, thus experiencing air and water simultaneously. This is what makes them kosher. Fish that do not have fins and scales live closer to the seabed, and are more liable to illness, rendering them unfit to eat both physically and spiritually.

Flight with Fins

On the fifth day of creation, God created the fish and the birds. From this we can learn that there is some common trait that connects the fish to the birds.

The sages use the same word (שַׁט ) to describe the flight of birds in the sky and the swimming of fish in the sea. Both birds and fish can be thought of as “flying” in their own medium, air and water. Just as a bird without wings can be kosher, a fish with scales whose fins are not observable (for whatever reason) is also kosher. It follows then that the ability fly is only a spiritually essential trait of birds. Being able to fly in practice is merely an extra bonus. Instead, it is the beauty and joy of life that is the unique experience that makes life worth living.

To Receive and to Innovate

There are two dimensions to Torah learning. The first is called beki’ut (בְּקִיאוּת ) and literally means “familiarity.” Beki’ut, is the study of all the Torah that has been revealed to date. The point of this type of study is to become familiar and an expert in as much Torah content as possible, while repeatedly reviewing and honing the subject matter. Receiving Torah in this manner, whether it is from teachers or from books, is likened to the scales of the fish which are like a shell or peel whose purpose is to guard the fruit while it develops. It represents the totality of all the heretofore-revealed parts of the Torah.

The second type of learning is called iyun (עִיוּן ) or “insight.” Iyun is the ability of the soul to reveal Torah innovations. Every Jewish soul has new insights and innovations—the soul’s portion in the Torah—that only it can reveal. Iyun is symbolized by the fins, which give the fish the ability to fly, as it were, in its medium. This ability to reveal new insights is called “swimming in the sea of Torah.” To innovate is to fly. These innovations are the fruits of the shells of the Torah, the beauty and joy of Torah study.

The Miracle of Bearing New Fruit

The letters of the word for “fin” (סְנַפִּיר ) permute to spell the two words “miracle of fruit” (נֵס פְּרִי ), alluding to the miracle of being able to bear new fruit. The numerical value of “fin” (סְנַפִּיר ) is 400, or 202, a perfect number.

Amazingly, the numerical value of “scales” (קַשְׂקֶשֶׂת ) is 1200, or 3 times the value of “fin” (סְנַפִּיר ), 400. The sum, then, of the gematria of “fin” and “scales” is 1600 = 402, alluding to the 40 days of the giving of the Torah (which requires learning both with both beki’ut andiyun, as above).
In addition, the sum of the first letters of “fin” (ס ) and “scales” (ק ) is 160, one tenth of the sum of both words, 1600. This is the same phenomenon that we saw in an article on the Torah portion of Tzav, alluding to the manifestation of God in all ten conscious levels of the soul.

The sages say that whoever has scales—whoever learns the laws of the Torah—will always have fins—i.e., he will always be able to innovate and fly. For every law that he learns, he will receive three innovations, perfect as the perfect 400. Each of these innovations is a miracle—the fruit that has developed as a fetus in the holy shell (revealed portion) of the Torah.

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