Q. When did Jews develop their liking for gefilte fish?
A. Eating fish on Erev Shabbat – gefilte or otherwise – has ancient origins. Fish was fed to the slaves in Egypt; complaining in the wilderness of a monotonous diet of manna, the people said, “In Egypt we ate fish for the asking, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Num. 11:5-6). What varieties of fish were there in Egypt? Probably carp, pike and mullet, whether these are identical with the modern fish known by these names or not. According to Abravanel, the fish the slaves were given was cooked with cucumbers, leeks, etc., to improve the taste.
“Egyptian fish” is mentioned in the Mishnah, and in Eretz Yisrael itself Acco was a centre of the fishing industry, though fish also came from the Kinneret, Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. Rashi (on Gen. 1:10) compares the taste of fish from various places and says fish from Sidon is better than from Acco and fish from Aspamia is better still. It became customary to eat fish for the Shabbat meal – often fried fish (Gen. R. 72:3).
The Jewish taste for fish on Shabbat may be the explanation for the idea that life for the righteous in the World to Come will include a meal derived from the giant fish known as Leviathan, referred to in Job and elsewhere. As a result, the hope of redemption is often symbolised by a fish, with the additional possibility that the fertility associated with fishes suggested the plenteous food which will be available for all in messianic times.
Books of Jewish customs often depict fish meals on Shabbat. In many places these meals included stuffed fish, the forerunner of today’s gefilte fish, which some communities made sweet and others sour. Though gefilte fish is a delicacy, it may have developed for economic reasons; the poor found that the fish went further when minced and mixed with bread, flour, etc.
As gefilte fish does not contain bones, it is also possible that the dish may have developed as a practical way to eat fish on Shabbat while avoiding the prohibition of Borer (“separation”) – one of the 39 Biblical prohibitions of Shabbat – which would include separating out bones from fish.
It used to be said in Anglo-Jewry that eating fish on Friday night had additional reasons of religious scruple. A stranger in town who was invited to a Jewish home for a Shabbat meal could not always be certain of his hosts’ degree of orthodoxy, so a fish meal avoided questions as to whether the meat was kosher.