The beginning of Parashat Shemini concludes the Torah’s outlining of the laws of the regular korbanot (sacrifices). The Torah then moves on to the special sacrifices of the dedication of the mishkan and the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, who overstepped their bounds amidst all of the excitement. At the conclusion of the parashah, animals reappear as the Torah details all of the different types of animals which are kosher and may be eaten—mammals, fish, and fowl. This time, however, the animals are not being brought as korbanot but are being eaten in a non-sacred context. One would expect an overlap between the different classes of animals and the candidates for sacrifices. Yet, though there are many mammals which are sacrificed, and also a number of birds, there are no fish included in any of the sacrifices, though there are many kosher fish. 

Why is it that fish may be eaten by God’s people but are inappropriate for God’s table, the altar?1 Understanding what fish represent will allow us to understand why fish have been excluded from the sacrificial menu. When we look a bit more closely into what does and does not qualify as a korban, we will see more clearly what korbanot represent and what they are designed to accomplish.

Sacrifice on the part of humans was inaugurated by Adam and Havah’s two sons, Kayin and Hevel. Their choice of what to bring to God gives us our first clue as to what makes something sacrifice-eligible and why fish might be excluded: 

בראשית ד:א-ד

וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת קַיִן וַתֹּאמֶר קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת ה': וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת אֶת אָחִיו אֶת הָבֶל וַיְהִי הֶבֶל רֹעֵה צֹאן וְקַיִן הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה: וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִים וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה מִנְחָה ה': וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן וַיִּשַׁע ה' אֶל הֶבֶל וְאֶל מִנְחָתוֹ:


Bereishit 4:1-4

Adam knew his wife, Havah, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Kayin. “She said, I created a man with God.” She gave birth again to his brother, Hevel. Hevel was a shepherd and Kayin was a worker of the land. Some days passed and Kayin brought a gift to God from the fruits of the land. As for Hevel, he also brought from his first-born sheep and their fatty parts. And God accepted Hevel and his gift.


Kayin and Hevel each brought sacrificial gifts from the accepted categories of property that can be offered as korbanot. Kayin brings agricultural gifts which continue to be brought on the altar, most often as bread, incense, and oil. Hevel brings from the best of his flocks, a tradition carried on as well. It is notable that each of these gifts come from the respective property of each brother. They bring what is available to them, from the land that they tend or the sheep that they herd. Fish do not come into human hands in these ways. There are no fish fields from which to pluck a salmon or trout. Fish are not readily accessible, one has to go to a stream or a pond to wait for them, hoping to entice and catch them with one’s net or hook.2

However, the fish are not excluded because they are difficult for humans to obtain, we know that humans can successfully and fairly reliably catch fish. They are excluded because fish are not owned when they are alive, they are not available to be harvested or slaughtered.3 One cannot go to a stream, dedicate a certain fish to God, and plan to bring that fish to the Temple. A person may catch a fish, but she can’t be certain that the fish she caught is the fish she designated.  

This is not a mere technical problem of not being able to predesignate a fish as a korban—it reflects what might be called the character of fish, or at the very least, what fish represent. By their essence, fish are not owned—they are free. They therefore can feel invulnerable and are not subject to the laws of threat and misfortune that affect other inhabitants of nature. The invulnerability of fish is most pronounced in the next story of sacrifice that we have in the Torah, the tale of Noah and the flood. God tells Noah to collect all of the animals in order to save them on the ark:

בראשית ז:ב-ד

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה תִּקַּח לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּמִן הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא שְׁנַיִם אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ: גַּם מֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה לְחַיּוֹת זֶרַע עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ: כִּי לְיָמִים עוֹד שִׁבְעָה אָנֹכִי מַמְטִיר עַל הָאָרֶץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לָיְלָה וּמָחִיתִי אֶת כָּל הַיְקוּם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה: 


Bereishit 7:2-4

From all of the pure animals you shall take seven, man and wife, and from the impure animals you shall take two, man and wife. You should also take from the birds of heaven, seven and seven, male and female, to seed life on the face of the land. For in seven more days I will rain onto the land for 40 days and 40 nights and I will erase from the face of the earth all of the existence that I have made.

God does not tell Noah to make sure to save the fish because, of course, the fish are already safe since they are not on the face of the earth. The flood that threatens to destroy all categories of life: animals and humans, birds and vegetation, has no effect on the fish whatsoever.4 They continue to swim without a care in the world as the rest of the earth disintegrates around them. And tellingly when Noah emerges from the ark he engages with the two categories of sacrificial material that Hevel and Kayin introduced: he sacrifices animals and birds, and he plants a vineyard.

בראשית ח:כ, ט:כ

וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ לַה' וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ:.. 

וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם: 


Bereishit 8:20, 9:20

Noah built an altar for God. He took from all of the pure animals and from all of the pure birds and he burnt offerings on the altar… 

Noah began as a man of the earth and he planted a vineyard.


Upon emerging from the ark, Noah brings sacrifices from the animals that he has, the kosher birds and mammals he was instructed to save. However he does not interact with the fish at all. They are not considered relevant to the story; their fates are separate from the fate of everyone and everything else. They do not feel gratitude for being saved, they did not experience the flood in the same way that the inhabitants of the ark did.

The invulnerability of fish is emphasized in Rabbinic literature by the notion that they are immune to the effects of the evil eye. In the Talmud, in Massekhet Berakhot, R. Yohanan says that he can safely flaunt his beauty with no concern about the evil eye because he is immune to its effects. He attributes this immunity to his being a descendent of Yosef. The Talmud offers two explanations for why this is so, and the second attributes it to Ya’akov’s blessing that Yosef’s children are like fish!

תלמוד בבלי ברכות כ.

ר' יוסי ברבי חנינא אמר מהכא - וידגו לרב בקרב הארץ (בראשית לח:טז). מה דגים שבים מים מכסין עליהם ואין עין הרע שולטת בהם אף זרעו של יוסף אין עין הרע שולטת בהם.


Talmud Bavli Berakhot 20a

R. Yosi son of R. Hanina said that [this protection is known about from here]: They will multiply like fish inside of the land (Bereishit 48:16). Just as fish in the sea are covered by the water and the evil eye has no power over them, so too regarding the descendents of Yosef, the evil eye has no power over them. 


While the plain sense of the verse is that to be like fish is to be numerous, R. Yosi son of R. Hanina understands that what it means to be like fish is to be protected from all of the dangers that exist on land. This is reflected in a story told of R. Akiva. R. Akiva is asked why he continues to teach Torah publically, despite the fact that the Romans have threatened to kill anyone who does so. R. Akiva replies by likening himself to the fish in this fable:

תלמוד בבלי ברכות סא:

אמר לו אמשול לך משל - למה הדבר דומה? לשועל שהיה מהלך על גב הנהר וראה דגים שהיו מתקבצים ממקום למקום. אמר להם מפני מה אתם בורחים? אמרו לו מפני רשתות שמביאין עלינו בני אדם. אמר להם רצונכם שתעלו ליבשה ונדור אני ואתם כשם שדרו אבותי עם אבותיכם? אמרו לו אתה הוא שאומרים עליך פקח שבחיות?! לא פקח אתה אלא טפש אתה! ומה במקום חיותנו אנו מתיראין במקום מיתתנו על אחת כמה וכמה. אף אנחנו עכשיו שאנו יושבים ועוסקים בתורה שכתוב בה כי הוא חייך וארך ימיך (דברים ל:כ) כך - אם אנו הולכים ומבטלים ממנה על אחת כמה וכמה!


Talmud Bavli Berakhot 61b

[R. Akiva] said to him: I will construct a parable for you. To what is this similar? To a fox who was walking on the bank of the river, and he saw fish gathering [and moving] from place to place. He said to them, “Why are you fleeing?” They said to him, “Because of the nets that human beings bring upon us.” He said to them, “Do you want to come onto dry land and we will live together like my ancestors lived with yours?” They said to him, “You are the one who they call the cleverest of animals?! You’re not clever! You’re an idiot! If in the place of our life we are afraid, how much more so will we be afraid in the place of our death!” So too we, now that we are sitting and engaging with the Torah about which it says, it is your life and the length of your days (Devarim 30:20) it is the case [that we are afraid]—if we go and desist from it, won’t it be even more so?!


Although in R. Akiva’s telling, the fish are afraid of the nets and are trying to avoid human beings, they are still the organism that represents having somewhere that is relatively safe to be, having somewhere they feel that even if their survival is not guaranteed, it is likely. They can keep on swimming and avoid the nets. An animal who lives in a pen or in a barn does not have the luxury to keep moving and successfully run away.

The image of the fish being able to escape is echoed in the story of the prophet Yonah. At the beginning of the book of Yonah, all Yonah wants to do is run away and escape his responsibility as God’s prophet and messenger. The imagery of his then being swallowed by a large fish is quite apt. Yonah is consumed by his desire to flee and then he is literally consumed by the organism that most represents freedom and invulnerability, the ability to run away and avoid the net.

Just as the fish in R. Akiva’s stories represent the Jews and Yonah’s big fish represents Yonah himself so too everything that we sacrifice is supposed to substitute for, and therefore reflect, the person who brings the sacrifice in some way. This is the perspective of R. Yitzhak Arama5 (author of the Akeidat Yitzhak) who explains all of the different sacrifices and their components in terms of human attitudes. He explains that this is because human beings are not really supposed to be sacrificing animals, but actually sacrificing themselves:

עקידת יצחק נז:א

אמנם עקר זה הקרבן הוא מה שיקריב אדם עצמו לה' וקרא דיקא מכם קרבן לה' (ויקרא א:ב) ולא אמר אדם מכם כי יקריב וגומר. ואמר שאף שיהיה הקרבן מן הבהמה מן הבקר ומן הצאן הכוונה תהי' שתקריבו את קרבנכם הנזכר כלומר הקרבת עצמכם...


Akeidat Yitzhak 57:1

Indeed, the principle of sacrifice is that a person should bring themselves to God. And the verse of [a person who brings from among you a sacrifice to God] (VaYikra 1:2) is specific in saying “from among you a sacrifice” and not “a person among you who brings [a sacrifice] etc.” And it says that even if the sacrifice is from an animal, from cattle or from sheep the intention is that you should bring the sacrifice which was already mentioned, that is, the bringing of yourself.


According to the Akeidat Yitzhak, the presence of actual physical animals is incidental to the sacrificial process. The qualities that the animal represents are more critical than their bodies to a successful sacrifice. 

With this lens in mind, we need to return to what fish represent to understand why they would be considered unfit for korbanot. Just as we don’t bring animals of prey, so too we don’t bring fish. The carnivorous animals are disqualified because they represent violence and the thirst for blood, and the fish are disqualified because they represent invulnerability.

Being invulnerable is incompatible with sacrifice for two reasons. The first is that sacrifices are often brought to atone for sins. The animals and birds which are brought come to facilitate a human being’s stating that they acknowledge their responsibility. They understand that they have done something wrong and have come forward to admit it. A fish sliding its way through nets and past hooks, owned by no one and able to avoid most threats, does not signify the taking of responsibility and instead represents evading consequences and gestures to the ability to get away without “being caught.”

The second reason is that korbanot function to cement the relationship between human beings and their Creator. An animal which has been cared for and relies on its owner to provide for it, an animal which understands what it means to belong to someone else, is fitting for a sacrifice. Relationships are built and strengthened by the acts of caring for one another. A carefree fish doesn’t have its needs provided for by humans. A fish does not represent the vulnerability required for a deep and lasting relationship. A fish doesn’t stay to care and be cared for, the fish is always swimming away.

The absence of fish among the beings eligible for a korban is a subtle way for God to say that what He wants is a relationship built on belonging, responsibility, and vulnerability. Perhaps this explains how it could be that prayer can substitute for sacrifices in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. If God wants us to display dependence and to be emotionally transparent and exposed in sacrifice, how much more so can we and should we be vulnerable in prayer a time when we express our needs and our desire to be closer to God. As the Akeidat Yitzhak goes on to explain the connection between sacrifice and prayer:

עקידת יצחק נח

ואמר רז"ל (תענית ב.) אי זו היא העבוד' שבלב זו תפלה. והוא מה שיצדק עליו… ואש המזבח תוקד בו (ויקרא ו:ה). כי דברי התפלה צריכין חמום והמתפלל בכוונה גמרה אש מפיו תאכל וגחלים בערו ממנו והמזבח עצמו שהוא הלב מתלהב ועולה עמהם…


Akeidat Yitzhak 58

Our Rabbis said, “What is service in the heart? That is prayer.” That is why the verse [about the olah sacrifice] is fitting,... and the fire of the altar should burn in him (VaYikra 6:5). For words of prayer need heat. And fire emerges from the mouth of one who prays with total concentration, and coals burn from him. And the altar itself is the heart, and it goes up with [the words.]


Prayer, like sacrifice, needs the warmth of relationship and the fire of desperation. It is incompatible with the fish’s cool and slippery ways.

1 I am indebted to my partner, Shlomo Tannor, who drew my attention to this question.

2 Although birds may also seem to have this free quality, in reality the birds that were being brought as sacrifices were usually living in pigeon or dove cotes and treated as private property (at least on a rabbinic level).

3 VaYikra Rabbah 2:7 emphasizes the need for the sacrifice to belong to the person who brings it. The midrash contrasts this ownership to theft and warns against bringing a stolen sacrifice. However, one could extend the principle that the sacrifice needs to belong to someone in particular as prohibiting a sacrifice that has no owner as well.

4 This “attitude” of the fish during the flood is illustrated starkly in a Hebrew poem, “Ararat” written by Dan Pagis. Here in Leon Weiselthier’s translation: “As all the survivors of the ark burst ashore/ in a happy pandemonium/ chattering, roaring, howling for prey/lowing to be fruitful and multiply/while above their heads the rainbow hinted/that there would be no end again--the end came/for the fish without cares who lived/off the catastrophe like slippery swindlers:/now on the face of the/ stiffening earth/the writhing fins were stranded/and with gaping mouths they drowned in the air.”

5 1420-1494, Spain and Italy. This is also reflected in other commentaries. See for example, the Alshikh on VaYikra 1:2.