Fish on...Thursday?


By Philologos

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Merle Spiegel writes:

I have been wondering about the custom in traditional Jewish homes of having dairy dinners or suppers on Mondays and Thursdays. Other things have to do with Mondays and Thursdays too, such as the weekly reading of the Torah in the synagogue on those days, the Yiddish phrase yeder montik un donershtik [“every Monday and Thursday”], and so forth. Is the custom connected to this expression, and is the reason for it dietetic or religious or economic or all of the above?

I must confess that the custom Spiegel refers to isn’t known to me or to anyone I have asked about it. Still, although it certainly isn’t widespread in the Jewish world, I will take her word for it that it may exist in certain circles and even hazard a guess as to why this might be so.

But first, let’s take a look at the two other things she mentions: The practice of reading part of the weekly Torah portion in synagogue on Mondays and Thursdays (the entire text, of course, is read on the Sabbath), and the Yiddish expression yeder [in some dialects of Yiddish, yeden] montik un donershtik — which has the meaning, usually in a negative context, of “constantly.” You might say in Yiddish, for instance, “I’m tired of listening to your complaints every Monday and Thursday,” i.e., “I’m tired of listening to your complaints all the time.”

This expression derives from the Hebrew idiom kol sheni ve- h.amishi, which means the same thing and is used the same way — and the Hebrew expression, in turn, has to do with the fact that not only is the Torah read every Monday and Thursday, but that, in ancient Palestine, other things were done regularly on Mondays and/or Thursdays too. The talmudic tractate of Megillah tells us, for example, that among three of 10 regulations allegedly promulgated by Ezra the Scribe were “reading the Torah on Monday and Thursday, convening courts on Monday and Thursday and doing laundry on Thursday.”

Why these two days of the week? The historical answer is that these were traditional market days on which farmers and rural inhabitants came to town to sell their produce and buy goods, and thus obvious times to hold public functions. (One of which was — as it still is in many poor countries — doing laundry at a communal wash place.) If you wanted to be certain that as many Jews as possible heard the Torah read, these were the days to pick.

Yet there are also more legendary explanations of why Monday and Thursday were set aside for reading the Torah. An ancient rabbinic exegesis of the verse

in Exodus, “And they [the Israelites] went three days in the wilderness without water,” interprets “water” as referring to the Torah and the verse as meaning that Scripture must be read in public at least every third day, while elsewhere there is a rabbinic tradition that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments on a Thursday and descended from the mountain on a Monday, making these the most appropriate days for reading the Law. Jewish lore also maintains that these are the days most associated with God’s love, as expressed in His giving of the Torah, and with His forgiveness, as expressed by His retracting His initial decision to destroy the people of Israel after Moses descended from Sinai to find them worshipping the Golden Calf.

Mondays and Thursdays are therefore also the days of the week in which, in shah.arit, the morning service, the tah.anun, or prayer for forgiveness, is recited. And for the same reason, it is a Jewish tradition that when engaging in a penitential fast — a practice once more common than it is today — one picks either a Monday or a Thursday to do it on.

And here we return to Spiegel’s question and to the guess I said I would hazard. Abstention from meat is, in different religions, a form of symbolic fasting which, by depriving the individual of the food that is considered the most desirable and most prestigious in most cultures, comes to stand for the renunciation of all food. Think, for example, of the custom of Lent, in which, for the 40-day period commemorating the events leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus, observant Catholics are required to give up meat, just as many of them refrain from it every Friday, the supposed day of the crucifixion itself.

I would suggest, therefore, that if there is a pietistic Jewish custom of meatless Mondays and Thursdays, it too is a symbolic fast, a substitute for real fasting on those days. (It would be interesting to know, indeed, whether such a custom was unique to Jews living in Christian countries, in which case it may even have come to being under Christian influence.) If any of you know more about this matter — which, as I say, I am ignorant of — I would appreciate hearing from you.

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