Catfish by the Forward

The Jewish relationship with catfish goes far beyond the U.S. south, Israeli archaeologists find

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that Jews have had a complicated relationship with kosher laws far longer than one might imagine.

A recent study published by Israeli archaeologists in the journal called Tel Aviv, examined why the bones of seemingly non-kosher fish such as catfish, shark and skate keep showing up in the remains of the ancient Judean settlements.

“A central conclusion of the study is that consumption of scaleless fish — especially catfish — was not uncommon at Judean sites throughout the Iron Age and Persian periods,” the study said.

That puts non-kosher fish — which can be recognized by either a lack of fins or scales — in a different category than pork, which was a cultural taboo in the southern levant long before the prohibition on eating it was codified in the Torah.

To complete the study, archaeologists Yonaton Adler of Ariel University and Omri Lernau of Haifa University examined 56 zoological remains from some 30 Archaeological sites in Israel.

The two found that there appears to be little evidence for the observance of the prohibition on eating scaleless fish, until the early roman period beginning in 63 BC, centuries after the latest date the Torah is believed to have been written around the 5th century B.C.

The findings may provide valuable insight into the everyday life of the average Judean peasant. Unlike the scribal elite who wrote the majority of the records we have about ancient Judaism, most Judeans were largely illiterate farmers who left little behind by which to remember them.

“I am interested in social history, in what the actual regular people were doing but they didn’t leave any texts because they were illiterate and left no writing,” Adler told Smithsonian Magazine. “If we want to know what the regular people were doing or not doing, archaeology is a wonderful tool to answer this question.”


David Ian Klein

David Ian Klein

David Ian Klein covers breaking news and international Jewish communities for the Forward. You can reach him at and on Twitter @davidianklein.

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The Jewish relationship with catfish goes far beyond the U.S. south, Israeli archaeologists find

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