What's in a Word?

For the week ending 5 June 2021 / 25 Sivan 5781

Fun with Fish (Part 2/2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

When Moses sent spies to scout out the Holy Land ahead of the Jews’ conquest, only two spies remained loyal to the cause: Caleb and Joshua. Throughout the Bible, Joshua is always described as Yehoshua/Hoshea bin Nun (“Joshua son of Nun”) because his father’s name was Nun (I Chron. 7:27). Now, the word nun actually means “fish,” which leads a certain apocryphal Midrash made famous by Rabbi Avraham Vilner (1765-1808) to claim that Joshua was put into the river as a little child and swallowed up by a fish. According to this fanciful tale, the fish was caught and brought to the Pharaoh, whereupon they cut it open and discovered the child inside. That child — Joshua — ended up being raised in Pharaoh’s house and rose to the position of Chief Executioner. Although Rabbi Yitzchak Yishaya Weiss of Neve Achiezer in Bnei Brak already debunked the provenance of this Midrash, other traditions claim that Joshua was called “bin Nun” because he was destined to swallow up the thirty-one Canaanite Kings like a “fish” (Midrash HaBiur to Haftarat Shlach), or because G-d was ready to hear Joshua’s supplications (tachaNUNim) once he would enter the Holy Land (Megaleh Amukot 27). Either way, the fact remains that the word nun means “fish.” In this essay we will continue discussing different Hebrew words for “fish” — starting with nun.

The Hebrew word nun in the sense of “fish” never appears in the Bible. As you may have realized, the common word for fish in Biblical Hebrew is dag/dagah. Why does the word nun not appear in the Bible?

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) theorizes that the word nun has been excised from Biblical Hebrew because Canaanites and other nations deified the “fish” or “sea-creature” that this word denotes, turning Nun into the name of a god. In order to downplay this development, Biblical Hebrew purposely left out the word nun from all books of the Bible, which is why dag became the standard word for “fish.”

Nonetheless, the word nun remains the standard word for “fish” in Hebrew's Semitic sister languages like Aramaic and Ugaritic. In fact, nun/nuna/nuni are the standard words used by the Targumim in translating the Hebrew dag, and they appear numerous times in the Talmud. For example, the Talmud (Kiddushin 25a) relates that the people of a certain town mocked Rav Hamnuna, whose name sounds like cham nuna (“hot fish”), by calling him kar nuna (“cold fish”). Plus, the letter NUN in the ancient paleo-Hebrew script (Ktav Ivri) looks like a fish.

When the Torah describes G-d creating sea-monsters known as a taninim (Gen. 1:21), Rabbi Marcus argues that at the core of taninim is the word nun, as the letter TAV is not part of the root. In offering this explanation, Rabbi Marcus explicitly rejects scholarly speculation that the word taninim is a Sanskrit loanword.

Interestingly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 1:21) also suggests that the word tannin is derived from the word nun, but adds that nun itself is derived from the Hebrew word nin ("offspring," or in Modern Hebrew "great-grandchild"). He compares this to the word dag, which primarily denotes fecundity (as we saw last week), but also carries the additional meaning of “fish.”

Rabbi Ron Yosef Chaim Masoud Abuchatzeira takes the exact opposite approach from Rabbi Hirsch’s. Whereas Rabbi Hirsch suggested that the word nun comes from nin, Rabbi Abuchatzeira submits that nin actually comes from nun. The Talmud (Brachot 20a) relates that fish are fruitful and multiple in large quantities because they are not susceptible to the Evil Eye. Accordingly, explains Rabbi Abuchatzeira, the common word “offspring” (nun) is derived from the word “fish” (nun) in an effort to deflect the Evil Eye from upon one’s descendants.

Rabbi Abuchatzeira fascinatingly compares this to a well-known custom among Tunisian Jews (especially those from Djerba) who give their children names related to “fish” in order to help immunize them from the Evil Eye. Examples include masculine names like Hayuta/Hauita ("fish" in some North African dialects of Arabic, although in Aramaic it means "snake"), Manani ("merou" or "grouper" fish, possibly also related to nun), Bugid ("striped red mullet"), Hadir ("torpedo fish"), Karutz ("bass"), Uzifa, Wurgana, and feminine names like Shelbia (“Salema porgy”), Svirsa, Murgana, Manana (feminized form of Manani), and Baharia (“mermaid”).

Another possible derivative of nun is the place-name Ninveh. Rabbi Avraham (b. Hillel) Rivlin explains that the word Ninveh is a portmanteau of nun ("fish") and naveh ("home"), and indeed the cuneiform symbol for that city is a fish inside a house. When Jonah refused to go to the city of Ninveh, G-d punished him by making him experience the meaning of that city's name in that he was swallowed by a fish, such that a fish became his home. Rabbi Nissim Paniri adds that the name Jonah (Yonah) is spelled with the same letters as Ninveh, except that Jonah's name is missing a second NUN. In order to give Jonah that extra NUN so that he would identify with Ninveh and agree to be G-d's emissary to that place, G-d placed him inside a fish (nun).

Rabbi Aryeh Moshe Teicholtz suggests that the name Ninveh relates to the Aramaic word nun and recalls the fish-god that they worshipped there. In order to stress the urgency of Jonah's mission to Ninveh, G-d had the prophet swallowed up by a fish (nun) so that Jonah would remember about their idolatrous fish-cult and agree to help them repent.

There are several other words for “fish” in the Talmud that we have not yet discussed:

1. Besides the word nun, another common word for fish in Judeo-Aramaic is kavra. It remains unclear whether the term kavra refers to all fish in general or to a specific type of fish (see Tosafot to Moed Katan 11a). Dr. Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) notes that the Mishnaic word kaveret means “beehive” or “basket” (Sheviit 10:7, Bava Batra 5:3, Keilim 8:1, 15:1, 22:10, Ohalot 5:6, 8:1, 8:3, 9:1), leading him to explain that kavra in the sense of “fish” refers specifically to “live fish” that are kept in a cauf (i.e., basket). According to this, it would seem that kavra can refer to any type of fish housed in such a portable fish tank. On the other hand, the Talmud (Chullin 109b) relates that kavra is a type of fish that tastes like the girutha bird (which Jastrow identifies as the “moor hen”), which suggests that kavra refers to a specific species of fish, not to all fish in general.

2. The Mishna (Bechorot 8:1, Karitot 1:3, Niddah 3:4) discusses the Halachic status of a miscarriage that results in a fetus in the shape of a sandal. The Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 25b) explains that the shape of a sandal resembles the shape of a fish in the sea. Rashi (there and to Ketuvot 39a) and his son-in-law Rivan (to Yevamot 12b) further note that this refers to a specific fish named sandal (such is also implied by the Jerusalem Talmud, Niddah 3:4). Meiri (to Yevamot 12b) adds that this sandal resembles a free-floating piece of meat that does not have clear limbs (perhaps a jellyfish?).

3. The Talmud (Chullin 109b) relates that the brain of a shibuta fish tastes like pork and is a kosher substitute for that porcine foodstuff. Moreover, the Talmud (Kiddushin 41a) relates that Rava would personally engage in preparations for the Sabbath by salting the shibuta fish for consumption. Jastrow identifies shibuta as probably referring to the "mullet”(or, Mugil cephalus) fish, while others identify the shibuta as the sturgeon or porpoise fish. The most definitive approach is that of Drs. Zohar Amar and Ari Zivotofsky, who identify shibuta as the fish known as shirbot/shabout (or Arabibarbus grypus) in English. Indeed, this type of fish fits the Jerusalem Talmud’s description that the shibuta can be found in Babylonia, but not in the Holy Land (Taanit 4:5). (See also Minchat Chinuch 550:2, who suggests that the term shibuta can refer to both kosher and non-kosher types of fish.)

Remarkably, an ancient tradition claims that there is a certain type of fish that does not swim on the Sabbath (Radak to Gen. 2:3, Yalkut Reuven to Gen. 2:2, Shevet Mussat ch. 11). Based on this, some sources connect the word shibuta (spelled with a TET) with Shabbat (spelled with a TAV), thus identifying the shibuta fish as that fish which refuses to swim on the Sabbath (see Megadim Chadashim to Shabbat 119a).

*Special thanks to Rabbi Degani Kohen from Beitar/Baka for bringing the Jerbi custom to my attention.

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