Friday afternoon, two hours before Shabbat. I am preparing salmon in my little Jerusalem studio, listening to a Daf Yomi shiur on my computer.
I am now in the home stretch of Yoma, the only chapter that has anything to do with Yom Kippur as we observe it today. (The first seven chapters are about the Avodah service in the Temple – the slaughtering of goats, the sprinkling of blood, the donning of gold and white vestments with breastplate and tinkling bells.)
The fish is frozen – I still can’t bring myself to buy the scaly slimy creatures that flap around in the big wooden buckets, happily oblivious to their dead relatives hanging to dry just meters above.
I unwrap the fish and run out the door to throw the packaging in the green garbage bin outside the apartment – no fishy smells in my home, thank you very much!
I rinse the soft pink flesh under the tap, but the running water makes it hard to hear the voice coming from the computer, which seems, suddenly, to be talking about fish:
“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free.” (Numbers 11:5)
How did we get from the self-denial of Yom Kippur to the subject of fish? On Yom Kippur we are commanded to engage in self-affliction (t’anu et nafshoeteichem). The manna we ate in the desert was a form of self-affliction as well (l’maan anotcha), since the children of Israel had to have faith in God that new manna would fall every day. Instead of the manna, the Israelites really wanted fish, which is the reason that they complained to Moses about the fish they remembered from Egypt.
But did they really get free fish in Egypt? Weren’t they slaves? Rav and Shmuel try to make heads and tails of the verse. While listening to their machloket, I slice the salmon fillet in two halves. I sprinkle some oregano and lemon juice on Rav and put him in my tiny little toaster; Shmuel will have to wait on the counter for a while.
Rav says, “Fish means fish.” Shmuel says, “Fish means illicit sexual relations.” I close the toaster door, but they keep at it.
Rav says, “It says ‘the fish that we ate’” – this must be a literal reference to food.” Shmuel says, “It says ‘for free’ – did we really get free food? It must mean the illicit sexual relations that the Israelites were free to engage in before they received the Torah.”
Rav defends himself, flapping his half-tail vigorously: “When the Israelites were in Egypt, they used to dip their jugs into the Nile. God would cause a miracle to happen: fish would get swept into the jugs as well, and they would have food to eat.”
Shmuel insists that eating is a euphemism for something else. He quotes a verse from Proverbs: “Such is the way of the adulteress. She eats, wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wrong’” (30:20).
Shmuel, what a dirty mind you have, I scold the piece of fish lying limply on the counter. I cover him up with a piece of foil and hope that my neighbors cannot hear.
Rav, modestly browning in the oven, has his come-back prepared. “The daughters of Israel were not adulteresses! They were not loose women! After all, as it says in the Song of Songs: ‘A locked garden is my beloved bride’” (4:12).
Shmuel is not so sure. “But it says that when the Israelites were in the desert, they were crying for their families! What do you think that means, ‘for their families’ (Numbers 11:6)? They were bemoaning the fact that now that they had the Torah, they could not just sleep around with any woman they wanted.”
“Bing!” The toaster tells me that Rav is ready to come out. I unwrap Shmuel and rest him gently on the oven tray.
“Ha v’ha havay,” says the voice on my computer, making peace between the pieces. The Israelites were crying both because they missed the fish, and because they missed the illicit sexual relations they enjoyed in Egypt.
“Ha v’ha havay,” I sigh placatingly, placing the two pieces of fish side-by-side in a pyrex dish. I pick up the phone to call a friend. “Do you want to come over for dinner tonight? I just made fish.”