I first became aware of the fish as a Jewish symbol when I visited the Tunisian island of Djerba and saw fish painted on the walls of Jewish homes. They were stick figures, hand painted in Mediterranean blue and swimming against bright whitewashed walls. Since then, fish seem to be everywhere, and they’ve become one of my favorite Jewish symbols.
Fish are among the most widely used symbols in Jewish folk art. The water that covers them is said to protect them from the evil eye. And their eyes, like the eyes of God, never close, so they symbolize God’s protective gaze.
In Kabbalistic versions of the zodiac, Pisces the fish is associated with Adar, the month we celebrate Purim, which is considered the happiest and luckiest month of the Hebrew calendar.
Fish also symbolize fertility. They lay many eggs at one time, and in the Torah’s creation narrative God blesses them with fertility:
God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind. And God saw that this was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fertile and increase, fill the waters of the seas, and let the birds increase on earth.” (Genesis 1:21-22)
On Rosh Hashana, many Sephardic Jewish families display a whole cooked fish on the holiday table to mark the head of the new year.
You’ll find fish incorporated into the hamsa pattern in Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations and Home.
Just for fun, and in keeping with the theme of fish, I thought I’d share a video I made of my brother Steve’s koi pond. I’m often struck by the fact that these decorative koi are the same humble carp that past generations of Jewish moms and grandmoms kept in the bathtub waiting to be turned into gefilte fish. The solid orange fish’s name is Adar:
Resources: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, by Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch | The Jewish Bible: Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, The New JPS Translation.
[Image: Clockwise starting from upper left: Detail from hamsa in the Sew Jewish book | Detail from Lag b’Omer picnic blanket | Detail from illustration of letter yud | Detail from Torah binder sample]
Maria Bywater is the author of Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations, and Home. She teaches hands-on Judaica sewing workshops.