The closing section of each CBS HaLuach newsletter features a Jewish-interest news item or curiosity. We generally prioritize the obscure and offbeat, and we welcome suggestions.
What's with the name? A kezayit (literally meaning "like an olive") is a Talmudic unit of measure. Halachically speaking, it is the minimum amount food or drink one can consume in order for a rabbi to be satisfied that you've actually eaten. (And, no, a kezayit's worth won't satisfy your mother! You're a growing boy!) In the context of our newsletter feature, we're using kezayit in a more metaphorical way -- it's a morsel, a tidbit, something light, but tasty, and totally worthy of your consumption.
Today, we thought we'd provide you with a taste of the Kezayit feature...and it's a tasty taste, at that!
The ever-interesting Jewniverse recently posted a short article with the title "How the Jewfish Got Its Name." From the piece:
"There are several theories for how the jewfish (Promicrops itaiara), an Atlantic saltwater grouper..., got its name. It may derive from the Italian giupesce, which means 'bottom fish,' or may have originally been named 'jawfish' for its large mouth. A less flattering theory is that in the 1800s, jewfish were declared inferior and only fit for Jews.
The Maryland-based American Fisheries Society received complaints about the name for decades. It announced in 2001 that the name was deemed 'culturally insensitive' and was changed to Goliath grouper – not for the biblical Philistine Goliath who was slain by David, but because of the fish’s ability to grow up to 700 pounds."
We love Jewniverse, but that's not the full story. Because your Kezayit writer is also a natural history nut, CBS is able to provide you with the scoop on the provenance of the jewfish name!
Jewniverse is correct to assert that the origin of the original name remains unclear, but most historians believe it came about as a result of Jamaican and Cuban Jewish communities eating so much of the fish species. Why did they eat so much of it? It just so happens that the grouper species is both kosher -- it has fins and scales -- and very tasty!
One of the primary sources for this naming account is a 1697 book titled A New Voyage Round the World, by explorer William Dampier. According to Dampier, during an expedition to Jamaica, he encountered Jews who considered Promicrops itaiara to be the best (and largest) kosher fish in that part of the world. Dampier wrote, "The Jew-fish is a very good Fish, and I judge so called by the English, because it hath Scales and Fins, therefore a clean Fish, according to the Levitical Law."
So, although the name jewfish was deemed offensive and changed, it seems clear that it wasn't initially intended to be a pejorative label. In any case, despite the renaming, many fishermen continue to call the species by the more familiar appellation. In time, with the turning of the generations, jewfish will fade from use; for now, though, even Chabad still uses the name.
Finally, we leave you with a fun video of a very excited man in a kayak catching a 550-pound Goliath grouper off Sanibel, Florida.
Image credit: "Jimmy posing with a large jewfish from the Gulf of Mexico off Key West in 1985," via collection of The Florida Keys--Public Libraries (CC BY 2.0)