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Published with permission from the SA Jewish Report

The perplexed question as to whether South African kingklip (Genypterus capensis) is kosher or not, was aired and dissected in detail by the head of the Cape Beth Din's kashrut department, Rabbi Desmond Maizels at a meeting in Johannesburg recently. For fish to be declared kosher, it had to have scales...

CAJE (the Johannesburg College of Adult Jewish Education) hosted Rabbi Maizels, rabbi of Camps Bay Shul in Cape Town, dayan of the Cape Beth Din and head of its kashrut department, a mohel and shochet, to speak on the vexed issue.

Rabbi Maizels said he had been surprised at being invited to speak on this subject, as when he prepared for the talk, he made several overseas enquiries and had invariably been referred back to either Rabbi Yossi Salzer or Rabbi Yitchak Levenstein, who are both based in Johannesburg.

Said Rabbi Maizels on "the kingklip issue": "According to the Torah, the requirement for a fish to be kosher is that 'everything that has a fin and scale in the water is kosher'."

The rabbis realised that if fish have scales, then they have fins, and so scales become the main determinate.

The word "scale" is in the singular, which implies that in fact only one scale is necessary in order to make a fish kosher. Therefore, it is not a requirement for the fish to be covered with scales.

One major problem with kingklip, is that the scales are very difficult to find. There are three reasons for this: the scales are small and very thin; a very thin skin covers the scales; and the kingklip skin is covered with a thick slime; the latter prevents the fish's skin from being ripped as it swims between rocks.

Scales can also always be found on the kingklip's cheek, if not on their bodies, which holds true for many other fish as well. But some antagonists claim that the scales are too thin to be considered scales as such. However, the Torah does not specify the necessary size of the scale, so even if the scale is really thin, as long as it is present and can be seen with the naked eye, the fish is still considered to be kosher.

Scientifically, fish scales are divided into four types, namely the cycloid and ctenoid scales, which are generally kosher, the ganoid scales, of which some are kosher and some treif, and lastly the placoid scale, which is definitely treif.

After a sample of the scale was sent to an expert, the scales of a kingklip were found to be cycloid scales, which are known to come off easily.

Another kosher requirement is that one has to be able to remove the scales without damaging the fish's skin. Some people viewed this as a problem, as they believed the kingklip's scales to be an outgrowth of its skin. However, this is not true, and the scales come off without any damage to the fish.

There are four claims that have been made against kingklip. Firstly, there is the worry of "sichsuch", that the fish is not kosher because if you run your finger nail one way over the kingklip it is smooth, and if you run your finger nail the other way, your nail still does not get caught on the scales.

"Sichsuch" is not required by all rabbis and is not a requirement in Shulchan Aruch.

Secondly, some are concerned that the kingklip's scales do not fulfil the same function as a klipah (shell or skin), as on a fruit or nuts, which brings up the question of whether scales have therefore to protect fish or not. The Ramban says that scales help to rid the fish of impurities in the body, just as kidneys do with humans. Humans can survive with a small percentage of one kidney functioning, and so fish can also survive with few scales.

This means that scales - according to the Rambam - protect fish health-wise.

Thirdly, people believe them to be non-kosher because their scales are soft and do not resemble fingernails - a description used by some commentators. However, the Torah does not say that scales have to be thick. Finally, there is the concern that there is a large resemblance between eels and Kingklip, and because all eels are non-kosher, by inference, the kingklip must also be treif. However, the two do not really look alike. (Eels look like snakes, while kingklips look more like traditional fish).

A similar problem - mentioned in the Talmud - was once brought to Rav Ashi, but he only looked at the scales, not the similarities, and pronounced that fish kosher.

Rabbi Bakshi Doron, former Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi, summarised the kashrut problem with eels saying that since many more species are non-kosher than kosher, it could lead to confusion, hence all should be regarded as treif.

Within the animal kingdom, there are categories and sub-categories into which everything is divided, namely by: kingdom; phylum; class; order; family; genus; and species.

The eels and kingklips are in two completely different orders. The eel is in the anguilliformes order, while the kingklip is in the perciformes order. So they are not "related" at all.

According to the South African Beth Din, the kingklip is kosher. However, since there are some who still view kingklip as being "problematic", it has been classified as "not Mehadrin" For those who are mehadrin, the question of whether utensils that have been used for kingklip are kosher or not, depends on their personal rabbi's opinion.

Rabbi Maizels listed several fish from around the world which had "traditionally" been accepted as treif, but on re-examination by kashrut organisations like the OU over the past six years have been found to be kosher.

He firmly believes that in time to come the kingklip would too enjoy universal acceptance. The only reason why kingklip should be regarded as treif", Rabbi Maizels concluded, "is because it is outrageously expensive!".

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