Gefilte fish garnished with carrot slices. Photo by Mushki Brichta/Creative Commons

The ’Splainer: Why do Jews eat gefilte fish at the Passover seder?

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — When Jews gather around the table for Passover seder, the ritual meal commemorated this year on March 30 and 31, many will begin the feast with an oval-shaped appetizer, often mounted on a single leaf of lettuce and crowned with a boiled carrot medallion on top.

Meet gefilte fish, a culinary connection to the shtetls, or ancestral towns of many Jews of Eastern European origin.

To mask its usual blandness (and, some would say, gastronomic sadness), Jews will often add grated horseradish, or horseradish mixed with beets, to make it more palatable. Before passing the platter, here's what you need to know about this much-maligned food that is making — slowly — a gourmet comeback. Let us ’Splain ...

What is gefilte fish?

Gefilte fish is the love-it-or-hate-it ground fish dish that Jews have traditionally served as a first course on Friday night's Sabbath meal, but also on Passover and at other holidays. "Gefilte" means "stuffed" in Yiddish, and originally the forcemeat was stuffed into whole fish such as pike or carp. Today, the fish is usually deboned, chopped and/or ground and mixed with matzo meal, onion, eggs and seasonings, then shaped into oval balls poached or boiled in fish stock before being eaten at room temperature or cold from the fridge. Wags have dubbed it "the pescatarian's meatloaf" and "the hot dog of the sea."

And like meatloaf, gefilte fish picked up flavors and versions as Jews wandered the world. In Poland, gefilte fish is sweet; in Lithuania, it is peppery. And in modern Brooklyn, gefilte fish can be found made with sustainably raised fish, quinoa and "micro arugula" and served with a global array of flavors: Asian (soy or teriyaki sauce); Moroccan (turmeric and chickpeas), Mexican (con jalapeños) and even "Indian-Jewish" (mangoes and tamarind).

But the vast majority of Jews eat it straight from a vacuum-sealed jar sold in supermarkets.

How did gefilte fish get so, um, delish?

Like a lot of ethnic foods, gefilte fish arose out of poverty and need. It was first created by Ashkenazi Jews — Jews of  European origin — who relied on it to feed their families while staying kosher. The Jewish Talmud prohibits the removal of bones on the Sabbath, so how to serve fresh fish? The answer was to skin and debone the fish before the Sabbath's start at sundown and mix it with other ingredients to make it stretch. Because there is no cooking on the Sabbath, the dish was often served cold.

How did the poached version become the weird-looking jarred version now on store shelves?

That, like so much that is kitschy today, is a mid-20th-century invention. In 1935, the Heinz Co. became the first mass market food company to commit to making kosher products, quickly followed by Coca-Cola. After World War II, the influx of Jewish immigrants, many of them kosher-keeping, brought wider distribution of kosher products. With the introduction of new food technologies in the 1950s, the kosher food industry exploded, and the Jewish food that was among the most suitable for preservation was gefilte fish. Put it in a jar with broth or a jellylike goo derived from boiled fish bones and it can last on the shelves for a year.

But that innovation came at a cost.

Jars of gefilte fish for sale in Israel. Photo by Mushki Brichta/Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

"Bland, intractably beige, and (most unforgivably of all) suspended in jelly, the bottled version seemed to have been fashioned, golem-like, from a combination of packing material and crushed hope," food writer Rebecca Flint Marx wrote of the Manischewitz jarred gefilte fish of her Midwestern childhood. " ... It refused assimilation or window-dressing; it was straight out of the shtetl."

Today, while Manischewitz has 16 versions of jarred gefilte fish ("fishlets" in jelled broth, anyone?) a younger generation of Jews and foodies is reclaiming gefilte fish and giving it a makeover. Chief among them are the three millennials behind The Gefilteria, a Brooklyn (of course!) Jewish food producer that published "The Gefilte Manifesto" cookbook in 2016.

"Gefilte is not just about your bubbe," The Gefilteria's owners write, using the Yiddish word for grandma. "Gefilte is about reclaiming our time-honored foods and caring how they taste. ... It's about reclaiming the glory of Ashkenazi food — what it has been and what it can be."

Why is fish so dominant a part of the Jewish gastronomic experience?

Anyone who's ever been to a bar mitzvah, a Jewish wedding or a Jewish dinner party will no doubt have eaten salmon, the most ubiquitous of Jewish fish. Partly, that's because Jewish dietary laws allow fish to be eaten with either meat or dairy meals. But it's more than that.

In Jewish lore, fish is a symbol of fertility and a sign of the coming of the Messiah, who, according to legend, will come in the form of a great fish from the sea. Claudia Roden, the doyenne of Jewish cooking, says fish was customary at Jewish tables from the earliest of times. Jews bought it on Thursday (and keep it swimming in the bathtub), killed it on Friday and made it the highlight of the Friday evening meal.

In her book "97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement," Jane Ziegelman writes: "Along with the Sabbath candlesticks, the oblong gefilte fish pot, a vessel dedicated to that one food, was among a handful of objects that the Jewish housewife carried with her to America."

Are there any good gefilte fish jokes?

Probably some, but not many. Here's a taste:

Q: What kind of cigarettes do Jewish mothers smoke?
A: Gefiltered.

A decade ago, there was this nod to pork: "Gefilte Fish: The Other White Meat." And the satirical magazine Heeb posted YouTube clips of gefilte fish wrestling.

But in the main, the foodstuff has remained more maligned than funny, particularly in its jarred incarnation. Like the Maxwell House Haggadah, it is the stuff of suburban Jewish legend that Jews carry with them from one generation to the next.


  1. Like so many classic dishes from an array of cultures, the commercialized canned (jarred) gefilte fish doubtless suffers from the indignity (taste wise) of being a prepared pre-packaged product of convenience.

  2. You’re right about that. Also it can be an acquired taste, I didn’t like gefilte fish as a kid, but I like it now. Horse radish helps a lot too.

  3. Fish is parve. That means it isn’t milk or dairy. If you keep kosher, you can eat anything with fish, including a desert with dairy. Although, most Jews have gefilte fish as an appetizer and eat chicken or meat for dinner during the Passover seder. There are a growing number of jeiwsh vegetarians and vegans.

  4. Shtetel is not just a cute name for an ancient Jewish town. They were rual ghettos and Jews were forced to live there even though they made the best of it.

  5. When I go to Seder at my uncle’s house, gefilte fish is about the only Passover food my wife actually likes.

    My wife’s culture is notorious for grinding up fish and turning them into unnatural shapes (google “Oden”, “Surimi” and “Kamaboko”). So it’s not as much of a major conceptual stretch.

    To put things in perspective, my uncle buys mazoh from a specialty shop in Williamsburg. Described as “burnt hemstitched cardboard”. My aunt comes from a long line of bland cooks which include my mother. Kugel which doubles as building material. Homeopathic levels of seasoning in matzoh ball soup….

    But the company is always fun.

  6. Yes, there are a number of dishes I didn’t care for as a child that appeal to me now. As to horse radish…It covers a multitude of sins. 😉

  7. Considering your wife’s culture, you should try freshly grated wasabi root. It’s an excellent alternative to the jarred Ashkenazi horseradish, both on top of the fish and as the representative maror [bitter herbs as symbol of slavery].

  8. Oh definitely. However, wasabi root is rather expensive ($30 for a piece the size of your thumb) and doesn’t keep well. At home we rely on wasabi powder or paste in a tube.

  9. As the article points out, the much-maligned jarred-and-jellied version only appears to be, as the quoted writer wrote, straight of the shtetl. The truth is that it’s straight out of mid-century mass marketing. Like so many others, I grew up despising the jarred stuff but now love real, good, gefilte fish. Glad to see it making a comeback.
    Israelis seem to like transliterating English words. One of the jars in the photo reads “Premium” fish. They’re going to be disappointed I’m afraid..

  10. Oddly enough, that “burnt hemstitched cardboard” is the same unleavened bread that my community of faith serves in our celebration of communion. Interesting note regarding your wife’s culture; I’m always enriched when personalization emerges in these exchanges as it aids in making the view of person being engaged much more complete. None of us are the flat cardboard cutouts our more intemperate comments make us appear. Cheers.

  11. At least nobody calls communion hosts, “the bread of our affliction”. 🙂

  12. “Jews” do not eat Gefilte Fish, not at Pessah (don’t know why you call it Passover) and not at any other time. You mean “Ashkenazi Jews”.

  13. Parve was discussed at the end of the article, so why mention it?.

    Neither vegans nor vegetarians eat the flesh of dead fish.

  14. A point made quite clear in Paragraphs 2 and 7, and, really, throughout the article.

    Read first. Comment second.

  15. I use Passover because non-Jews don’t know what Pessah or Pesach means.

  16. I was just pointing it out as a good reason to eat fish on Pasover, especially if you want to have a dairy desert. I have started becoming vegan. I’m not 100% yet, but I’m working on it.

  17. My mother put garlic in everything. Our food was never bland.

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