Many people have the practice, on the yahrzeit of (especially) a parent, of bringing food to the synagogue so that others might recite b'rachos (benedictions) over eating the food after shacharis, which are meant to benefit the deceased. They call this food tikun n'shama, or just tikun.

It seems that the most common foods offered as tikun (in my experience in several Orthodox synagogues) are drinks, egg kichel, batter cake, and herring. Why herring?

  • It's relatively expensive (certainly when compared to the kichel and batter cake).
  • If the idea is to promote the recitation of b'rachos, herring doesn't help, as it shares b'rachos (fore- and after-) with the drinks.
  • Although it's tasty[1], I don't think it will be missed terribly if absent. Herring without a drink or kichel would cause people to seek something to wash down the herring; kichel and a drink without herring is perfectly palatable and Part Of Your Complete Breakfast.

So why herring?

[1] YMMV.

  • 4
    Maybe it's Jewish Soul Food. :)
    – Double AA
    Jan 12 '16 at 22:49
  • 1
    why is simply being tasty not good of enough of a reason? You could ask why any other specific food also. Herring has been culturally a part of Jewish foods for a long time now so seems fitting to be part of an event which involves food.
    – Dude
    Jan 13 '16 at 1:24
  • 2
    @Dude why Jewish food "Lightly salted herring is a very popular traditional dish not only in Russia, but also in Holland, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and some other northern countries. "
    – hazoriz
    Jan 13 '16 at 3:43
  • 1
    hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=2274&st=&pgnum=167 R YE Henkin writes that the food served at Shul on a Yahrtzeit derives from the original practice of having a Talmid Chakham deliver words of Torah and then having a Seudat Mitzva. (He then complains about people who just do the food part.) Perhaps (my speculation) fish is/was the cheapest form of meat to bring to the Seudat Mitzva (like we see some people insist on for a Siyum).
    – Double AA
    Jan 13 '16 at 6:19
  • 1
    One person did it, and then everybody copied it? (And the original Halacha is to fast on a parent's Yahrzeit, not to participate in a party of any sort. Just BTW.) Jan 13 '16 at 8:58

This is not a definite reason, but it may be in memory of the teaching of Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav found in Bava Bathra 74b which talks about the Leviathan that was salted and stored away by HaShem for the Tzaddikim in the world to come, meaning after the resurrection of the dead. There will be a special meal which will include salted fish.

It would be suggesting that soul will be resurrected and included in that meal.

  • 8
    Wow. This may be a backsplanation, but it's a very good backsplanation. May this meme spread as far as the fishy meme it applies to, and may we all enjoy Leviathan meat together speedily, in our days.
    – Isaac Moses
    Jan 13 '16 at 14:11
  • 1
    Interesting. Nothing like salted fillet of "soul" :-)
    – DanF
    Jan 13 '16 at 16:04
  • +1 nice. I was thinking the same thing than scrolled down to see this. But as Isaac says this is cute in retrospect, I highly doubt the hassidic rebbes had a meeting about what to serve at a tikun and decided on this remez:)
    – user6591
    Jan 14 '16 at 0:47
  • 2
    They could have salted any fish, see my answer
    – Dr. Shmuel
    May 13 '18 at 10:37
  • Is Leviathan a fish?? I thought it was a "sea monster: and maybe it's considered a mammal like whales.
    – DanF
    May 14 '18 at 15:11

You can read this article in full, but I’ll just quote the important part below.

Most likely, the fish became popular among Eastern European Jews for practical reasons: it was cheap.

————— some edits

Based on some of the comments I’d like to add some clarification. Although Yaakov Dean’s answer is quite clever, it does not attempt to explain why herring was used, because they could have (in his scenario) salted any fish of their choosing. (Refer to my answer above on why they chose herring.)

As for the original question, the points raised are quite valid ones, and this is a very fair question. And it makes sense to question all things, and determine their sources.

Going on the information that herring was cheap, that would mean that it was ever cheaper than anything else in this context. (Including that which was mentioned in the question.)

Using some reasoning however, I would conclude that based on that which I said above, there aren’t any other hidden reasons to the fish. Similarly as is found by the Shtreimel. It was cold back in Europe. As is quoted from the Shtreimel Wikipedia page:

While there is strong religious custom for Jewish males to cover their heads, from the standpoint of Jewish law there is no special religious significance to the shtreimel as compared to other head coverings. However, the wearing of two head coverings is considered to add additional spiritual merit, plus the presence of beautiful craftsmanship adds beautification and honor to the custom.

You may note on that page, that later on someone added on additional symbolism, but that was not the original intention.

And I do believe that this is the same situation present by herring. Even though now it may not be economical, it certainly was. And there may even be extra symbolism added on for good measure.

plus it’s tasty.

  • Another more profane thing is that Russians like to eat herrings when drinking vodka. May 13 '18 at 11:32
  • 4
    I hear Russians like to drink vodka while eating.
    – Dr. Shmuel
    May 13 '18 at 11:43
  • I kind of deal with this in the question already. Yes, herring was cheap compared to other meats or fishes (let's say), but surely it's not cheap compared to nothing or to more kichel.
    – msh210
    May 13 '18 at 11:53
  • 2
    The original reason was that it was cheap and they needed something to eat. Now it’s a minhag. Similar thing by the shtreimal, it was cold. Now its the minhag.
    – Dr. Shmuel
    May 13 '18 at 11:56
  • @Shmuel Russians like to drink vodka whenever they can, but it's a special "side dish" for vodka. A similar thing from Poland: thenews.pl/1/12/Artykul/… May 13 '18 at 12:23

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