So this fish is about to become gefilte when suddenly it begins talking. In Hebrew. Read all about it! The scene is Zalmen Rosen’s fish market in New Square, NY…

Mr. Nivelo, who is not Jewish, lifted a live carp out of a box of iced-down fish and was about to club it in the head with a rubber hammer.

But the fish began speaking in Hebrew, according to the two men. Mr. Nivelo does not understand Hebrew, but the shock of a fish speaking any language, he said, forced him against the wall and down to the slimy wooden packing crates that cover the floor.
He looked around to see if the voice had come from the slop sink, the other room or the shop’s cat. Then he ran into the front of the store screaming, “The fish is talking!” and pulled Mr. Rosen away from the phone.

“I screamed, ‘It’s the devil! The devil is here!’ ” he recalled. “But Zalmen said to me, ‘You crazy, you a meshugeneh.’ ”

But Mr. Rosen said that when he approached the fish he heard it uttering warnings and commands in Hebrew.

“It said ‘Tzaruch shemirah’ and ‘Hasof bah,’ ” he said, “which essentially means that everyone needs to account for themselves because the end is near.”

The fish commanded Mr. Rosen to pray and to study the Torah and identified itself as the soul of a local Hasidic man who died last year, childless. The man often bought carp at the shop for the Sabbath meals of poorer village residents.

Mr. Rosen panicked and tried to kill the fish with a machete-size knife. But the fish bucked so wildly that Mr. Rosen wound up cutting his own thumb and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The fish flopped off the counter and back into the carp box and was butchered by Mr. Nivelo and sold.

I know the end seems abrupt, but to me that gives it the ring of authenticity. The carp was not long among us, but it spoke its piece.

Addendum. Since this appears to be an amazingly popular story (I’ve already had a day’s worth of hits this Sunday morning, mostly people seeking talking-carp information), and since (I am proud to say) I am the sole Google hit for “Hasof bah,” I feel it incumbent upon me to add some linguistic explanation for those in quest of it. Unfortunately, my Hebrew is rusty, but ha-sof ba is extremely simple: ‘the end (sof) is coming.’ Shemirah is a noun meaning ‘guard(ing), watch(ing), observance’; unfortunately tzaruch is beyond me. Can someone with more knowledge of Hebrew help out? Avva? Naomi?

Followup. Avva says (in the comments) that “tzarich shmira” would mean ‘protection (guardianship, vigilance) is needed’ in colloquial Modern Hebrew. The official Languagehat interpretation of the carp’s oracular utterance, therefore, is “Vigilance is needed; the end is coming.” Thanks, Avva! Furthermore, Jonathan Edelstein at The Head Heeb (March 16, 2003 entry; I can’t make the permalink work) deals with the Hasidic aspect and makes the point that “the choice of a fish also seems strange given the association of fish with the Christian religion. In at least some countries, including many of the Central and Eastern European countries that formed the cradle of Hasidism, the Christian symbolism of fish is specifically associated with carp, which are traditionally served at Christmas dinner.”

Further addendum. In Gogol’s Zapiski sumasshedshego [Notes of a madman] occurs the following sentence: Говорят, в Англии выплыла рыба, которая сказала два слова на таком странном языке, что ученые уже три года стараются определить и еще до сих пор ничего не открыли. [They say that in England a fish emerged that said two words in such a strange language that the scientists have been trying for three years to determine it and so far haven’t discovered a thing.] The fish keep trying to warn us, but do we listen?

Yet another addendum (Mar. 2016). I just learned from the Wikipedia article on New Square (there was no Wikipedia when I wrote the entry) that “New Square is named after the Ukrainian town Skvyra, where the Skver Hasidim have their roots. The founders intended to name the settlement New Skvir, but a typist-generated error anglicized the name.” I am very glad to learn this.


  1. As for Mr. Nivelo, a practicing Christian, he still believes the babbling carp was the devil.


    Wrong kind of fish to get off easy, I guess….

  2. Someone found my site once by querying on for "apocalpyse May 11", and I still don’t know why a) they were searching for that or b) my site came up. Do carp use Google?

  3. tzaruch doesn’t make much sense to me, but “tzarich shmira” would mean “protection (guardianship, vigilance) is needed” in colloquial Modern Hebrew (the syntactical construction is colloquial, the words themselves are ancient).

  4. Apparently the talking fish epidemic has spread to Israel as well… only this time it is talking Geilte fish!

  5. The gefilte was opened by one Garel S. Karp–thanks for that one, zaelic!

  6. There is discussion of the place of fish in Judaism and Jewish onomastics in this 2016 thread, starting with this comment.

  7. (there was no Wikipedia when I wrote the entry)

    There was, you know. (There was even an article on New Square, but didn’t have anything on the history of the name, or much of anything besides census data.)

  8. Oops! I even thought of checking that, but I thought “2003? No way!” The funny thing is that if I’d come across the claim in a book I was editing, I’d have checked it.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    it jibes with the belief of some Hasidic sects that righteous people can be reincarnated as fish.

    Must … sin … more …

  10. Could it have been a Billy Bass taken off its mount? I see that you can now get Alexa-enabled ones.

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