What is Gefilte Fish?

Image: A platter of gefilte fish, topped with carrot slices. Photo by ovedc. Copyright via CC-BYSA 3.0.

If you live in a community with mostly Ashkenazi Jews, at holiday time you are likely to see a lot of traditional Ashkenazi foods. Gefilte fish is perhaps the most mysterious to those who didn’t grow up eating it.

“Gefilte” (geh-FILL-teh) is not a species of fish. The word is Yiddish for “filled.” Gefilte fish is a fish loaf: boned, minced white fish mixed with matzo crumbs, chopped onions and root vegetables, eggs and seasonings. (Think “meat loaf” only with fish.) Then it is formed into balls and the balls are poached either in water or more usually in fish stock.

Gefilte fish is served cold, often with horseradish and a carrot or egg garnish.

As with many Ashkenazi foods, gefilte fish developed in response to regional food availability and ritual requirements. Fish is an especially flexible menu item in a kosher diet, because it is parve, that is, it can be eaten with either flesh or dairy. Moreover, mixing the fish with crumbs of matzo or bread crumbs stretches the expensive protein.

However, fish is tricky on Shabbat, since boning it is viewed by many traditional sources to be a violation of the Sabbath. (Sorting or picking one thing out from another is called borer and is one of the 39 forbidden classes of activity.) Therefore the bones must be removed before Shabbat! Gefilte fish work nicely for this, since the boning happens before Shabbat, and the dish is eaten cold – one less thing to keep hot for the Sabbath meal.

Advice for Beginners: Horseradish helps!

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

6 thoughts on “What is Gefilte Fish?”

  1. Than you Rabbi for your explanation of Gefilte fish. Your website is cool. I have always wanted to know more about Jewish traditions.


    1. You are welcome, Grace! This post was actually a response to a suggestion by a reader. If you have questions about Jewish traditions I welcome them – the more basic the better!

      Thanks for reading.


    1. Thank YOU for the idea! I’m going to follow up with more posts about traditional foods. My primary focus is newcomers to Jewish community, and food is often one of the most mysterious things.


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