This is why there’s a fish head on your Rosh Hashanah table

Celebrate the Jewish New Year with this time-honored tradition

Published September 27, 2022 4:59PM (EDT)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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It was the moment we'd all been waiting for — or more accurately, slightly dreading: time to consume the fish heads. My mom picked them up from the fishmonger that morning, and they'd sat in a plastic, ice-filled bag on the counter, my siblings and I giving it a wide berth. Now, gleaming, silver-scaled and freshly cooked, they were being carried out on an intricate platter. With gaping mouths and glassy eyes, the fish heads took center place on our Rosh Hashanah table. "Dig in," said my dad.

As a kid, I couldn't quite get behind the practice of eating fish heads on Rosh Hashanah. I was awed and alarmed, unable to look away from the fish's glassy eyeballs, loath to take a bite. Usually, I'd take just a tiny forkful to fulfill my obligations.

But as I got older, I started developing a deeper appreciation for this custom. Not only do I now love fish — whole, tinned, on the bone, and yes, fish heads, too — I'm also intrigued by the symbolism and mysticism surrounding this High Holiday ritual. I love traditions that combine food with meaning, and growing up, this one always felt especially meaningful. On a table filled with challahs, apples and honey, brisket and chicken soup, the platter of fish heads stood out, and somehow signified the entering of the High Holiday season in a way none of the other Rosh Hashanah dishes did. Which made me wonder: why are fish heads eaten on Rosh Hashanah? I did a little digging to find out how fish earned their spots on Rosh Hashanah tables worldwide, and it turns out the answers are varied, whimsical, and symbolic.

Rosh Hashanah translates to "head of the year." Eating a fish head is a symbolic and literal way of bringing that to life. Welcoming in the Jewish New Year with fish heads is a way to start off the year on the right track and get a "head" of the game. When served, it's customary to recite a blessing: "May we be heads, not tails." Based on a verse in Deuteronomy, it's a reminder to be like heads — leaders and changemakers — and not tails, or followers.

But it's more than just a play on words; it has historical significance, too. In the ancient world — and especially in the Talmud, fish, which are famously fruitful, symbolized fertility, blessing, and abundance. In fact, many talmudic verses mention fish as an essential ingredient for holiday meals, due to their good-omen status. All the more so on Rosh Hashanah, when we ask for a blessing and pray for health and abundance. On the Jewish New Year, fish couldn't be a more auspicious menu item.

While the basic premise of this tradition is the same, it changes from community to community. In my home, we were all encouraged to partake of the fish heads, regardless of our age. In some Greek Jewish homes, the head of the fish is reserved for the heads of the household. But not everyone uses fish heads. In Sephardic Jewish communities, a sheep's head (which has to be sourced from specialty kosher butchers!) is often used, and serves as a reminder of the biblical story of the ram that saved Isaac's life. And in Persian Jewish communities, it's traditional to serve tongue. "I grew up in a household with Moroccan and Persian roots, so I had a wide range of flavors and spices around me during the High Holidays," says Arielle Mamiye, culinary director of Jewish Food Society. "My mom's Moroccan, so she'll make Moroccan fish with peppers, cilantro, and paprika oil and add a fish head to the pot. And since my dad's Persian, she serves cow's tongue — braised with saffron and garlic — for the same symbolism."

Like every good tradition, this one's been customized and adapted. Some vegetarian Jews put their own spin on things and use a roasted head of cabbage, garlic, or a head of lettuce to partake in the tradition. Others, like blogger Chani Apfelbaum of Busy in Brooklyn, forgo the roasted fish heads altogether and just serve a whole fish. "Growing up, we always had a fish head on the table," she tells me. "But everyone turned their nose up at it! I love the meaning behind the custom, so instead of purchasing a fish head on its own, I prefer to serve a whole roasted fish with the tail removed. It's fresher, tastier, and a little less intimidating."

I, too, love the idea of serving a whole fish. Today, I'll serve a few whole branzinos; I stuff them with lemons, capers and tomatoes for a bright and simple take on the tradition. If I'm feeling nostalgic, I go the route I grew up with. I ask the fishmonger for 3-4 fish heads (look for ones with clear eyes, firm flesh and a mild, slightly briny scent) and poach them in white wine with herbs and onions. Another option? Grill them and serve with chimichurri. If you want to avoid bone-in fish entirely, try challah toasts spread with herby aioli and topped with salmon roe, or make a fish plate. I like herring, smoked salmon, and sardines with crackers, crudités, and a few dip options. It might not be not a fish head, but the message is just as powerful: a desire for blessing, heady energy and of course, good snacks, in the New Year.

By Chaya Rappoport

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