New York – There is a well-known halacha that one is not allowed to fast on Rosh Hashana (barring certain specific circumstances). Although it is a Day of Judgment, and there are shittos in the Gaonim that do permit one to fast, nevertheless the halacha is that Rosh Hashana is also a festive Yom Tov and one must honor it properly.
In fact, the Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashana Ch. 1, Halacha 3) mentions that we must eat, drink, and be mesamayach on Rosh Hashana. This includes partaking of fine delicacies, as it is written in the Book of Nechemia (Ch. 8, verse 10). regarding Rosh Hashana, that everyone should “Eat fatty foods and drink sweet drinks…for this day is holy”.
Interestingly, and although it is considered to be of the most distinguished of foods, and therefore seemingly quite appropriate with which to honor the holiday, nevertheless, there are various customs related to the permissibility of partaking of fish on Rosh Hashana.
Many readers are probably puzzled by the last paragraph, and might exclaim after rereading it: “What? How is that possible? Everyone eats fish on Rosh Hashana! In fact it is even one of the Simanim! How can something meant to properly usher in the New Year possibly be prohibited?”
The Gemara (Horiyos 12a and Krisus 5b) recounts that Abaye exhorted us to eat certain specific foods on Rosh Hashana as symbolic omens for the upcoming year. This practice is even codified as halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 583, 1)! According to the famed Maharal M’Prague and based on the Ramban, the purpose of doing these Simanim is that a physical action, small as it may be, serves as a conduit to actualize and channel a Divine decree.
And one of the foods that is commonly eaten as one of these Simanim is fish!
One of the first mentions of utilizing fish as a Siman is by the AbuDraham, who writes that eating fish is a Siman to “be fruitful and multiply like fish”. Additional reasons given by others include “to increase our merits” like fish, and to arouse G-d’s everpresent Divine Supervision. This minhag is cited by many authorities and has become widespread. Additionally, many who don’t have a Rosh Kevess (a lamb’s head) on Rosh Hashana night as a Siman that we “be as a head and not a tail” use a fish head in its stead, making fish a prerequisite for fulfilling these Simanim.
The question begs to be asked: If fish are such an integral part of the Rosh Hashana seudah, how can eating them possibly be considered questionable?
The answer to this question lies in the words of the Bach and the Shelah, who both wrote that the great Maharshal, Rav Shlomo Luria, ruled not to eat fish on Rosh Hashana. This ruling was widely quoted by later authorities, and we even find record that one year, the entire city of Vilna did not purchase fish for Rosh Hashana due to this ruling!
The Magen Avraham, in two separate places, addresses this issue, and quite diversely [beginning of O.C. 583 (s.v. yochal) and beginning of 597 (s.v. kasav)]. Commenting on the halachos of eating Simanim on Rosh Hashana, he writes that one should follow the AbuDraham and have fish as a Siman. Yet, by the halachos defining whether fasting is permitted on Rosh Hashana, he simply comments that the Maharshal did not eat fish on Rosh Hashana. With these seemingly contradictory passages, what is the Magen Avraham trying to tell us regarding the actual proper ruling?
Several authorities take a clue from his next words. After writing that the Maharshal did not eat fish on Rosh Hashana, the Magen Avraham added “because they were chaviv to him, (he had an affinity for them), and he wanted to limit his desires on Rosh Hashana with a small item”. In other words, the Magen Avraham is elucidating the Maharshal’s intent. He was not coming to argue on the accepted Minhag of having fish as a significant symbolic omen. Rather, since he personally enjoyed fish very much, he decided not to not partake of it on Rosh Hashana, in order to somewhat limit gastronomical pleasure on the Day of Judgement.
In fact, in his Yam Shel Slomo (Gittin Ch. 4, 51), the Maharshal himself wrote how much he personally enjoyed fish, and that is why he made certain to serve it on Shabbos day instead of the Friday night Seudah. He explains that the daytime Seudah is considered more important and therefore more fitting to honor it with fine delicacies.
A Red Herring?
An interesting approach maintained by the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 597, 2), is that the Magen Avraham was simply relating a personal hanhaga of a Gadol, and not coming to rule for the masses. Meaning, the proper halacha is to have fish on Rosh Hashana as a Siman, but the Maharshal felt that even so, he personally should not, due to the aforementioned reason. But, according to this we are under no compunction to limit our food intake on Rosh Hashana. It is a Yom Tov, with a special directive to enjoy ourselves as befit a holiday, notwithstanding its status as Yom HaDin. Therefore, although the Maharshal personally refrained from eating fish, the Aruch Hashulchan explains, that was his personal decision and should not impact the halacha.
Another approach is that the Maharshal wanted to somewhat fulfill the opinions of those Gaonim that allowed fasting on Rosh Hashana. Since, as mentioned previously, it is not the normative halacha, he could not do so, yet, as mentioned in the Shaarei Teshuva, that limiting one’s desires is akin to fasting, he decided to accomplish this by refraining from the food he most enjoyed, fish. Accordingly, following this approach would not take fish off of our Yom Tov menus, as this was his own personal hanhaga.
A Fishy Solution
However, the most accepted solution does potentially affect the rest of us. Several authorities, including the Pri Megadim (O.C. beg 583, E.A. s.v. n”l) and Chayei Adam (vol. 2, Klal 139, 6 & 11) aver that although the Magen Avraham related that the Maharshal had a personal affinity for fish, and yet refrained from eating it on Rosh Hashana, he was not simply telling us Gedolim stories. Rather, the Magen Avraham, utilizing the Maharshal as an epitome, was expressing the idea that someone who excessively enjoys a specific food should refrain from serving it on Rosh Hashana in order to keep the awe of the Day of Judgement foremost in his mind. For the Maharshal himself, this meant to avoid eating fish; for others it might be tongue, foi de gras, caviar, or filet mignon (assuming one can get kosher versions of them, of course).
Accordingly, many poskim stress that it is proper not to incite our internal desires by overindulging ourselves on Rosh Hashana.
In conclusion, there is no inherent problem with partaking of fish on Rosh Hashana. Au contraire, for most of us, by eating fish one is fulfilling the Talmudic directive of doing our utmost to ensure bracha for ourselves for the upcoming year. Yet, it would be prudent for us to remember that the essence of the day is not about gastronomical delight, but rather our avodah of crowning Hashem as our King!
Much of this article is based on Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s ma’amar in Kovetz Eitz Chaim (vol. 7, Tishrei 5769, Part 2, ppg. 161 – 169).
This article was written L’iluy Nishmas the Ohr Somayach Rosh HaYeshiva – Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R’ Yechezkel Shraga and l’zechus Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam v’chol chalatzeha for a yeshua sheleimah!
For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim.