Monday, November 28, 2022

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Why Are Fish Heads on the Desk for Rosh Hashanah?


It was the second we’d all been ready for—or extra precisely, barely dreading: time to eat the fish heads. My mother picked them up from the fishmonger that morning, they usually’d sat in a plastic, ice-filled bag on the counter, my siblings and I giving it a large berth. Now, gleaming, silver-scaled and freshly cooked, they had been being carried out on an intricate platter. With gaping mouths and glassy eyes, the fish heads took heart place on our Rosh Hashanah desk. “Dig in,” stated my dad.

As a child, I couldn’t fairly get behind the follow of consuming fish heads on Rosh Hashanah. I used to be awed and alarmed, unable to look away from the fishs’ glassy eyeballs, loath to take a chunk. Normally, I’d take only a tiny forkful to meet my obligations.

Welcoming within the Jewish New 12 months with fish heads is a technique to begin off the yr heading in the right direction and get a “head” of the sport.

However as I obtained older, I began growing a deeper appreciation for this tradition. Not solely do I now love fish—entire, tinned, on the bone, and sure, fish heads too—I’m additionally intrigued by the symbolism and mysticism surrounding this Excessive Vacation ritual. I like traditions that mix meals with that means, and rising up, this one at all times felt particularly significant. On a desk crammed with challahs, apples and honey, brisket and hen soup, the platter of fish heads stood out, and one way or the other signified the getting into of the Excessive Vacation season in a method not one of the different Rosh Hashanah dishes did. Which made me marvel: why are fish heads eaten on Rosh Hashanah? I did just a little digging to learn the way fish earned their spots on Rosh Hashanah tables worldwide, and it seems the solutions are different, whimsical, and symbolic.

Nevertheless it’s greater than only a play on phrases; it has historic significance, too.

Rosh Hashanah interprets to “head of the yr.” Consuming a fish head is a symbolic and literal method of bringing that to life. Welcoming within the Jewish New 12 months with fish heads is a technique to begin off the yr heading in the right direction and get a “head” of the sport. When served, it’s customary to recite a blessing: “Might we be heads, not tails.” Primarily based on a verse in Deuteronomy, it’s a reminder to be like heads—leaders and changemakers—and never tails, or followers.

Nevertheless it’s greater than only a play on phrases; it has historic significance, too. Within the historic world—and particularly within the Talmud, fish, that are famously fruitful, symbolized fertility, blessing, and abundance. The truth is, many talmudic verses point out fish as a vital ingredient for vacation meals, attributable to their good-omen standing. All of the extra so on Rosh Hashanah, after we ask for a blessing and pray for well being and abundance. On the Jewish New 12 months, fish couldn’t be a extra auspicious menu merchandise.

Whereas the essential premise of this custom is similar, it adjustments from group to group. In my dwelling, we had been all inspired to partake of the fish heads, no matter our age. In some Greek Jewish properties, the top of the fish is reserved for the heads of the family. However not everybody makes use of fish heads. In Sephardic Jewish communities, a sheep’s head (which must be sourced from specialty kosher butchers!) is usually 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 conventional to serve tongue. “I grew up in a family with Moroccan and Persian roots, so I had a variety of flavors and spices round me throughout the Excessive Holidays,” says Arielle Mamiye, culinary director of Jewish Meals Society. “My mother’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 a similar symbolism.”

I like the that means behind the customized, so as a substitute of buying a fish head by itself, I want to serve an entire roasted fish with the tail eliminated.

Chani Apfelbaum

Like each good custom, this one’s been personalized and tailored. Some vegetarian Jews put their very own spin on issues and use a roasted head of cabbage, garlic, or a head of lettuce to partake within the custom. Others, like blogger Chani Apfelbaum of Busy in Brooklyn, forgo the roasted fish heads altogether and simply serve an entire fish. “Rising up, we at all times had a fish head on the desk,” she tells me. “However everybody turned their nostril up at it! I like the that means behind the customized, so as a substitute of buying a fish head by itself, I want to serve an entire roasted fish with the tail eliminated. It’s more energizing, tastier, and rather less intimidating.”

I, too, love the thought of serving an entire fish. Right now, I’ll serve a few entire branzinos; I stuff them with lemons, capers and tomatoes for a brilliant and easy tackle the custom. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I’m going the route I grew up with. I ask the fishmonger for 3-4 fish heads (search for ones with clear eyes, agency flesh and a gentle, barely briny scent) and poach them in white wine with herbs and onions. Another choice? Grill them and serve with chimichurri. If you wish to keep away from bone-in fish fully, strive challah toasts unfold with herby aioli and topped with salmon roe, or make a fish plate. I like herring, smoked salmon, and sardines with crackers, crudités, and some dip choices. It won’t be not a fish head, however the message is simply as highly effective: a need for blessing, heady power and naturally, good snacks, within the New 12 months.


How are you celebrating Rosh Hashanah this yr? Will there be a fish head in your desk?

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