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 of the Gaonim that do permit one to fast, nevertheless the halacha is that Rosh Hashana is also a festive Yom Tov and we must honor it properly. In fact, the Yerushalmi 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 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 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. According to the famed Maharal M’Prague and later the Chayei Adam, and based on the Ramban, the purpose of performing 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
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 Shlah, 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 a 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 contexts, addresses this issue, and quite diversely. 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 thing”. 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 his gastronomical pleasure on the Day of Judgement.
In fact, in his seminal Yam Shel Shlomo, 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?
In view of that, the Aruch Hashulchanexplains that the Magen Avraham was simply relating a personal hanhaga of a Gadol, and not coming to rule for the masses. Meaning, the proper minhag is to eat 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 clarifies, that was his personal decision and should not impact the halacha.
Another interesting 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, since 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 and Chayei Adam 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 Judgment 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, it turns out that according to vast majority of authorities 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 before digging into the ‘dug’, that the essence of the day is not about gastronomical delight, but rather our avodah of crowning Hashem as our King.
Postscript: Sefardic Fishing?
The above notwithstanding, there is a Sefardic Rishon, the Tashbatz, whose opinion is cited by the Chida and Kaf HaChaim, who wrote not to eat fish on Rosh Hashana due to its Hebrew name “dug” sounding similar to the Hebrew word for worry, “da’agah”. It is known that there were places such as Algiers, where the populace refrained from eating fish on Rosh Hashana due to this reasoning. Nevertheless, as mentioned previously, from the times of the Rishonim, throughout much of the world, the Minhag Yisrael was to partake of fish on Rosh Hashana.
In fact, the Matteh Efraim actually cites this view but ultimately rejects it, concluding ‘but in our countries we make sure to have fish for Rosh Hashana (‘mechazrim achar dagim’)’, showing that the general minhag is not to follow this opinion. The Elef HaMagen explains that when a positive Siman is applicable for fine food, there is no reason to worry about a potential negative one. He adds that one could recite ‘sheyida’agu soneinu’ on the fish, that our enemies should be worried, with no adverse effects to us.
Most contemporary Sefardic poskim cite both sides of this debate with most, including Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l, Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul zt”l, and Rav Yitzchak Yosef concluding that the proper minhag is to eat fish. On the other hand, Rav Yaakov Hillel is of the opinion that it is preferable to be choshesh for the Tashbatz and Chida’s reasoning and not eat fish on Rosh Hashana. Rav Mordechai Eliyahu zt”l cites both sides and concludes simplythat each should follow his own minhag. As always, one should ascertain from his knowledgeable halachic authority which minhag he should personally follow.
Much of this article is based on Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s excellent ma’amar in Kovetz Eitz Chaim (vol. 7, Tishrei 5769, Part 2, ppg. 161 - 169).
This article was written L’Iluy Nishmas R’ Chaim Baruch Yehuda ben Dovid Tzvi, L’Refuah Sheleimah for R’ Shlomo Yoel ben Chaya Leah and l’Zechus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam v’chol yotzei 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. And is the author of a contemporary halacha column for the Ohr Somayach website titled “Insights Into Halacha”. http://ohr.edu/this_week/insights_into_halacha/.
 See Tur / Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berura (Orach Chaim 597, 1), Chayei Adam (vol. 2, 139, 11), Shu”t Sha’agas Aryeh (101), Shu”t Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim 168), and mv”r Rav Yosef Yitzchok Lerner’s excellent and award-winning Shemiras HaGuf V’Hanefesh (vol. 2, Ch. 137) at length. Although there are shittos in the Gaonim that one may fast on Rosh Hashana [see Mordechai (Rosh Hashana Ch. 1, 708 at length, and Yoma Ch.1, 723), Rosh (at the very end of Maseches Rosh Hashana), Terumas HaDeshen (Shu”t 278), and Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 597)], this is not the normative halacha. In fact, the Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashana Ch. 1, Halacha 3) mentions that we must eat, drink, and be mesamayach on Rosh Hashana. See also the Rogatchover Gaon’s Shu”t Tzafnas Pane’ach (in the Divrei Torah between volumes 2 & 3) for a fascinating and deep hesber to answer up the shittos of those Gaonim who maintain that one may indeed fast on Rosh Hashana.
 Nechemia (Ch. 8, verse 10).
 About fish being considered a distinguished food and fit for a seudah, see for example, the well-known Gemara (Shabbos 119a) about “Yosef Mokir Shvi (Shabbos)” [although there are other reasons why fish is meant to be served especially on Shabbos (see Taamei Haminhagim 305 s.v. taam, citing the Bnei Yissoschar and Minchas Yaakov)], and Yerushalmi (Pesachim Ch. 4, Halacha 1), Rashi (Parshas Pinchas Ch. 29, 36; citing the Midrash Tanchuma (ad loc. 17), and Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 536, 8 & 552, 2).
 Gemara Horiyos 12a and Krisus 6a. There is, however, a difference in girsa between the two sources. The Gemara in Krisus mentions ‘eating’ (l’meichal) the Simanim, while the Gemara in Horiyus refers to ‘seeing’ (l’mechzei) them. Most authorities, including the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 583: 1), only cite the minhag of eating them. Yet, others, such as the Aruch (erech ‘Kra’), Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 583: 1 s.v. amar), and Kol Bo (64), do indeed cite the variant viewing version. See Chiddushei Haghos on the Tur (ad loc. 3) who explains that truly, me’ikar din, viewing is indeed sufficient, but the Tur justifiably used the wording of the more common minhag, additionally taking blind people into account. The Kaf Hachaim (ad loc. 6) adds that one who for whatever reason cannot actually eat some of the Simanim, or if one suspects possible insect infestation, may certainly rely upon viewing them, especially as the Yehi Ratzons are not actual brachos, but rather bakashos rachamim for the New Year. See also Tosafos (Avodah Zara 5b s.v. Erev Yom Tov) and Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Nitzavim 4) at length.
 Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 583: 1) and relevant commentaries. See also Tosafos (Avodah Zara 5b s.v. Erev Yom Tov) and Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Nitzavim 4) at length. As to why this does not fall under the prohibited category of Neichush, Divining, see the Mordechai (Yoma 723), Meiri (Horiyus 12a), Haghos to Sefer Haminhagim (Rosh Hashana 110), Derishah (Orach Chaim 583: 1), Pri Megadim (ad loc. Mishbetzos Zahav 1), Shlah (Maseches Rosh Hashana, Ner Mitzvah 22 - 23), Biur HaGr”a (Yoreh Deah 179: 6 ; based on the Rema ad loc. 2, citing the SMa”K 136), and the aforementioned Kaf Hachaim (Orach Chaim 583: 6 and 11).
 Maharal in Be’er HaGolah (Be’er HaSheini s.v. b’perek gimmel; cited by the Mekor Chaim - Orach Chaim beg. 583) and Chidushei Aggados (to Horiyos 12a). This is also cited by the Chayei Adam (vol. 2, 139: 6), Elef HaMagen (583: 17), and Katzeh L’Matteh (583: 9) [both commentaries on the Matteh Efraim], among later authorities. This understanding of the Simanim is derived from a Klal set by the Ramban (Parshas Lech Lecha Ch. 12: 6, and in his introduction to Sefer Shemos; based on the Midrash Tanchuma Parshas Lech Lecha 9), who expresses great interest in every detail related by the Torah, and introduces us to the fundamental concept of “Maaseh Avos Siman LaBonim”. This refers to the idea that the actions of our forefathers created a spiritual reality which was symbolic for their descendents. In other words, the challenges met by our great patriarchs transmitted to their children a unique form of spiritual DNA, whereby the potential was created for their descendants to emulate their deeds. This is why, he explains, the Torah records the stories of our forefathers in great detail. Showcasing their actions demonstrates that they serve as a conduit to actualize Divine decrees; in this case creating and enabling abilities in future generations. So too, explains the Maharal, this is the intention of these seemingly mysterious omens on Rosh Hashana night. The purpose of these Simanim is to perform a physical action, small as it may be, to function as a means to channel a Heavenly decree. Therefore, we are utilizing these “omens”, with their specific characteristics, as a unique but positive way to channel Divine blessing for the New Year.
See at length Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s ‘Minhag Achilas Simanim B’Leil Rosh Hashana V’Taamav’ (printed in Kovetz Datz”ah vol. 100, ppg. 4 - 5), as well as this author’s ‘Mysterious Omens and our Forefathers’.
 See AbuDraham (Seder Tefillas Rosh Hashana pg. 266), Meiri (Chibur HaTeshuva, Meishiv Nefesh, Maamar Sheini, Ch. 2), Leket Yosher (vol. 1, pg. 129), Emek Bracha (pg. 170), Kitzur Shnei Luchos HaBris (pg. 159), Chemdas Yamim (vol. Yamin Noraim pg. 33b), Shulchan Tamid (Hilchos Rosh Hashana 3, 1), Magen Avraham (beg. Orach Chaim 583, s.v. yochal), Shulchan Aruch HaRav (ad loc.2 1), Chayei Adam (vol. 2, 139, 6), Matteh Efraim (583, 3), Chavas Daas (Derech HaChaim 142, 2), Maharam A”sh (cited in Zichron Yehuda, Yemei HaRachamim V’HaSelichos 96), Kitzur Shuchan Aruch (129, 9), Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 583, 1), Mishna Berura (ad loc. 5), and Orchos Rabbeinu (5775 edition, vol. 2 pg. 217, 8).
 See Shulchan Aruch and main commentaries (Orach Chaim 583: 2). This minhag is based on a pasuk in Parshas Ki Savo (Ch. 28: 13; see commentaries ad loc. for differing views as to this bracha’s intent), and aside for it being mentioned by the classic Acharonim, dates quite far back with reports of Rishonim, including the Ravyah (vol. 2, Rosh Hashana beg. 547), Maharam M’Rottenberg (cited in Shu”t Tashbatz 118), Ohr Zarua (vol. 2, Hilchos Rosh Hashana beg. 257), Machzor Vitry (vol. 1: 323), Abudraham (Seder Tefillas Rosh Hashana pg. 266), Maharil (Minhagim, Hilchos Rosh Hashana 8), Terumas Hadeshen (cited in Leket Yosher vol. 1: pg. 129), Haghos Ashiri (Rosh Hashana Ch. 1: 5), and the Tur (Orach Chaim 583) partaking of a Rosh Kevess or Rosh Ayil on Rosh Hashana night, referring to it as a ‘minhag hakadmonim’. Many emphasize the significance of the zechus of Akeidas Yitzchok as an additional factor for this minhag. See also Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Nitzavim 4 s.v. v’achar) who stresses that one should not use a Rosh Aiz, the head of a goat. The minhag to use a ‘Rosh Dag’, a fish head, is mentioned explicitly by the Chayei Adam (vol. 2, 139: 6), and Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 583: 3). This Rosh Hashana night minhag is indeed cited as proper in many contemporary calendars, including Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky’s authoritative Luach Eretz Yisrael (Rosh Hashana), Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin’s essential Luach Ezras Torah (Rosh Hashana), and Rav Yaakov Hillel’s Luach Dinim U’Minhagim Ahavat Shalom (Rosh Hashana).
 Bach (Orach Chaim 597 s.v. kasav b’Agudah), and Shlah (Shnei Luchos HaBris vol. 2, Maseches Rosh Hashana, Amud HaDin 58d s.v. perek). It is also cited by the Yosef Ometz (end 963), Chukei Chaim (Ma’areches ‘Reish’, Hilchos Rosh Hashana pg. 108b), Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 597, 2), and Kaf Hachaim (ad loc. 10). Interestingly, there are differing accounts in the later authorities of who actually made this ruling. Some wrote it was the Maharshal’s grandfather, others claiming his father, and still others say it was his own personal ruling.
 See Beis Hillel (Yoreh Deah 218, 1), who cites this account. He writes that due to the fishermen hiking up the prices of fish before Rosh Hashana, with the Rashal’s ruling in hand, the Rabbanim of the city prohibited fish that Rosh Hashana.
 Magen Avraham (beg. Orach Chaim 583 s.v. yochal and beg. Orach Chaim 597 s.v. kasav).
 Yam Shel Shlomo (Gittin Ch. 4, 51).
 Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 597, 2). This approach is also implied by the Machatzis HaShekel (ad loc. s.v. kasav). This also seems to be the Matteh Efraim’s (583, 3) understanding as well. He writes that ‘there was one who was noheig not to eat fish on Rosh Hashana because he had an affinity for them and wanted to limit his desires on Rosh Hashana with a small thing to show fear of Judgment’. He then concludes that ‘but in our countries we make sure to have fish for Rosh Hashana (‘mechazrim achar dagim’)’, showing that the general minhag is not to follow the Maharshal on this.
 This solution is suggested by Rav Reuven Margolis in his Nefesh Chaya (Orach Chaim 597). Rabbeinu Yonah in his seminal Sha’arei Teshuva (Yesod HaTeshuva s.v. harei & v’chain) cites the Ra’avad as maintaining that one who wishes to improve should refrain from eating to heart’s desire. That small step will enable one to avoid sin.
 There are several other solutions posited including that the Rashal only meant not to eat fish during the day, but at night when most of us do Simanim, it is permitted (Adnei Paz, Orach Chaim beg 583), and that when Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbos then even the Rashal would agree to permit fish (Rav Chaim Falaj’i; cited at the end of Rabbi Brodt’s ma’amar).
 This resolution is cited by the Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim beg 583, Eshel Avraham s.v. n”l), the Levushei Srad (ad loc. s.v. r”s), Hisorerus Teshuva (Shu”t vol. 3, 316, 3), and the Shulchan Lechem Panim (583, 12). The Chayei Adam seemingly holds this way as well. In vol. 2, 139, 6, he writes that one should have fish as a Siman on Rosh Hashana. Yet, several paragraphs later, (11) he avers that one should refrain from eating a food that is very dear to him, with nary a mention of fish! This reinforces the notion that the enigmatic statements of the Magen Avraham were indeed not meant to be mutually exclusive.
 Including the Meiri (Chibur HaTeshuva, Meishiv Nefesh, Maamar Sheini, Ch. 2), Sefer HaAgudah (Rosh Hashana Ch. 4, 21), Matteh Yehuda (581, 8), Pri Megadim (ad loc. Eshel Avraham 10), Yosef Ometz (ibid.), Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Orach Chaim 597, 1), Ya’avetz (Siddur Shaarei Shamayim pg. 284), Chayei Adam (ibid.), Yesod V’Shoresh H’Avodah (Shaar 11, Ch. 2, pg. 301), and Kaf Hachaim (ibid.). See Rabbi Brodt’s ma’amar at length.
 Chidushei Rashbatz (Rosh Hashana 32, 2) cited by the Chida in both his Machazik Bracha and Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 583, 3; he adds a smach to this from Tikkunei Zohar pg. 53b that ‘dug lashon da’agah’), and the Kaf HaChaim (Orach Chaim 583, 9). These authorities do make an exception when Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbos, that fish may be eaten, along with a Yehi Ratzon ‘Sheyirbi Zechuyoseinu K’dagim’.
 See Beis Yehuda (Dinei Minhagei K”K Argier, Minhagei Rosh Hashana 4 and Zeh Hashulchan pg. 44).
 Matteh Efraim (583, 3) and Elef HaMagen (ad loc. 21).
 Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l (Chazon Ovadiah, Yomim Noraim pg. 100, footnote 21), Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul zt”l (Shu”t Ohr L’Tzion vol. 4, pg. 36 s.v. ul’inyan rosh dug), Rav Yitzchak Yosef (Yalkut Yosef - on Moadim pg. 32 and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 583: 13), Rav Yaakov Hillel (Luach Dinim U’Minhagim Ahavat Shalom 5776, pg. 23), and Rav Mordechai Eliyahu zt”l’s Darchei Halacha glosses to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (129: 12).