Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 7 September 2013 / 3 Tishri 5774

(Not) To Eat Fish On Rosh Hashana?

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
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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 mentions that we must eat, drink, and be mesamayach on Rosh Hashana[1]. This includes partaking of fine delicacies, as it is written in the Book of Nechemia[2] 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 one 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[3].

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?”

Simana Milsa

The Gemara[4] 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 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[5].

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 ever-present Divine Supervision. This minhag is cited by many authorities and has become widespread[6]. 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”[7], 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?

Rashal’s Ruling

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[8], ruled not to eat fish on Rosh Hashana[9]. This ruling was widely quoted by later authorities, and we even find a record that one year, the entire city of Vilnadid not purchase fish for Rosh Hashana due to this ruling[10]!

The Magen Avraham, in two separate places, addresses this issue, and quite diversely[11]. 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?

Fish Affinity

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, (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 gastronomical pleasure on the Day of Judgement.

In fact, in his Yam Shel Slomo[12], 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[13] 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 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.[14]

A Fishy Solution

However, the most accepted solution[15] does potentially affect the rest of us. Several authorities, including the Pri Megadim and Chayei Adam[16] 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 arouse our internal desires by overindulging ourselves on Rosh Hashana[17].

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).

[1]See Tur / Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berura (O.C. 597, 1), Chayei Adam (vol. 2, 139, 11), Shu”t Sha’agas Aryeh (101), Shu”t Chasam Sofer (O.C. 168), and 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 (O.C. 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.

[2]Nechemia (Ch. 8, verse 10).

[3]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 (536, 8 & 552, 2).

[4]Gemara Horiyos 12a and Krisus 5b; Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 583, 1). See also Tosafos (Avodah Zara 5b s.v. Erev Yom Tov) and Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Nitzavim 4) at length.

[5]Maharal in Be’er HaGolah (Be’er HaSheini s.v. b’perek gimmel; cited by the Mekor Chaim O.C. beg. 583 and Chidushei Aggados to Horiyos 12a). This is also cited by the Chayei Adam (vol. 2, Klal 139, 6) and Katzeh L’Matteh (on the Matteh Efraim 583, 9) among later authorities. This understanding of the Simanim is based on a Klal set by the Ramban (Parshas Lech Lecha, Bereishis Ch. 12, 6) explaining many actions of our great forefathers. See at length Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s ‘Minhag Achilas Simanim B’Leil Rosh Hashan V’Taamav’ (printed in Kovetz Datz”ah vol. 100, ppg. 4 -5).

[6]AbuDraham (Seder Tefillas Rosh Hashana pg. 266), Meiri (Chibur HaTeshuva, Meishiv Nafesh, 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), Matteh Efraim (583, 3), Chavas Daas (Derech HaChaim 142, 2), Maharam A”sh (cited in Zichron Yehuda, Yemei HaRachamim V’HaSelichos 96), Magen Avraham (beg. 583, s.v. yochal), Kitzur Shuchan Aruch (129, 9), Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 583, 1), and Mishna Berura (ad loc. 5).

[7]See Shulchan Aruch O.C. 583, 2. This minhag is based on a pasuk in Parshas Ki Savo (Devarim Ch. 28, 13; see commentaries ad loc. for differing views as to this bracha’s intent) and goes 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), Mahari”l (Minhagim Hilchos Rosh Hashana 8), Terumas HaDeshen (cited in Leket Yosher vol. 1, pg. 129) and the Tur (O.C. 583) partaking of a Rosh Kevess or Rosh Ayil on Rosh Hashana night, calling it a ‘minhag hakadmonim’. However, the Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Nitzavim 4 s.v. v’achar) stresses that one should not use a Rosh Aiz, the head of a goat. The minhag to use a Rosh Dug, a fish head, is mentioned explicitly by the Chayei Adam (vol. 2, Klal 139, 6), and Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 583, 3).

[8]Bach (O.C. 597 s.v. kasav b’Agudah), Shelah (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 (O.C. 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.

[9]Although there is a Rishon, the Tashbatz (Chidushei Rashbatz, Rosh Hashana 32, 2; cited by the Chida in both his Machazik Bracha and Birkei Yosef O.C. 583, 3, and the Kaf HaChaim O.C. 583, 9) who wrote not to eat fish on Rosh Hashana due to its Hebrew name “dug” sounding similar to the Hebrew word for worry, “da’ag”, and there were some places who refrained from eating fish on Rosh Hashana because of this [such as Algiers (see Beis Yehuda, Dinei Minhagei K”K Argier, Minhagei Rosh Hashana 4 and Zeh Hashulchan pg. 44)], 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.

[10]See Beis Hillel (Y”D 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!

[11]Magen Avraham beg. 583 (s.v. yochal) and beg. 597 (s.v. kasav).

[12]Yam Shel Shlomo (Gittin Ch.4, 51).

[13]Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 597, 2). This approach is also implied by the Machatzis HaShekel (ad loc. s.v. kasav).

[14]This solution is suggested by Rav Reuven Margolis in his Nefesh Chaya (O.C. 597). Rabbeinu Yona 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.

[15]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 O.C. beg 583; similar to a solution maintained by many authorities regarding meat’s permissibility on Rosh Hashana. See previous article titled “(Not) To Eat Meat on Rosh Hashana”), and 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 Brod’ts ma’amar).

[16]This resolution is cited by the Pri Megadim (O.C. beg 583, E.A. 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 holds this way as well. In (vol. 2, Klal 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!

[17]Including the Meiri (Chibur HaTeshuva, Meishiv Nafesh, Maamar Sheini, Ch. 2), Sefer HaAgudah (Rosh Hashana Ch. 4, 21), Matteh Yehuda (581, 8), Pri Megadim (ad loc. E.A 10), Yosef Ometz (ibid.), 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.

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.

L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda.

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