The Symbolic Reason Fish Heads Are Eaten During Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, will be celebrated this year starting on Sunday, September 25, and continuing through Tuesday, September 27, according to History. And, as on other Jewish holidays, food will take a starring role in the annual celebrations. Many families will sit down to a meal of general palate-pleasers such as tender brisket, juicy roast chicken, and baked salmon (via Epicurious), but many Rosh Hashanah gatherings will also feature holiday-specific foods laden with symbolism.

According to History, these foods include sliced apples dipped in honey, which represent the hope for a sweet year, a round challah bread, which represents the unending cycle of life, and pomegranates, whose many seeds represent the many mitzvot, or good deeds, that adherents are expected to perform over the course of the year (via PJ Library). 

Another Rosh Hashanah dish that often shows up at the table? A fish head (per Forward).

A play on words that became a holiday tradition

Although many cultures routinely toss fish heads into soup, such as in China and Russia, it's increasingly rare to come face to face, so to speak, with a fish head at dinner. But if you've been invited to a Rosh Hashanah meal this year, you might well find a pair of glassy eyes staring back at you.

According to the Forward, placing a poached, fried, or broiled fish head on the holiday table is a Rosh Hashanah tradition with origins in a Torah passage that reads, "God shall place you as a head and not as a tail." "Rosh Hashanah" translates from Hebrew as "head of the year" — since it's the new year — and somewhere along the line, the outlet explains, serving a fish head (and not its tail) became a nod to embracing the new year in a spirit of leading, not following.

If a fish head doesn't sound all that tasty to you, you're not alone: In an article in Mishpacha Magazine, Zivia Reischer describes tentatively selecting a salmon head for her Rosh Hashanah dinner — and running into another woman at the store squeamishly doing the same. As she baked the head for her family, Reischer thought about how "in another home just like mine, another woman was doing the same things ... I blessed her with a good year, and that no matter what happens this year, she should always keep her head."