A fish tale for the holiday season

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach

By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach

The month of September always has a way of sneaking up on me.  Whether it has been due to helping our daughters prepare for back-to-school structure, or being reluctant to bid farewell to summer, every year I find myself face-to-face with Rosh Hashanah before I’m even done celebrating Labor Day.

This year, I decided to be a bit more proactive and have already begun preparations for the High Holy Days.  Always striving to create a somewhat unique twist on our festival dinner, I often serve recipes that might be just slightly non-traditional. (Okay, you want the truth? I cannot make a successful brisket!)  To compensate for my lack of culinary talents, I do try to set a festive holiday table; and I recently learned of a tradition which has somehow seemed to elude our family for generations.

The all-important apples, honey, and round challah always compliment whatever I have chosen to serve. However, this year I may just surprise those assembled by showcasing a fish head on a platter, right in the center of the table.  It seems as if gefilte fish balls are just not going to do justice to this very interesting tradition.

The practice of serving a fish head has evolved in part from a verse in Deuteronomy which reads, “G-d shall place you as a head and not as a tail”.  Scholars have adopted the interpretation of this verse to mean that the Jewish people should be leaders (head) in the world, and not merely followers (tail).  Another popular explanation is that, since fish are so plentiful in the oceans, they have come to serve as a symbol of fertility or prosperity.  Thus, many Jews add a blessing over the fish head, loosely translated as “We will be fruitful and multiply like fish”.


While Judaism is very rich in its folklore, good luck symbols are not something often found in our heritage, rendering the holiday fish head quite unique. Those who ascribe to this notion believe that the presence of a fish head on the Rosh Hashanah table serves a lucky dual purpose: not only shall the Jewish people be in the lead, but we should be blessed with 365 days of good fortune in the coming year. Taking this one step further, since fish never close their eyes, it is believed by some that a fish head’s eyelid-lacking presence on the New Year will help to ward off the dreaded “evil eye”.

As a non-carnivore, I have actually abandoned all sanctity of tradition in years past, choosing to occasionally swap out the roasted chicken or brisket for a savory roasted salmon dish.  While I admit to being partial to boneless salmon fillets, perhaps I should consider preparing the fish in its entirety….minus the tail, of course!  Me, a follower?  No way!