The Fishiest Family

The High Holidays are a very special time of year. Some await it with eagerness, excitement, awe, and even  anxiety. The New Year is a time to focus on the previous year, repentance, asking forgiveness, and making resolutions for the upcoming year.

The High Holiday season begins during the month of Elul, when the shofar is sounded every weekday morning, a call to return to G‑d in preparation for the upcoming Holidays.

The two days of Rosh Hashanah are the head of the Jewish year, the time that we once again crown G-d as our king.

The entire month is filled with enthusiasm, praying, family time, delicious food, and self-examination.

There are so many elements of the High Holidays that I look forward to and cherish, but one of my favorite is fish, with its rich symbolism.

On Rosh Hashanah there is a beautiful tradition to go to an open body of water and symbolically cast away our sins into the water. This tradition, known as Tashlich, recalls the verse in Micah where he says that “G-d will cast (in Hebrew, Tashlich) their sins to the depths of the sea”. The tradition is to do Tashlich specifically at a body of water that contain fish.

Fish are also one of the traditional foods eaten on Rosh Hashanah. Many have the custom of placing the head of a fish on their table, declaring that during the new year we should be as a head and not a tail.

Fish also represent blessings in general. In the quintessential blessing Jacob gave to Joseph’s sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, he blessed them to multiply like fish.

Fish also allude to specific blessings: Fish have no eyelids, so their eyes are always open. They are constantly on the lookout for predators, to remain safe — we pray that G-d’s eyes are always open, constantly looking out for us. Fish multiply in large numbers — we ask G-d to bless us with children, and always have an abundance of the things we need. So on Rosh Hashanah, when we hope to begin our year with much blessing, we make a point of eating fish.

Rosh Hashanah is also a time of judgment. We pray that we are not caught in the “net”, just as fish swim to and fro, in the hope of not being trapped in the fisherman’s net.

This clarifies somewhat why fish are a universal Jewish tradition for the beginning of the New Year. But for me, they mean something more as well.

You see, all this fishy talk reminds me of my family, and the special secret that we share.

Many families have their “thing” — an inside joke or fun tradition. Growing up, our “thing” was fish. The very word “fish” conjures up images, feelings, smells and memories of my childhood. To start, my maiden name is Hecht, which in German is a pike.

Our family, mostly my father, takes fish seriously. Pay a visit to my parents’ home, and you will find beautifully painted fish hanging from the ceiling, silver decorated fish on the shelves, even a porcelain fish-shaped wine decanter with matching glasses in the breakfront. Fish dishes for our Shabbat table, fish vases for our flowers, glass fish pitchers for pouring drinks, fish jewelry for our mother, a sterling silver fish knife to slice our challah.

In their living room, in a prime location, sits a small aquarium with actual live fish. The job of helping Zaidy feed the fish, and cleaning the fish tank with Bubby, have become a sought-after task for all the young grandchildren.

We would take an annual family trip before Passover to the “Fisherman’s Dude Ranch”, to catch fish for our Seder table. I can still smell the unpleasant stench of my mother cleaning the fish in our laundry room, and then the magnificent aroma of the freshly cooked gefilte fish that would adorn our Passover table.

Every Shabbat, my father shares a Torah thought during the fish course, that we refer to as the “Fish Dvar Torah”. It is a beloved weekly tradition, that even we adults look forward to when visiting our parents. As children we always sat quietly, listened, and cherished every word. The teachings were a combination of Hassidic interpretations of the Torah portion, and finding the deeper meaning behind the holy words. It was always followed by lively discussions, thought-provoking questions, sharing Torah thoughts that we studied in school, and lessons to guide us in our lives.

Just as fish taste-buds have the ability to distinguish the difference between sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, we learned to differentiate between the good and bad, right and wrong. The Fish Dvar Torah ingrained in me and my siblings the importance of family time, learning and respecting one another. It influenced how we would deal with difficult situations, and cope with sensitive issues. We learned these concepts from the weekly Torah portion, and my father’s timely lessons that he extracted from each story. Mostly, it instilled in all of us the importance of living life as a happy, proud, fulfilled Jew, and our principal goal of reaching out to every person with selfless love and care.

I recall asking my husband, while dating, if he knew about the fish Dvar Torah, and if it was something we would do in our home. I wanted this tradition to continue for our children.

Everyone that joined our family was let in on our family’s fishy secret. Every couple was given some type of fishy gift to add to their new home.

At the Sheva Brachot, (seven days of celebration) following my youngest brother’s wedding, I got up to present him and his new wife with a gift from his siblings. It was obvious what I would bring all the way from Chicago to Australia, a fish salt and pepper shaker, and a beautiful fish serving dish.

I explained to the families that joined us, that this was something that our family cherished, and that fish played an important role in our upbringing.

Fish are abundant in most bodies of water, and in almost every climate. They swim in groups and look out for each other. They live both on the surface, and deep in the water. Although fish have been well researched, they hold endless mystery to all of us. They represent that which is certainly there, but at times cannot be seen. Fish are an important resource for humans worldwide.

As a young girl, my father’s fish obsession did not mean as much to me as it does now. I like to think that much of our lives have a fish component. There are many sizes and species of fish, they are a broad range of colors, and move easily through the water. Fish are diverse, as each species is perfectly equipped to live in its specific underwater environment.

As we prepare to usher in a New Year, let’s learn some lessons from fish, recognizing that each of us are unique in our own special way, but also have the common qualities that make us who we are. Let’s embrace one another, with respect, dignity and kindness. Let’s pray for each other, stand together as one united family, and beseech the Almighty to answer all of our personal and communal requests.

May the eyes of our Father in Heaven always look down on His people with eternal love.

May G-d;

F ulfill our wishes,

I nscribe us for a sweet new year,

S hower His grace upon us all, and grant us with,

H appiness and health, life’s greatest blessings.

About the Author
Baila Brackman is the co-director of the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the University of Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her husband and five children.
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