From Meh Hadash Sept. 10th 2004

By Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer


It is customary on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, to go to a moving body of water, a place where there would be fish, and to cast our sins into the water. Well, we cannot really cast our sins into the water, so we come equipped with breadcrumbs that we toss into the water as symbolic representation of our wrong doings. It is can be a social experience, with whole groups of people going to the waterfront and together casting away their transgressions. It can be a very private experience as well, a chance for personal reflection and contemplation.

New and creative ceremonies have also developed around tashlich, since there is very little of a fixed text or service. Tashlich is not done on Shabbat, so if the first day of Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat, tashlich is postponed until the second day of Rosh HaShanah. Actually, tashlich can be done any day between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (except Shabbat). We try to go to a moving body of water, an ocean or a lake or a river or a stream, so our sins symbolically can be swept away. But when those are unavailable, people do tashlich in all different ways. I have heard of places where they do tashlich with the water from a hose. In Jerusalem some people go to cisterns, and in Tzefat some people go to the highest point in the city, face the Sea of Galilee, and cast breadcrumbs right onto the dry ground.

Interestingly, tashlich is among those folk practices that became accepted custom, over the objection of many Rabbis. (Kol nidre is another such example.) Some Rabbis objected on the grounds that one should not feed the fish on yom tov, or that tashlich might lead to carrying on Shabbat. Others considered tashlich to be superstitious and primitive, and were afraid that the practice would lead gentiles to laugh at the Jews.

While looking foolish in the eyes of gentiles was (and maybe still is) a real worry, in some eras the fears were far more serious. Objections were raised to the practice of tashlich lest it lead to accusations of Jews poisoning the wells or cursing the water and from there to pogroms, a very real possibility. Truly we are blessed that those are not among our fears and concerns when we do tashlich here.

Is tashlich primitive and superstitious? Perhaps that depends on how literally we understand it. As my students pointed out, this custom bears a resemblance to the Yom Kippur practice of the High Priest putting his hands on the head of a goat (scapegoat?), confessing all the sins of the people of Israel, and then casting the goat off to the wilderness of Azazel. In both cases it is not the casting that cleanses the people of Israel; it is the confession that precedes it.

Out in nature we have the opportunity to experience a different kind of awe and appreciation than we do in services. Whether we go alone or in a group, tashlich is an opportunity for us to consider what practices or habits we personally have that we do not want to have, and to leave them in the water for the fish. Tashlich is an opportunity for individual introspection, by the edge of the water, where the air and our minds are clear.

May the beginning of the new year go smoothly for all of us, and may the Rosh HaShanah season leave us changed and different.