Back in the day, on one of the first two days of Rosh HaShanah, Jews traditionally walked together to a stream, pond, lake, river, or even an ocean. The idea was to find a body of flowing water, preferably filled with swimming fish, so that we Jews could throw away our sins. That’s the meaning of the Hebrew word, tashlich – to cast off or throw away.
The Tashlich ceremony itself, which includes psalms, readings and the actual tossing of bread crumbs to symbolize our last year’s sins, originated in the 1200’s. It quickly caught on in Jewish communities around the world, to the chagrin of many rabbis who were afraid that tashlich superstitions would become more important than the more solemn themes of Rosh HaShanah, such as forgiveness and teshuvah (return).
So what happens at a Tashlich ceremony? When the group arrives at the flowing stream, they gather close to the water. Following readings and often a rabbi’s drash, we Jews empty our pockets of their crumbs – crumbs that become tangible symbols of the sinful things we’ve done in the past 12 months. Prophet Micah’s words provide the Tashlich theme; “God will take us back in love and cover up our iniquities. God will cast all of our sins into the depths of the sea.”
As it becomes more and more important to make Jewish rituals more accessible and participatory, the Tashlich service is a good place to start. Although our service begins with readings and psalms, ( Psalms 18 and 130 are traditionally appropriate), we offer suggestions as to the specific sins that need tossing out. For example, we read a list of transgressions that include:
I gossiped about someone.
I neglected to say thank you for a kindness.
I broke a promise.
I let negative thinking dominate me.
I didn’t reach out to a friend.
These sins and many others are written on small slips of paper and as they are read aloud, children and adults decide which sins personally apply to them. Volunteers distribute the appropriate sins to those who request them, including the all-purpose general sin, “I did something wrong but I don’t want to say.”
With sins in one hand and fish crackers in the other, we make our way to a stream, lake or river or, if a natural body of water is not available, we can create one using a plastic swimming pool or, as I once did at a Jewish retirement campus, we made our own “Jordan River,” with hoses, a water pump and several “slippy slides!” Standing at the water’s edge, we do tashlich, which means we throw our “fishy sins” into the water and watch them sink or float away.
In her book, “Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook,” author Lesli Koppelman Ross notes that many historians believe that ancient superstitions influenced the popularity of Tashlich, probably because “primitive people believed that the best way to win favor from evil spirits (that) lived in waterways, was to give them gifts.”
Koppelman goes on to say that there were communities, “including the Babylonian Jews, who sent ‘sin-filled’ containers out into the water.” She writes that the Talmud records an ancient practice where Jewish families wove baskets made of grass and reeds, and presented these to each child in the family. The baskets, filled with beans or peas representative of last year’s sins, were held above the head, swung around and then tossed into the water, a practice that still continues in Southern Italy to this day!
It was Prophet Ezekiel who received God’s guidance near a body of water and throughout Jewish history our heroes and sages have felt God’s presence beside lakes and streams, rivers and wells. Whether it’s history or folklore, in recent years tashlich has become a popular Rosh HaShanah ritual that offers an opportunity for rabbis and congregations to broaden a Jewish tradition that facilitates inclusion and participation.