Jewish Calendar - Tisrei - Rosh Hashanah

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah,[1] a little before sunset, observant Jews congregate at the edge of a body of running water and recite the last verses of the Book of Micah (7:19), concluding with the sentence: "He will take us back in love; He will over up our iniquities; You shall cast all our sins into the depths of the sea."
After the lines from Micah and some additional prayers composed in more recent years, it is customary to shake the skirt of one's garments over the water or to empty one's pockets, as if physically transferring one's sins to the river or ocean, so that they might be carried out and forgotten. This ceremony is known as Tashlikh ("you shall cast" in Hebrew).

The seashore, a river or flowing brook, or even a well of spring water, may serve the purpose, but not a pool or any stagnant water. The later rabbis required that the water should have fish, which serve the purpose of reminding us that we are like the fish caught in the net — weak, helpless, and subject to the many ills that beset us in life.

The symbolic nature of the ceremony is quite obvious. The consciousness of sin and the regret for the commission of sins become very keen on the Day of Remembrance (another name for Rosh Hashanah). One hopes and prays that in deciding his fate for the coming year, God will overlook his shortcomings and failings during the past year. By sending his sins away on the bosom of the ocean or the flowing stream, he figuratively expresses his desire that they might disappear from the sight of God and might not serve as a deterrent in the way of his gaining the favor of Providence.

We find occasional references in the bible to the custom of holding prayer meetings at the waterside, and these references are multiplied in post-biblical literature. According to Philo,[2] the shore of the river is the most appropriate spot for prayer, since this is the "purest place." Josephus[3] quotes a decree which permitted the Jews f Halicarnassus "to have their places of prayer by the seaside, according to the custom of their forefathers." More pointed is the remark found in the Zohar, a kabbalistic work of the thirteenth century, which says that "whatever falls into the deep is lost forever; it acts like the scapegoat for the absolution of sins."

It is doubtful, however, whether the custom of Tashlikh existed before the fourteenth century, as there is no mention of it in the Talmud or in any of the subsequent works to the time. It is first mentioned in the work of German rabbi Jacob Molin[4] who lived in the late fourteenth century. In his compilation of the customs of his generation and his land, Jacob Molin mentions the custom of Tashlikh and refers to the midrashic legend concerning the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. According to the legend, Satan, intent on thwarting Abraham's plan to follow the command of God and sacrifice his son, placed himself in front of Abraham in the form of a deep stream. Abraham and Isaac nevertheless plunged into the river and prayed for aid, whereupon the scream disappeared. While the sacrifice of Isaac is frequently alluded to in the prayers for Rosh Hashanah, the connection of Tashlikh with this legend seems far-fetched. Nor are the various explanations offered by later authorities more convincing.

Different communities introduced variations in the ritual, and many kabbalistic additions were made, especially among Eastern Jews; for example, in the added prayers arranged for the occasion, reference is made to the evil spirits (kelippot) created by the sins of the individual, which cling to one's garments and which should be shaken from them into the water. The custom of casting small pieces of bread upon the waters as food for the fish is already mentioned by Molin, who strove to discourage it. It was mainly due to the mystical elements added to the ceremony that many have opposed its practice, while others have tried to find in it traces of heathen superstitions. For most observant Jews, however, Tashlikh remains a purely symbolic act, emphasizing concretely the yearning to be cleared of sin and the hope that one may be forgiven.

footnotes [1] If the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on a Sabbath, the ceremony is performed on the second day. [Back]
[2] Philo (c.20 BCE — 50 CE), Alexandrian philosopher and exegete, interpreted the Greek version of the Torah (Septuagint) within the conceptual frameworks and methodologies of Hellenistic philosophy. Although Philo's impact on modern Jewish thinkers is minimal, his attempt to fuse Jewish and Greek culture makes him one of the most intriguing intellectuals of the ancient world. [Back]
[3] Josephus Flavius (c.38-100 CE), politician, soldier and historian, accompanied Vespasian and Titus during the siege of Jerusalem and later lived in Rome, where he wrote his famous books on Jewish history, The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. [Back]
[4] in Sefer Maharil by R. Ya'akov ben M-oshe ha-Levi Molin, known also as the Maharil (1360-1427) [Back]
excerpted From The Rosh Hashanah Anthology, JPS, 1993.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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