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,
the shore of the river is the most appropriate spot for prayer, since this
is the "purest place." Josephus
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."
is doubtful, however, whether the custom of Tashlikh
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
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.