Q. What is Tashlich?A. Tashlich is the tradition of casting sins into a flowing stream on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh HaShanah, or on the second day if the first is a Shabbat.
Standing near the water, we recite various verses centring upon Micah 7:19, “He will again have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”.
The custom was originally Ashkenazi and was later adopted by the Sephardim. It has no direct Biblical or Talmudic basis, but some link it with the binding of Isaac, the narrative read on Rosh HaShanah.
The Maharil (15th cent.) quotes the Midrash which says that Satan turned himself into a river to prevent Abraham reaching Mount Moriah, and hence Tashlich symbolises Abraham’s faith and determination and God’s protection.
Moses Isserles adds that the boundaries of the water and the dry land recall God’s Creation of the world, traditionally ascribed to Rosh HaShanah; he also remarks that the fish in the water, which are constantly on the go and prolific, symbolise our prayers for life and progeny.
The Levush says that man’s situation between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is like fish in a net, caught in the tension between life and death; but unlike the fish, man has a means, through God’s help, of averting an unpleasant destiny.
Tashlich became widespread, but not without some opposition, for example, from the Vilna Gaon.
Additional customs arose in various places, e.g. in Kurdistan people would jump into the water and swim; the Kabbalists would shake their garments to free themselves from the husks of their sins.
In Jerusalem and Tzfat, which are landlocked, it was customary from the 18th century to climb onto house roofs and look towards the Kinneret or the Dead Sea, though in modern Jerusalem people can make a pilgrimage to the pool of Shilo’ach, where the Gichon spring flows.
The Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher S’farim found that Tashlich enabled him to be “immersed in God’s beautiful world”: “Going to the stream on New Year’s day to cast our sins in the water… a very serious matter. But for me it turns out a pleasure jaunt. Saying my prayers, my eyes wander to the stream, to the green fields stretching on the other side far into the distance.
“I see the flowing stream, the proud geese swimming in it, a fresh little breeze blowing, and a willow tree dipping into the water. The sky is clear; there is a divine silence in the valley. Hills and woods all around. It tugs at your heart. God in heaven! I am enjoying myself. I am in raptures over God’s work.”
For us, Mendele’s words add another dimension to Rosh HaShanah: the opportunity, on the anniversary of Creation, to celebrate Creation and its Creator.