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Tashlich: What to ponder before visiting the pond

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The tashlich prayer at a Tel Aviv beach during Rosh Hashanah. (Flickr/Sa'ar Ya'acov, GPO/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, Jews gather at nearby streams or bodies of water to perform the ritual of Tashlich. Prayers are recited and sins are symbolically tossed into the depths. Some people even shake out the hems of their clothing while others toss breadcrumbs into the waters. In order to make your outing more meaningful, here are some sites to visit first.

Tashlich means “You will cast away.” Although the current tradition dates only to the 14th century, the practice is probably based on much earlier verses from the Book of Michah. God “will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Water plays a significant role in Jewish tradition. It is “seen as symbolic of the creation of the world and of all life. Kings of Israel were crowned near springs, suggesting continuity, like the King of Kings’ unending sovereignty. Since the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel each received revelation near a body of water, it was seen as a place to find God’s presence. As the element of purification, water also represents the opportunity to cleanse the body and soul and take a new course in our lives.”

 

Performing the Ritual of Tashlich in Tel Aviv

As the Orthodox Union site points out, “Tashlich is NOT a hocus-pocus magical method for ridding oneself of sins. It’s just not that simple. … One cannot go to the waterside, say some p’sukim [verses] … and walk away with a clean slate – without some hard, real repentance.” Print out the same page for the full text of the tashlich service or go to Sefaria for one with an English translation. And the generous folks at RustyBrick have created a free Tashlich app for iOS and Android. (Handy if you are going to a stream on a weekday.)

Even if you don’t live near the depths of the sea, you can perform your tashlich near almost any body of water, preferably one that has fish living in it. Why fish? As the Orthodox Union site explains, “just as fish are protected by the water in which they live, we pray to be protected by God. Also, just as fish swim freely and can suddenly be caught in a net, so too we can just as helplessly fall into the net of sin. And even as the eyes of fish are always open, so do we pray that God too will keep vigilant watch over his people.”

“So what happens to the fish? Don’t they die from eating everyone’s sins?” Such were the questions from a perplexed, six-year-old Amichai Lau-Lavie when he paid his first visit to his “Holy Fish Pond.” In Breadcrumbs and Magic, he has written a charming memoir of what it was like – and about the importance of the ritual. Elsewhere, you can read about the trials of tribulations of a mother whose daughter was quite selective about which sins she threw away at her first tashlich.

 

Tashlich read with music – Rabbi Chayim B. Alevsky

And what if you just don’t have a stream (let alone one with fish) nearby? Here’s what Jerusalem resident Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff does. “The most common practice is to recite tashlich alongside small backyard fish ponds stocked with a few inexpensive fish from a pet store.

Rabbi Hara Person and her family have made tashlich into a time of peace and forgiveness. Members of her family write down on a piece of paper something they regret having done over the past year. They show each other what they have written, and forgive each other. Then they throw the pieces of paper into a plastic tub filled with water and watch their misdeeds dissolve. “Forgiving and being forgiven enables us as a family to put the last year behind us, to grow, and to enter renewed into the new year.”

Although many sites refer to breadcrumbs being tossed in the water, others explicitly prohibit that practice. As Aish.com explains, “it is forbidden to feed the fish on Yom Tov.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow concurs but for a different, environmental reason. Bread crumbs “increase the organic content of our already endangered waters and thus encourage algae, etc., that use up oxygen. Indeed, one of the major aspects of tashlich can be [to confront] our misdeeds against the earth and all its winds and waters.”

 

The psychology of tashlich

Shelly Frier has a seasonal piece of advice: Wait a few days and take a hike! Although the tradition of tashlich is most closely associated with Rosh Hashanah, Frier points out that it can be performed until Hoshanah Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot. “So take your family out to water. Picnic by the sea, hike to a stream, or go canoeing if the weather is right. Don’t forget your siddur, and a pocket full of crumbs.”

 

To make everybody happy, let’s just toss those crumbs… metaphorically. That gives me the opportunity to provide you with a tongue-in-cheek look at the foods of tashlich. If you feel like using plain old bread lacks subtlety, nuance and religious sensitivity, then consider these pun-laden alternatives for your various indiscretions:

  • For sins of indecision: Waffles
  • For auto theft: Caraway
  • For sycophancy: Brownies
  • For davening off tune: Flat Bread
  • For sins committed in haste: Matzah
  • For causing injury or damage to others: Tortes
  • For marijuana: Stoned Wheat
  • For sins of pride: Puff Pastry
  • For unfairly upbraiding another: Challah
  • For gluttony: Pound Cake
  • For flaunting wealth in the form of fancy cars: Rolls
  • And… for rabbis whose sermons are too long: Shortn’n bread!

 

Shana Tova U’metuka!

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