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just add water: seeking forgiveness During Taschlich

09/04/2018 11:04:54 AM


Cantor Lauren Phillips Fogelman

When we perform Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, we literally cast the sins of the past year into a body of water. We represent our wrongdoings with pieces of bread. As we toss them into the dampness, we reflect upon the things we wish we had done better, promising to make improvements over the course of the coming year.

Tashlich is one of my favorite Jewish rituals because the ceremony is very open-ended. There are lots of opportunities for personalization and creativity. Tashlich can be done as a congregation or individually. It can involve fixed liturgy, silent meditation, or a combination of both. Texts can come from psalms or elsewhere in the Tanakh, from poetry, and from both sacred and secular sources. Just as we are the ones responsible for righting our wrongs, we also have the ability to choose how we ask for forgiveness.

Tashlich, which literally means “casting forth” has been practiced by Ashkenazic Jews since at least the fifteenth century and by Sephardic Jews since the sixteenth century. There is a biblical reference in the book of the late prophet Nehemiah (8:1) that may or may not refer to Tashlich, which states: "All the Jews gathered as one in the street that is in front of the gate of water." This gathering is thought to have taken place on Rosh Hashanah.

The name Tashlich is derived from the prophet Micah, who describes casting forth sins into the depths of the sea. Tashlich initially began as a folk custom and is not outlined in the Talmud; in fact, the rabbis initially objected to the practice. This may be why there is no set ritual for Tashlich, since these types of traditions evolved differently in various Jewish communities.

For me, Tashlich always stirs up memories of the various bodies of water I have used for this ritual. This gives me a broader canvas to reflect upon beyond just the events of the past year and enables me to review and improve upon a collective series of events in my life.

Growing up, I remember taking what seemed like an endless walk from my synagogue to a local duck pond. It wasn’t until I passed this pond along the walk from my middle school to Hebrew School that I discovered that it was a mere three blocks from the temple! Perspective is everything, and it changes significantly with age.

In college, my friend Talia and I would bike or walk from Tufts to the Mystic River. We did this for the first time early in our Freshmen year, and it was one of the milestones that solidified our friendship, which is still strong to this very day.

After graduation, my Tashlich moved across town to the Charles River. I was the only Jewish person in my class at The Boston Conservatory, and although my relationship with Judaism was not particularly strong at this point in my life, Tashlich was one of the things that I held onto. I would perform Tashlich alone, often paring it with a bike ride or rollerblade, taking the time to reflect and review. In Manhattan, I would buy a bagel on my way to the East River, sometimes bringing a friend along with me for the ride.

Ironically, doing Tashlich during my year in Israel was quite difficult. There are no flowing bodies of water in Jerusalem, and I didn’t have time to make the hour-long trip to Tel Aviv (though I can imagine that Tashlich on the Mediterranean could be quite beautiful and spiritual). Instead, we cast our sins into a fountain in the center of town, hoping that the abundance of bread sitting at the bottom of the well wouldn’t clog the drainage pipes! The only other problem with this version of Tashlich is that it is preferable – though not required – to do Tashlich in a body of water that has fish. Since fish have no eyelids, their eyes are constantly open. This symbolizes God's constant protective watch over the Jewish people. Just as fish are can be suddenly caught in nets, so too we are caught in the net of judgment for life or death. Such thoughts should arouse a person to repentance. In addition, we hope to be fruitful and multiply like fish.

I have since had the opportunity to perform Tashlich in beautiful Lake Michigan, the duck pond in Hartford’s Elizabeth Park, and will look forward to this year’s Tashlich on the mighty Hudson.

Although Tashlich typically takes place on Rosh Hashanah, we actually have until the last day of Sukkot – also known as Hoshana Rabah – to finish casting away our sins. This is the day when the gates officially close and the High Holy Day season comes to an end – until next year, of course.

Indeed, we are given many chances to ask for forgiveness throughout this season. Tashlich is perhaps one of the most tangible manifestations of Teshuva. The 19th-century Romanian-Jewish historian Israel Joseph Benjamin notes a curious custom he saw while visiting the Jewish community of Kurdistan: “On Rosh Hashanah they all go to a river that flows at the foot of a hill, and say the prayer of the Casting,” he wrote in hid book Masae Yisrael. “Afterward they all jump into the water and swim around like the fish of the sea, instead of only shaking the hems of their clothing on the bank of the river… when I inquired of them the reason for this curious custom, they answered that by this act they are purified of all their sins, for the waters of the river wash away all the sins they have committed during all the past year.”

As you cast your sins into the water this High Holy Day season, think of all the ways in which you can “come clean” – and make a promise to work towards a better future in the year to come.

Mon, August 8 2022 11 Av 5782