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Parshas Rosh Hashanah (5771)

Tashlich Lessons

“Gonna take my family to do Tashlich
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I’m gonna take my family to do Tashlich
Down by the riverside
Ain't gonna sin no more….”

One of the very special customs observed by Jews from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities since medieval times is the Tashlich ritual.

On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, after Minchah, it is customary to go to a body of water – preferably one that contains fish – and recite the Tashlich prayer. Tashlich comes from the Hebrew word meaning "to cast". In this prayer, which comes from the Book of Michah (7:18-20), the Jewish people ask G-d “to cast into the depths of the sea all their sins”.

If no such body of water is within walking distance - or if the first day of Rosh Hashanah is on Shabbos, when Tashlich is not said – it may be recited on the second day, or even after that, up until the end of the holiday of Sukkos.

Upon concluding the Tashlich prayer, it is customary to shake the corners of one’s clothes (for males, this is usually done with the corners of the tallis katan –the tzitzis garment). (This symbolizes our desire to “shake out” all the “dust” and “dirt” that we might have picked up throughout the year, and serves as a reminder of our resolve to stay “spiritually clean” throughout the coming year.)

There are many reasons given for reciting Tashlich near a body of water. Here are a few of them:

1) When Abraham and Isaac went to the Akeidah (see Genesis 22:1-19) as G-d had commanded them, the Satan tried to prevent them from getting there by creating a raging river which blocked their path. Abraham entered the river undeterred, and when the waters reached his neck, he cried out, “Save me, G-d, for the waters have reached my soul” (Psalms 69:2), whereupon the waters miraculously disappeared. Thus, by praying at the water’s edge, we recall the devotion and merit of the Patriarchs and imply that we desire to emulate them.

2) In the olden days it was customary to coronate a new king by the river as a symbol that his kingship should continue to flow like the river. On Rosh Hashanah we crown God as the King and Ruler of the world, so it is appropriate that we stand next to a river, as well.

3) Water represents the attribute of kindness (since without water nothing can grow, it is the ultimate benefactor) so we stand near the water on Rosh Hashanah to beseech G-d that He bestow only kindness upon us for the coming year.

4) The fish in the water remind us that our time on earth is precious and should be taken seriously - because one never knows when his end will come – just as fish get caught in the fisherman’s net and never see it coming. As King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes (9:12): “For man does not even know his hour: Like fish caught in a fatal net, like birds seized in a snare, so are men caught in the moment of disaster when it falls upon them suddenly”. This awareness should arouse us to repent and make positive changes in our lives now – before it’s too late.

Some have the custom to bring pieces of bread along with them to Tashlich and to throw them to the fish in the water. It is not clear what the source is for this custom – or if it is even halachically permissible to feed fish on Yom Tov (see Machatzis HaShekel in Orach Chayim 583:5). But, as they say, “Minhag Yisrael Torah – a Jewish custom is like the Torah itself” - so who am I to say anything.

On a lighter note, there are those who have suggested “personalizing” the Tashlich by throwing different types of bread into the water based on what types of sins were committed. Here’s a partial guide that I took off the internet which you might find useful:

For ordinary sins, use - White Bread
For exotic sins - French Bread
For particularly dark sins - Pumpernickel
For twisted sins - Pretzels
For tasteless sins - Rice Cakes
For sins of indecision - Waffles
For sins committed in haste - Matzah
For sins committed in less than eighteen minutes - Shmurah Matzah
For sins of chutzpah - Fresh Bread
For being sulky - Sourdough
For telling bad jokes - Corn Bread
For being holier-than-thou - Bagels
For unfairly up-braiding others - Challah
For the sin of laziness - Any Very Long Loaf
For pride - Puff Pastry
For dropping in without calling beforehand - Popovers
For singing off tune - Flat Bread
For substance abuse/heavy drugs - Poppy Seed

All kidding aside, there is another, lesser-known reason for reciting Tashlich near a body of water that I would like to share with you:

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the famous 18th-century Italian philosopher and Kabbalist otherwise known by his Hebrew acronym Ramch”al, explains the custom as follows: It is a fundamental Jewish belief that on Rosh Hashanah we are judged for actions of the previous year, and that G-d “erases” the sins we have committed and wipes them away forever – that is, if we’ve done a proper teshuvah (repentance). We thus remind ourselves on Rosh Hashanah of this amazing gift of teshuvah that G-d gave us – the ability to repent and come totally clean from all the bad stuff we might have done in the past as if we had never done it – by going to a body of water which, by nature, has the ability to submerge things in it, gone from the world as if they never existed.

This is really the most important lesson we can take with us into Rosh Hashanah this year: For us to be able to do proper teshuvah and change the way we want to, we need to believe in the possibility of real teshuvah. G-d promises us that if we sincerely regret our mistakes and take concrete steps to make sure we don’t repeat them, along with an oral confession of our sins before G-d – all basic components of the teshuvah process – then He will erase those sins completely and give us a fresh new start.

Maybe because it’s so hard for many of us to believe that teshuvah actually works to rid us of our sins forever, the Tashlich prayer at the water’s edge is so necessary to remind us that is does. As President Obama is fond of saying, “Yes we can!”…. Yes, we can change our ways and get rid of our past mistakes as if they never existed. But only if we believe that we can.

SHANAH TOVAH U’MESUKAH! HAVE A GOOD AND SWEET NEW YEAR!

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