This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Into the Depths of the Sea: Tashlikh in Jewish Law and Lore*

Rosh Hashanah suffers from no lack of diverse prayers, laws and customs. I personally have a special fondness for the Tashlikh ceremony. Taking a brief respite from the long hours in synagogue and around the table, the community gathers in the afternoon at the Glenmore reservoir to enjoy some fresh air and to metaphorically divest ourselves of our sins. The widespread practice in most communities today is to turn one's pockets inside-out, jettisoning of some lint or, at most, a few crumbs that might be taken along for the occasion. The ceremony is symbolic of our determination to free ourselves from our sins and shortcomings during this special season.

The ritual of Tashlikh is not mentioned in either the Bible or the Talmud, and yet its origins are believed to go back to antiquity. Perhaps the earliest reference to it is preserved in a passage from Rashi's commentary to the Babylonian Talmud. In explaining an obscure talmudic word "parpisa" Rashi, basing himself on the writings of the Babylonian Ge'onim, describes a custom of filling baskets with beans during the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, rotating them over the heads of each family member to "absorb" their transgressions, and then casting the baskets into the sea. The practice, a variant on the familiar "kapparot" rite, indicates that the origins of the two customs are probably very close. Some scholars have connected the word "parpisa" with the Latin "propitio," propitiation.

As we have noted, current custom does not attach too much emphasis to the objects that are to be cast into the waters, nor for that matter to the precise bodies of water that are to be visited. Subject to availability, I have seen Tashlikh performed at anything from a beach to a well to a bathtub. The residents of Safed would stand on their rooftops facing the Sea of Galilee, whereas the Kurdish Jews did not feel suitably purified unless they actually jumped into the river.

Medieval writings present a decidedly different picture of the folk practice. In the popular consciousness it was crucial to bring along substantial quantities of foodstuffs, and some insisted on going directly from the dinner table with the remains of the festive meal. It was equally important to go to a body of water with visible fish, so that one could actively feed them. Watching the fish was perceived as an important element in the ceremony.

This concern for the precise fate or destination of the food does not seem relevant if our desire is merely to rids ourselves of our sins. Some modern scholars have therefore suggested, with some justifications, that the original practice had a different purpose, that of buying off the forces of evil whose abode was believed to lie in the depths of the sea and to whom the fish would eventually carry these "offerings." In this connection, several medieval authorities cite the midrashic tradition of how Satan took the guise of a river in order to prevent Abraham from sacrificing Isaac.

However most rabbis were scrupulous to avoid such mythic or superstitious explanations of the Tashlikh ritual, and discouraged the practices with which they were associated, particularly those which gave the appearance of feeding the demonic forces. They preferred to emphasize more orthodox motifs, like the casting away of sins, or of beholding God's greatness in the vastness of the sea. Several commentators dwell on the symbolism of the fish. Like the Almighty, their eyes never close. Like man, they are ever vulnerable to death's inexorable net.

As with much of Jewish practice, our tradition has provided here us with a set of powerful symbols which can be interpreted in an infinite variety of ways, and can therefore effectively convey their message to the hearts and minds of each and every one of us.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, Sept. 15 1993.

Bibliography:

  • Jacob Z. Lauterbach, "Tashlikh--A Study in Jewish Ceremonies," Hebrew Union College Annual 11 (1936) [Reprinted in: Rabbinic Essays].