Every year shortly before sunset on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews around the world gather next to a body of water where they recite certain prayers, followed by a symbolic shaking out of our pockets. This is the ancient custom known as “Tashlich,” which means “casting off” in Hebrew,a symbolic way of casting off the sins of the previous year. Just as the water carries away the crumbs or lint, so too are sins symbolically carried away, to start the New Year with a clean slate.
The earliest known source for Tashlich appears in the writings of the Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov Moelin (Germany, 1365-1427). He claims this custom is based on the three last verses of the Book of Micah, which we say at Tashlich: “Who is a G d like You, pardoning iniquity and forgiving transgression to the residue of his heritage. He retains not His anger for ever, because He delights in kindness. He will again have mercy on us. He will suppress our iniquities; and You will cast (tashlich) our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:19)
Over time the custom was adopted by many Ashkenazic communities. After Arizal added a Kabbalistic component to the ceremony, it eventually spread to Sephardic communities as well.
Why Next to Water?
As the custom evolved over time, more reasons were revealed for going specifically to water:
• In Yalkut Shemoni (Vayera 99), the story is told that when Avraham and Yitzchak were on the way to perform the Akeidah, they were confronted by the Satan, who attempted to block their path with a river. Avraham plunged into the river, which reached up to his neck, and then recited Psalms 69:2: “Save me, O God, for water has come up to my soul.” In response, God dried up the “river” so that they could proceed. According to some, this episode occurred on Rosh Hashanah. Tashlich serves to invoke the merits of Avraham and Yitzchak.
• The Rema explains that when one goes to the river or sea and observes the majesty of G-d’s creation, he is struck by the glory of G-d as Creator of the world. This will cause the person to regret any misdeeds, and G-d will thus forgive his sins, which will then be “thrown into the depths of the sea.”
• Rosh Hashanah is the day when we coronate G-d as King of the Universe. Jewish kings were traditionally anointed next to rivers to symbolize that the new king’s reign should have continuity, just as a spring flows continually. Therefore, we also crown G-d as our King next to a river.
• Water often contains fish. As they are covered by the water, fish are not susceptible to the negative energies of the “evil eye.” Furthermore, fish do not have eyelids, so their eyes are always open. This reminds us of the “ever-watchful eye” of G d, and just as fish may be caught in a net, so, too, we are caught in the net of judgment. This awareness helps arouse repentance.