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Excerpted from Celebrate!: The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook, reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1994 by Jason Aronson Inc.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, before sunset, Jews traditionally proceed to a body of running water, preferably one containing fish, and symbolically cast off (tashlikh) their sins. The ceremony includes reading the source passage for the practice, the last verses from the prophet Micah (7:19), “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
Selections from Psalms, particularly 118 and 130, along with supplications and a kabbalistic prayer hoping God will treat Israel with mercy, are parts of tashlikh in various communities. The custom developed around the 13th century and became widespread despite objections from rabbis who feared superstitious people would believe that tashlikh, rather than the concerted effort of teshuvah, had the power to change their lives. Religious leaders were particularly opposed to the practice of tossing bread crumbs, representing sins, the water, and even shaking one’s garments to loosen any evil clinging to them was discouraged.
Superstitious rites most likely did influence ceremony. Primitive people believed that the best way to win favor from evil spirits living in waterways was to give them gifts. Some peoples, including the Babylonian Jews, sent “sin‑filled” containers out into the water. (The Talmud describes the practice of growing beans or peas for two or three weeks prior to the new year in a woven basket for each child in a family. In an early variation of the Yom Kippur kapparot ritual, the basket, representing the child, was swung around the head seven times and then flung into the water.) Kurdistani Jews threw themselves into the water and swam around to be cleansed of their sins.
To make the practice symbolic rather than superstitious, the rabbis gave it ethical meaning. Through midrash, they connected the water with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. When Abraham was on his way to sacrifice Isaac, they said, Satan (which could be understood as the voice inside Abraham telling him not to kill his beloved son) tried to stop him. When Abraham refused to heed his voice, Satan became a raging river blocking Abraham’s way. Abraham proceeded nevertheless. When the water reached his neck and he called out for God’s help, the waters immediately subsided.
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