(September 18, 2023 / JNS)
Earlier this month, Royal Auction House in Toms River, N.J., sold an 1806 illustrated, handwritten Tashlich guide for $5,000. Last month, Appel Auction in New York offered but didn’t sell a 19th-century painting depicting the rite. Years prior, Kestenbaum & Company in New York sold an early 20th-century Austrian painting on glass of four men saying Tashlich for $8,000.
The Israel Museum owns a 1905 Tashlich lithograph by Polish artist Karl Felsenhardt, and the collection of New York’s Jewish Museum includes a 1984 abstract painting titled “Tashlich,” a 1955 Robert Frank photo “Yom Kippur-East River, New York City” and a 1989 image of an Ethiopian congregation performing Tashlich. The High Holiday’s rite returns 59 results on the National Library of Israel website and 70 on that of Washington’s Library of Congress.
These and other artful depictions of the High Holiday ritual, which are enjoyed, displayed and passed to future generations, at first appear contradictory. The rite symbolically casts out an individual’s sins—typically into a body of water with fish—and the idea of preserving the Jewish holiday version of a Marie Kondo purge seems to miss the point.
But the Tashlich ritual is about something deeper than purging, experts say.
“Tashlich is not about forgetting things or obliterating what we have done,” Shalom Carmy, who teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University, told JNS. “It is not a performance of willed amnesia. It is an expression of our plea for Divine mercy and forgiveness.”
Dismissing sins is different from forgetting those offenses, according to Carmy, who is also editor emeritus of the journal Tradition and a contributing editor at First Things.
Jon Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University who researches the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, told JNS that Tashlich is about neither decluttering, simplifying one’s life nor attaining joy.
“It is, rather, a symbolic enactment of repentance, a painful process that requires an unblinking confrontation with our own mortality and with our violations of the will of God,” Levenson said. “Such a confrontation is not fun, but it is an essential part of the traditional Jewish spiritual vision—whether Tashlich, a ceremony of apparently medieval European origin, is practiced or not.”
As part of this specific rite, worshippers stand before a body of water with fish, although in a pinch, one can recite the prayer before a dried-up river or even a bucket of water, per the Chabad website. The Hebrew name refers to “casting out” sins—perhaps in connection with Micah 7:19, which states, “And cast out (Tashlich) all of their sins into the sea depths”—and adherents cast pieces of bread, stones or other items into the water and shake out their pockets.
Many perform the ritual communally on the first day of Rosh Hashanah or the second day if the first is Shabbat. Rabbinic tradition prohibits feeding birds or ducks on the holiday, for those doing Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah.
The interfaith site 18Doors refers to the rite as “a fun outdoor tradition,” but many, who see social gatherings as antithetical to the spirit of the solemn rite or who have practical limitations, do Tashlich later on during the High Holidays.
Still others do not do Tashlich at all, perhaps because the custom risks trivializing the work of attaining forgiveness.
‘Shortcomings aren’t our identity’
Sholom Mimran, the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue Congregation Dor Tikvah in Charleston, S.C., told JNS that Tashlich is a confusing ritual “because as Jews, we don’t believe in quick fixes.”
“So what’s the point even?” Mimran said.
Over Rosh Hashanah, he heard an explanation that he found appealing: Tashlich makes sins seem external and easy to discard.
“The message being that our shortcomings aren’t our identity. This puts repentance into an easier perspective,” he said. “The irony of people misunderstanding Tashlich has meant people feeding fish.”
Ori Soltes, who lectures at Georgetown University and is a former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, told JNS that there is something “inherently paradoxical” in the way that Jews spend the 10 Days of Awe reflecting on errors committed the prior year, both against God and others.
“We don’t have original sin or even a proper word, much less a three-dimensional concept of hell,” he said. “Yet from Tashlich to the meaning of the Kol Nidre recitation, we are very comfortable wiping the slate clean and/or suggesting that God does that.”
If people cannot wipe the slate clean, “God will seal us by fire, drowning or whatever when the Great Book of Yom Kippur slams shut,” Soltes said.
“So the visual and other symbols are part of the process of helping the process by concretizing what is otherwise an abstraction,” he added. “We, who have such an abstract, intangible, invisible God-concept, need those visuals as tangibles of sorts to help us along.”