It’s a glorious late summer/early fall evening in Riverside Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The setting sun smiles like in a 6-year-old’s art-work, dappling the surface of the lazily flowing Hudson. Cottony clouds slowly turn crimson. And the park promenade is thronged four and five deep—with Jews.
Jews of all sorts: Orthodox gentlemen fresh in their suits despite the seasonal heat. Dads in bright yarmulkes, golf shirts and shorts. Women in sheitels, women in sundresses. Elderly in wheelchairs, babies in carriages, singles and couples, believers and scoffers.
All of these various flavors of Jewish are doing something we do but one time a year—practicing our religion together. We’re atoning; we’re expiating. We’re doing Tashlich, in which we cast away our sins, in the form of symbolic crumbs of bread, into a flowing body of water.
And are we ever atoning. There’s hardly a space on the railing above the river to perch and pitch, so the penitent wait patiently for their turn at peace and prayer. The water’s so clotted with sin-symbolic bread, it’s a veritable Crouton-On-Hudson.
Tashlich is performed on the first day of Rosh HaShanah (second if the first falls on Shabbat). And with its abundance of waterways––and Jews––New York City is Tashlich Central. Chasids throwing challah from the Williamsburg Bridge is classic NYC. Wendy Wasserstein writes about being moved by the incongruity of a crumb tossed into the Central Park boat pond. And I’m still struck by my first sight of the ritual as a child, on a Coney Island pier jutting far out in the ocean, with mostly Orthodox in holiday dress flinging bread bits, crowding out the anglers, a scene Ingmar Bergman might have filmed.
Something like Tashlich shows up in Nehemiah 8:1 “And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate” ostensibly to hear the Torah reading on Rosh HaShanah. The name itself is derived from the verses we recite while performing the ritual, Micah 7:18–19 “Who is a God like You . . . And You cast (v’tashlich) into the sea all their sins.”
However, the Talmud makes no mention of the practice. Surprisingly, the custom appears first not in ancient times, but in the Middle Ages, in the writings of the Rabbi Jacob Molin of Germany, known as the Maharil. He ties the emerging custom of, after Rosh HaShanah lunch, going to a body of water, preferably one with fish, to shake one’s garments free of symbolic sin to a midrash on the binding of Isaac, which we read on the second day.
Allen Schwartz, senior rabbi of Congregation Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side retells the midrash: “On his way to sacrifice Isaac, Satan appeared and questioned Abraham. “Are you sure about this? Is your wife OK with it? Didn’t you wait a long time for this child? Won’t people say you’re a murderer?’ Abraham was undeterred. So Satan turned himself into a body of water. Abraham walked into the water, praying the whole time, and it came up to his neck. ‘If I don’t sanctify your name, who will?’ And God heard and dried up the water.”
Other medieval scholars made additional connections to water, especially regarding fish. Rabbi Moses Isserles (known as the Remah) comments that fish symbolize God, as they have no eyelids, thus are all-seeing. His student, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe (the Levush), adds that fish get caught in nets, not unlike the net of sins we are entrapped in and must repent to escape, “a symbolic representation of the sin we acquire,” notes Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a Talmud professor at Yeshiva University.
More importantly, from King David on, Jewish kings are crowned on the banks of a river, the waters symbolizing the ever-flowing passage of one generation to the next. In the pith of Ecclesiastes 1:4, “One generation goes, another comes, but the earth abides forever.”
Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founder and director of ReclaimingJudaism.org, calls the medieval observance of Tashlich “apotropaic, meaning ritually derived from the early human concept of warding away evil spirits within and beyond us.” No wonder the custom garnered detractors. Not only did it look weird to the gentiles, but it threatened to substitute superstition for genuine repentance.
Jewish leaders in late 19th and 20th-century America were no less apprehensive about the custom than their medieval European counterparts, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. True Judaism was rational and ethical, and Tashlich seemed embarrassingly primitive.
But as an appreciation of the beauty and power of ritual increased, Tashlich “morphed from a folk practice of Orthodox Jews to being a ritual of community that brought Jews of all denominations together to meet each other and be with members of the community they don’t see during the year. The idea that Rosh HaShanah should unite the varied members and denominations of the Jewish community should be applauded.”
Rabbi Blech agrees. “Seeing so many different types going to the river and publicly identifying as Jews is a reassuring social experience.”
But this waterside outing is no picnic. The task of Tashlich runs river-deep.
Again, Rabbi Schwartz on that midrash: “Satan is all in Abraham’s mind. The midrash is about all of the excuses we make. And basically what we’re doing when we look out at the water on Tashlich, is deciding, if God wanted me to get to the other side, how would I get there?”
“Water is also a metaphor for Torah as Divine Word,” adds Rabbi Milgram. Yes, but as Rabbi Dr. Avi Zivitovsky of Bar-Ilan University observes, “The Talmud notes that water is reminiscent of humility since it always flows to the lowest level.”
Even more humbling, you can drown in it. Water truly is a matter of life and death.
Throw in bread (literally), the staff of life, without which for Jews, a meal literally isn’t a meal (thus necessitating the traditional blessings afterwards) and the tradition takes on even more power.
The modern wrinkle on the custom is less apotropaic (“Sins! Be gone!”) and more about responsibility, both individual (“I’ve done these wrongs. But I can and will change.”) and communal (“We’re all different. But we’re all together. Here. To do God’s work.”) No wonder this medieval ritual speaks to contemporary Jews, with its potential to transform a body, a soul, a community. Even with a little schmoozing.
So I approach the river, bread crumbs in hand. To my left, a yeshiva student shuckles metronomically. To my right, a young woman in a flowing skirt is a study in stillness. I’m filled with tenderness for them both, for us all and sorrow at the imperfectability of my person. One by one, I release the crumbs, my ego, my half-truths, my thoughtlessness, my vanity, my selfishness. And as the current carries the crumbs, I notice my sins look a lot like yours. Pondering my imperfectability, I add a few drops of saltwater from my eyes to that fresh watery soup of sin symbolic. I take the final few crumbs and throw with the flow, praying the mistakes of generations past will buoy the promise of generations to come and hoping to channel the strength of Abraham to remain fully immersed in my community and my faith.
Jeff Yablonka is a writer living and working on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.