On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, observant Jews go to a river, lake or sea, or if those aren’t available, to a well, into which they ritualistically throw the contents of their pockets, and recite verses from Micah, Psalms and Isaiah. This custom is called tashlikh, literally “casting away:” It is a ritual casting away of one's sins so as to start the new year with a clean slate.
The word tashlikh comes from a verse in Micah: "Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (7:19).
But tashlikh is not an ancient custom derived from the Bible, or even the Talmud. (Absence of mention in these and other rabbinic writing over hundreds of years is tantamount to proof that the ritual didn't exist in ancient times, since the rabbis expounded on every minute detail of Jewish life.) The first mention of it appears in the medieval book Sefer Maharil, written by Rabbi Jacob Moellin of Mainz (1365 - 1425).
Over the subsequent centuries, the custom spread from Ashkenaz (roughly including today's eastern France and western Germany) to the rest of the Jewish world. It is not clear where it did originate, but we may find a pointer in commentary on the Talmud penned by Rashi (1040-1105).
Clues in Babylonian texts
Analyzing an obscure word in Shabbat 81b, the sage from Troyes wrote of a Rosh Hashanah custom he encountered in the writings of the Gaonim, the heads of the Babylonian Talmudic academies during the Abbasid Caliphate (approximately 600-1000 CE).
According to the Gaonim, Rashi wrote, it was a custom to "make packets from date fronds filled with soil and animal manure 22 or 15 days before Rosh Hashanah. Each man makes one for every boy and girl in his household. Then he plants a fava bean or a bean in each. They are called pufisa. Then they grow and on the night of Rosh Hashanah each [child] takes his own and twirls it around his head seven times, saying ‘this is in my stead, this for me.’ And then he throws it into the river."
It seems likely that this custom evolved into the tashlikh as Jews slowly migrated from the east and into Ashkenaz, so that by the time Rabbi Jacob Moellin encountered it, the packet of dung and fava beans had been forgotten, and only the sins, represented by the pockets' content, were thrown into the river.
But where did this custom come from? The Jews in the Near East seem to have adopted it from their Zoroastrian neighbors.
Zoroastrian fertility rite
Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Iran and one of the most popular religions in the Middle East before being supplanted by Islam, had, and still has in its surviving pockets, a strikingly similar fertility rite that its adherents perform in their New Year, Nowruz.
Several weeks before Nowruz, little packets of soil called sabzeh are prepared, in each of which a seed is planted, which sprouts in time for the holiday. The seedlings are placed on the holiday table. After the meal, they are kept for 13 days, and then in a ritual called Sizdah Bedar, the house's single women take the seedlings and throw them in a river while reciting, "Next year in the house of the husband with a child on my lap."
If the Jews really did adopt tashlikh from the Iranians, it could also explain the Rosh Hashanah customs of eating apples and honey, and fish (gefilte for Ashkenazi Jews, chraime for Sephardim). The Zoroastrians also have a custom of gracing the holiday table with apples, honey and live goldfish in a bowl.
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