Tashlich

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey Sept 2014

In the book of the prophet Nehemiah, we learn that “all the Jews gathered as one in the street that is in front of the gate of water.”  (Neh 8:1) We commemorate this moment at Rosh Hashanah (new year), when the whole community goes to a place of flowing water, and casts away pieces of bread there. This is to symbolise casting off our sins, and it is a time of joy. The text associated with the Tashlich ritual is:

Tashlich bimtzulot yam kol chatotam. “Hurl into the depths of the sea all our [lit. ‘their’] sins.” (Micah 7:19)

This is a time of celebration. It is also a ritual that contains much psychological wisdom, despite its apparent naivety. Nobody seriously thinks that they can walk away from the wrongs they have done. The teaching in the Talmud is clear that Yom Kippur is only about atonement for transgressions by human beings towards God. “For transgressions between one individual against another, the day of atonement procures no atonement.” Atonement is achieved only by making repair with the person who has been wronged. (Mishnah Yoma 87a) And atonement in relation to God comes through honest acknowledgement of sins, followed by prayer, returning to God, and making right all that we can.

The German poet, philosopher and playwright, Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) once wrote: Wage du zu irren und zu träumen, hoher Sinn liegt oft im kindischen Spiel – “Dare to wander and to dream; higher matters are often played out in children’s games.” So what could be happening in this gentle, seemingly playful Tashlich ritual to give it meaning and substance?

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, in his online essay The secret of tashlich: sinking your sin in the river, wrote:

“As long as people see themselves as bad, there is no hope that they will ever change. But if instead we view our sins as something external, something that’s not us, but rather a terrible burden that we are carrying through our lives, then we can think of ways to rid ourselves of them. To undo the wrong that we’ve done, to break unhealthy habits and to focus on how to become the people we really are. That, I believe, is the secret of tashlich … We have to understand that our sins are not us, but a burden we carry. And we’re tired of them. And just as we can cast off our sins symbolically, we can cast them off in reality – if we want to.”

This work is done through cheshbon ha nefesh – giving an account of our soul:

  • in the regular practice of mussar (spiritual discipline for developing ethical qualities)
  • at bedtime prayer (a daily ‘audit’)
  • in Elul  – the month when we reflect on where we have ‘missed the mark’ and wronged others, and then ask forgiveness and take concrete action to make reparation where we can
  • at Rosh Hashanah, and at Yom Kippur when we consider and confess all the many ways we have turned away from God, and make a conscious effort (physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually) to return.

I am grateful to Rabbi Orlofsky for his insight. Tashlich is a physical and psychological marker to remind us that we can change, that we can (and must) acknowledge, apologise, repair (where we can), not repeat our mistakes, let go of the burden of guilt, shame and paralysis, learn, move forward, and become better and do better.

The music of this Tashlich chant

This is a simple 2 part round based on a scale associated with the Yishtabach mode. The rhythms, and the gaps after ‘tashlich’ each time in the second part are intended to give the feeling of a short, sharp movement, as if hurling something away. I imagine people involving as much as possible of their bodies whilst singing this.

The movements

Stay in the circle, facing anti-clockwise.

  1. [Tashlich] Left foot step forward, out throwing motion with left arm, [bimtzu—-] right foot forward.
  2. [—lot] Left foot forward, bend forwards, hands moving towards the ground, [yam] right foot forward.
  3. [kol] Left foot step forward, straighten up, [chato—] right foot forward, arms sweep outwards to either side
  4. [—tam.] Left foot forward, bring right fist gently over heart. Right foot foward.
  5. [Tashlich] Left foot stamps forward, left arm throws outwards; right foot joins left foot.
  6. [Tashlich] Left foot stamps forward, left arm throws outwards; right foot joins left foot.
  7. [Kol] Left foot stamps forward, arms spread outwards, [chato—-] right foot joins left foot.
  8. [—tam.] Feet don’t move. Bring right fist gently over heart.

Start again.

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