The popular Rosh Hashana tashlich ritual is a tradition that is dear throughout the many diverse Jewish communities. Tashlich literally translates as “You will throw.” But what, exactly, is it?

Tashlich is meant to be a symbolic physical representation of casting away an individual’s sins. As the ritual is performed a selection of Psalms and supplications are read, and Micah 7:18-20 is repeatedly recited: “Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and forgiving transgression to the remainder of His heritage. He retains not His anger forever, because He delights in kindness. He will again have mercy on us. He will suppress our iniquities; yes, You will cast our sins into the depth of the sea.”

The reference in Micah “into the depth of the sea” appears to be the source for the custom of reciting tashlich next to a body of water, such as a lake or a river (or an ocean, of course), in which fish live. As long as a person can see the water, even from a distance (even by climbing to the rooftop of a building), tashlich may be recited.

Tashlich is usually performed in the late afternoon on the first day of Rosh Hashana. However, if a person is unable to do tashlich at that time, the ceremony may be performed until Hoshana Rabbah. If the first day of Rosh Hashana is on Shabbat, Ashkenazim wait until the second day.

Although descriptions of tashlich often include the casting of bread crumbs, feeding wild animals is, according to many opinions, prohibited on Shabbat and on holidays. The casting of bread is a poetic physical expression of tashlich, but is not necessary for the ceremony. This custom may have evolved from the Chassidic custom of intentionally shaking off crumbs to represent casting away sins.

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