The Tashlikh Enigma

Three prominent rituals mark Rosh Hashanah: hearing the shofar, performing tashlikh, and eating the simanim (symbolic foods)—but only one of these is a commandment. There is no halakhic requirement to perform tashlikh or to eat apples and pomegranates; one who has heard the shofar, eaten the festive meals, and prayed at services, but neglected to throw bread into the river or eat a fish head, has fulfilled the obligations. 

Not only are tashlikh and the simanim not mitzvot, they are rather strange customs. Eating honey for a sweet new year and beets so that our enemies vanish—is this not strange superstition at best? Do we really think that by emptying our pockets into the river, we thereby empty ourselves of sin? Many sages, including the Vilna Gaon, strongly opposed Tashlikh for these reasons. Does partaking in these odd ceremonies really have any effect on our final judgment? Can it actually guarantee us a sweet and fruitful year? 

Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak – 13th century Provence) in his biblical commentary offers an intriguing suggestion. In the Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur, God tells Aaron to take two male goats, bring them in front of the tabernacle, and place lots on each of them. He is to mark one for God and one for Azazel. The former is sacrificed as a sin-offering. As for the latter, Aaron is told to lay his hands upon its head and confess over it the community's transgressions, transferring that guilt to the goat. The goat is then set free in the wilderness to carry off the sins. 

Does the scapegoat not sound a lot like tashlikh? Radak notes that, obviously, we cannot literally place our sins on the goat. Instead, it is all about the confession. The kohen must actively confess his sins while performing the goat ritual, and that confession is key; without it, the goat does not work. Generally, all sacrifices are invalid without a verbal component, and Radak applies this principle to the scapegoat. Without confession, it is meaningless. 

What, then, is the role of the goat? It is a powerful symbol. Engrossed in texts and ideas, we may not realize that symbols can have a profound effect. Psychologists have been studying symbolic behavior and symbolic interaction since the 1930s, and people have used symbols since ancient times. They can be so rich that they contain within them what words cannot express. Furthermore, they serve as concrete expressions of our thoughts. As Radak explains, the goal is the confession. But having an actual goat serve as a symbol externalizes and concretizes the casting away of sins. A real action and a real object are assigned to the kohen’s thoughts. It creates what psychologists at Notre Dame University called an “event boundary.” We compartmentalize our thoughts and feelings depending on when and where they took place; specific “events” can serve as “boundaries” separating them. These “event boundaries” make people likely to forget thoughts they had before that event took place. This was us before the scapegoat; this is us after. 

That is precisely the point of tashlikh. We spend much of the day praying and saying words about teshuvaTashlikh assigns a concrete action to those words. The Maharil (15th century Germany), among the earliest sources for Tashlikh, suggests it be done near a flowing body of water which has fish. The symbolism abounds. The water flows away, removing with it our sins much like the scapegoat took the sins of the community away; the fish eat our sins. If tashlikh is taken seriously, the act can have a profound effect on our ability to do teshuva: It distinguishes our actions in the previous year from our future actions in the coming year, separating them with an actual event boundary. 

This is also the meaning of the simanim. Rather than superstitious omens, they are foods packed with symbols. Eating them gives us an opportunity to focus deeply on our wishes for the coming year. Rather than just saying “let’s have a sweet year” as a throwaway line, through the yehi ratzon blessings, we give symbolic foods import, think about their meaning, and dwell on our wishes for the coming year. 

And perhaps that is why tashlikh and the simanim have become so integral to Rosh Hashanah that they, along with the shofar, have become known as the holiday’s core rituals. The shofar itself is such a symbol: Maimonides writes that the shofar blasts mean to say: “Wake up you sleepers from your sleep…Search your deeds and return in penitence!” The triumvirate of tashlikhsimanim, and shofar encourage us, through actions and event boundaries, to cast away the past, and enter the future with a new mindset. May we all have a Shanah Tovah U’metukah, a healthy, happy, and sweet new year. The future ahead of us is bright!

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