As a child I wondered how shaking out our pockets by the River Thames meant could possibly help to spiritually purify us? While a verse in Michah (7:19) hints to the idea as God “will return and grant compassion, hide our iniquities and cast (v’sashlich)all of their sins into the depths of the sea.” Tashlich is still shrouded in mystery and wonder.
Rashi (d. 1105) writes that the Geonim (589 CE to 1038 CE) would plant beans such as Egyptian Ful or other kitniyot two to three weeks before Rosh HaShannah. On erev Rosh HaShannah once it had sprouted they would wave it around their heads and say ‘zeh tachas zeh – this one instead of that one, zeh chalifasi – this is my exchange, zeh temurosi – this is my substitute’ (Shabbos 81b Hai Parpisa). It appears to be remarkably similar to the kapporos we perform shortly before Yom Kippur. Yet the last part of Rashi notes that once the sprouted beans had been waived seven times, they would throw them into the river.
The earliest record which refers directly to Tashlich is the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov Moelin, d. 1427) who writes that after the festive meal on Rosh HaShannah it was the custom to go down to the rivers or the sea to throw our sins into the deep waters (Sefer Maharil Laws of Rosh HaShannah 9).
The Rema also draws on a Midrash (Tanchuma Vayeira 22) which explains a deeper aspect to Tashlich. The Midrash states that when Abraham went with Isaac to perform the Akeidah, the Satan (accusing Angel) blocked his way with a river. Undeterred, Abraham entered the river and struggled on until the water reached his neck, at which point he cried out to God and was saved (see also Yalkut Shimoni Vayera 99).
The meaning behind this is very profound. The role of the Satan is to ensnare a person to sin. He can then take the evidence of this transgression to the Heavenly court for prosecution. The Gemara in fact relates the Yetzer HaRa (wicked, self serving inclination), the Satan and the Malach HaMaves (Angel of Death) to the same metaphysical force designed to test and indict us should we fail (Bava Basra 16a).
The Satan’s use of water is also significant as water absorbs and assimilates whatever is put into it. Abraham faced annihilation by entering the river and yet displayed tremendous faithfulness and loyalty to HaShem’s Word by continuing his mission.
On Rosh HaShannah we take the very symbol used by the Satan against our first forefather and empty the crumbs from our pockets – the remnants of our own indiscretions and spiritual failures – and throw them into the water to dissolve into nothing. While the Satan would aim to destroy us through our sins, we must be willing to do our best to continue undeterred despite the ordeals the Satan may throw at us. Even when we’re unsuccessful, provided that we are willing to learn from our mistakes, HaShem will dissolve our transgressions away, guiding us to an even greater connection with Him.