A Very Curious Custom

An Entry to the Nahal Be’er Sheva. Beersheba, Israel. Photo by Gershon Ben-Avraham.

Many unique and fascinating customs appear during the ten days beginning on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Collectively, the days are known as the “Ten Days of Repentance,” “The High Holydays,” or “The Days of Awe.” Some examples of customs followed in my household include the eating of round challah, not braided. The slices of challah are dipped in honey, not salt, as usual. As part of our dinners on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah, we also eat “omens” – symbolic foods. Examples of omen foods include fenugreek or carrots, leek or cabbage, beets, pomegranate. Special prayers are said before the eating of each food. Often, you can elicit the food’s symbolism by understanding the prayer said for it.

Of course, there is no one set of customs followed by all Jews. But of all the ones I follow, the one I enjoy the most is called “Tashlich.” When possible, tashlich is performed in the afternoon, before sunset, of the first day of the new year – Rosh HaShana. If that day is a Sabbath, tashlich is performed on the second afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. You can complete the ritual even later. This year, I did it after Rosh Hashanah, before Yom Kippur. If necessary, you can perform it up until the last day of Succos. Last year, I could not do it at all since there were limitations on the distance one could walk, and where I like to do it was outside the boundary.

To perform tashlich, you go to a body of water, usually a spring or a river, sea or ocean, although it can also be performed at a well. It is best if the water contains fish. Water, in this instance, represents kindness; fish signifies always having “an open eye.” According to the custom I follow, I recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy at the water, followed by Psalm 33, a verse from Isaiah, a prayer, and Psalm 19:15. 

The prayer contains the following request to God: Cast all our sins into the depths of the sea, and bestow upon us from them the bounty of deliverance and mercy. [Chabad, Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, p. 292]. I then shake out the corners of my small tallis, the one I wear under my shirt. Next, and not everyone does this, even among those in my particular community, I cast bread into the water. The bread symbolizes my sins over the past year.

As you might suppose, there are not many natural bodies of water available in Beersheba, the gateway to the Negev desert. But there is a special one, a perfect one, and I love it. It is called Nahal Be’er Sheva. The Nahal Be’er Sheva is a wadi. It is very narrow and shallow in the summer but fills with water and widens in the rainy season. 

The Nahal Be’er Sheva. Photo by Gershon Ben-Avraham.

After walking down to the wadi, I moved into the shade provided by a bridge over the it to perform tashlich out of the direct sun. I recited the prescribed prayers, shook the corners of my small tallis, and tossed my sins into the stream. 

My sins (white specks of bread floating on the water) being washed away.

Of all the rituals I perform in a year, to me, this one is by far the most meaningful. In it, I put my old sins behind me, cast them away, if you will, and look forward to starting my new year fresh and with a firm desire to amend my shortcomings, well, at least to sincerely try to do so.

Small waterfall, Nahal Be’er Sheva. Photo by Gershon Ben-Avraham.

Here is a delightful story from S. Y. Agnon’s book Days of Awe, a collection of reflections for this time of year. He records it in the section “The Afternoon: The Casting.” He calls it “A Curious Custom” and identifies Masae Yisrael, travels by Israel ben Joseph Benjamin (Benjamin the Second), 19th century, as its source.

I saw a very curious custom in practice among the Jews of Kurdistan. On Rosh ha-Shanah they all go to a river that flows at the foot of a hill, and say the prayer of the Casting. Afterward they all jump into the water and swim around like the fish of the sea, instead of only shaking the hems of their clothing on the bank of the river, as our brothers the children of Israel do in Europe. And when I inquired of them the reason for this curious custom, they answered that by this act they are purified of all their sins, for the waters of the river wash away all the sins they have committed during all the past year.

From Days of Awe, S. Y. Agnon, p. 98.

It was hot the day I did my Casting. Oh, how I would have loved, like Benjamin’s Jews of Kurdistan, to “jump into the water and swim around like the fish of the sea.”

Whenever your new year arrives, and wherever you are, may you enter it whole, healthy, and burning with a desire to grow, to make yourself and this world a better place.

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

3 thoughts

  1. Years ago I liberated my father’s copy of “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore”, edited by Nathan Ausubel (Crown, 1948). Its pages are dried out at the edges, but the stories are still fresh, Your essay reminded me of one of them “The Water-Spirit”, which is too long to share here and too good to shorten. I will work on sending it to you by email. In the meantime, g’mar chatimah tovah. Thank you again for your work.

    Liked by 2 people

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