It was the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5776, and Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum had just concluded leading his congregation in services. As he was about to announce that tashlich would take place in the small, artificial pond outside, his son, Yossi, entered the shul with some unfortunate news.
The fish were gone.
“It’s such a bizarre story,” said Rosenblum, spiritual leader of Chabad of the South Hills. “I had put two goldfish in our little pond before yom tov. We’ve been doing this for four years. They were alive and well in the morning, in the pond, swimming in a fish bowl that I had put them in for their safety. When Yossi went out, the bowl was gone, and the fish were nowhere.”
Someone obviously had stolen the fish.
“I just hope the anti-kaporos people aren’t after us,” Rosenblum joked.
But it was no joke to worshippers who are accustomed to performing the ritual immediately following services on the holiday.
“My initial unverbalized response was, ‘What the … ?’” said congregant Nonna Neft of Upper St. Clair. “Truly, who would think to steal fish from a little garden pond?”
Tashlich is a ritual embraced by Jews of all ages and denominations, providing a tactile reminder of the process of letting go of the qualities in the past that we no longer wish to possess and the chance to start fresh, with a renewed soul.
The custom is for Jews to toss crumbs or shake the corners of their garments into bodies of water between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, symbolically casting off their sins to the water itself or to be consumed by fish that then swim away.
Fish are an essential part of the tashlich ritual, according to Rosenblum, because they are the only creatures that survived Noah’s flood and are “considered to have not sinned in any way, not even in any fish way.”
After Rosh Hashanah concluded, Rosenblum reviewed surveillance videos captured by the security cameras that are set up around the building on McFarland Road. He found no clues as to the culprit.
“The pond is right outside the range of the cameras,” he said. “I was really hoping when I reviewed the cameras I would have been able to see who did it.”
Although it is preferable to conduct tashlich on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, it is permitted to perform the ritual any time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rosenblum said. He, his family, and his congregants had to make alternative plans this year.
“We are going to do our own tashlich,” Neft said, adding she and her family would be performing the ritual either at the creek by the Upper St. Clair post office or the lake in Cedarhurst in Mt. Lebanon.
As for next year, Rosenblum is hoping for a better tashlich outcome.
“I want to have a real pond next year, connected to a source of water,” he said. The fish then could be placed directly into the pond and would be more difficult to steal.
“Everything happens by divine providence,” Rosenblum continued. “What happened here is an example. Now we have an impetus to put in a proper pond and to do tashlich in a more proper way.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.