Intriguing Secrets Of Tashlich On Rosh HaShanah – Cleansing One’s Sins

At first glance, Tashlich appears to be a tradition with origins not much older than the medieval era.

This assumption is partly because neither the Talmud nor the writings and correspondences of the Geonim make mention of it. However, despite the sparse historical record, there are elements of this custom that suggest it has deeper, more ancient roots.

I know we are far from Rosh Hashanah, but this is an important topic, which I’d like to leave published for future reference.

The earliest explicit reference to Tashlich is found in the writings of the Sefer Maharil (1365-1427), who explains the custom as derived from a Midrash. According to this tradition, after the Rosh Hashanah meal, people go to seas or rivers, symbolically casting their sins into the water depths.

This act is inspired by the Midrash recounting Avraham Avinu entering a river up to his neck, imploring Hashem’s salvation from the metaphorical waters (representing the Sitra Achra or evil forces) that threatened to overwhelm him as he set out to fulfill the commandment of the Akeidah.

Tashlich

This practice of visiting bodies of water on Rosh Hashanah invokes the merit of Avraham Avinu, whose faith remained unshaken even when faced with deep and tumultuous waters, metaphorically representing the Samech Tet’s attempts to deter him.

The language used by the Maharil suggests that by his time, the custom had already been well established, though its exact origins remain unclear. While we may not know precisely when Jews began the practice of Tashlich as it is observed today, historical documents indicate that the act of praying near water has venerable precedents. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov emphasized a lot praying the fields because “the blades of grass and trees give you strength. This is because each living creature is governed by an angel that “tells it to grow”, as our sages teach. Presumably, rivers, which also have their angels (as many of them are worshipped), could also give one strength.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher from Egypt who lived shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple, noted that Alexandrian Jews would pray by the seashore during times of distress. Similarly, the early Christian writer Tertullian (160-220 CE) mentioned that Jews held prayer gatherings by the sea or riverbanks.

Additionally, Josephus (in “Antiquities” ch. 14, 10:23) records a proclamation from the city of Halicarnassus affirming Jews’ right to conduct prayers near water, stating:

“We have decreed that Jewish men and women who wish to do so may observe their Shabbat and perform their sacred rites according to Jewish law, including praying by the seaside, in keeping with their ancestral traditions. Should anyone, be it an official or a private citizen, obstruct them, they will face a fine for the benefit of the city.”

These accounts collectively underscore the longstanding significance of water in Jewish ritual and prayer, hinting at the ancient roots of the Tashlich custom.

The Tashlich according to the Geonim

In the writings of the Gaonim, there’s an intriguing description of a custom where individuals crafted baskets from palm leaves, filled them with soil and manure, and planted them with Egyptian lentils or peas about twenty-two or fifteen days before Rosh Hashanah. Each household made one for every boy and girl, calling these baskets “porpissa.”

As they grew, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, everyone would take their basket, circle it over their head seven times while reciting, “This instead of this, this in place of me, this in my stead,” before casting it into the river.

Delving deeper, the Beit Meir (ch. 583) traces the roots of Tashlich even further back, connecting it to an event in Sefer Shmuel. After the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and were struck by a plague, they returned it. Shmuel the prophet then urged the Jews toward repentance to end the Philistine threat, leading to a significant moment at Mizpah where the people collectively expressed their repentance by drawing and pouring water before the Lord, fasting, and acknowledging their sins.

The Targum interprets this act of pouring water as a metaphor for their heartfelt repentance, while Rashi offers a more literal interpretation, suggesting the act symbolized their humility and submission before Hashem. This story may represent the earliest connection to the Tashlich tradition.

Furthermore, the Rashban (Rav Shlomo Tzvi Shick, a student of the Maharam Shick) identifies additional biblical instances linking Rosh Hashanah with water, notably in Sefer Nechemiah. The text describes the Israelites observing Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot after rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, specifically mentioning Ezra the Scribe reading the Torah next to the water gate.

The Rashban views this as no mere coincidence but as a precursor to the Tashlich custom. He draws parallels between this and other instances where water symbolizes continuity and smooth transition, such as Shlomo’s anointment as king by a river, to argue that gathering by water on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes our collective acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty.

These historical and scriptural references help us in understanding the depths of Tashlich, suggesting that while the precise origins of the custom as practiced today might be medieval, the symbolic act of using water as a medium for repentance and renewal has ancient roots in Jewish tradition. I’d venture to say being next to a body of water while praying might enhance the act.

The point of contention

Originally, the practice of Tashlich was primarily observed within Ashkenazi communities.

However, it began to spread among Sephardi Jews, significantly influenced by the dissemination of the Arizal’s customs across the Middle East. A key factor in this expansion was Rabbi Chaim Vital’s “Shaar Hakavonot,” which commends the Tashlich custom of the Ashkenazim. He describes the practice of going to a sea, spring, or well of living water just before sunset on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after Mincha, as a “beautiful tradition”, suggesting it ideally occurs outside the town.

Rabbi Chaim Vital’s preference for conducting Tashlich away from populated areas may have had mystical reasons. However, “Sefer Minhag Yisrael” proposes that there might also be a historical rationale. There was a fear among non-Jews that Jews might be poisoning the water sources. Such baseless accusations led to pogroms during the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century. Similarly, in 1645, such suspicions fueled an attack on the Jewish community of Mogilev, Belarus, during Tashlich.

DALL·E 2024 03 06 17.52.42 An ancient Jewish boy in authentic detailed ancient garb reflective of historical accuracy and cultural heritage. He walks through a timeless villag

This historical context is further complicated by the experiences of Kurdish Jews, who faced Muslim opposition to another Rosh Hashanah practice: the blowing of the shofar. The traveler Yisroel Yosef Benjamin, in his book “Eight Years in Africa,” recounts the persecution faced by Jews in Rowandis, where the sacred act of shofar blowing during Rosh Hashanah led to violent incursions into synagogues, attacks on women, and the destruction of the shofar.

Such hostility towards the shofar was not isolated to Rowandis but was a broader issue in Kurdistan. Erich Brauer, in “The Jews of Kurdistan,” notes that Kurdish authorities in some areas still prohibited shofar blowing, possibly fearing its use in magic. He documents that in Zebar, Jews were forced to perform this mitzvah secretly in caves, highlighting the lengths to which communities went to preserve their traditions in the face of adversity.

These narratives underscore the complexities and challenges Jewish communities have faced in observing their rituals and customs. Despite external pressures and threats, the practice of Tashlich and the blowing of the shofar have endured, illustrating the resilience and dedication of these communities to their faith and traditions.

I believe that, at its core, Tashlich is a physical manifestation of an inner desire to renew, to shed the weight of past sins as we stand on the cusp of a new year, hopeful and reflective. This ancient practice, crystallized in medieval times yet pulsates with relevance today.

We probably give more meaning to it than it originally has since there are so few allusions to it in scripture, but nevertheless, it is indeed what is makes it potent.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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