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Does Tashlich Make Sense?

  1. Fixing Judaism

On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, many have the custom of walking to a natural source of running water and reciting the Tashlich prayers. The texts consist primarily of biblical passages, with many additional prayers added for the ambitious reciter. The name of the ceremony seems to come from the first biblical passage recited, which includes “And You will throw (ve-sashlich) all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19). How can we get rid of our sins so easily? Don’t we need to repent and undo, as much as possible, the damage we caused? Does God really allow us to toss away our evil actions?

In an 1868 critique of then-contemporary Judaism, a Maskil published an article arguing that we need to demythologize Judaism, remove the mysticism and superstitions, excise the overly strict rulings, and return to a rationalist religion based on Bible and Talmud. In an impolitic move, he called on the moderate rabbis of his time to take on this task of ridding Judaism of all its irrational extremism, among them Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern. By naming Rav Stern, the Maskil effectively forced him to respond. Rav Stern published a lengthy rebuttal, arguing with his characteristic encyclopedic breadth that the Maskil is way out of his depth, wrong on facts and incorrect in interpretation.

  1. Reasons for Tashlich

Tashlich is among the practices the Maskil opposed. Rav Stern replied in defense of the custom. Maharil quotes a midrash (TanchumaVayera 22) that Avraham and Yitzchak, on their way to the Binding, had to cross through a river placed in their path by the Accuser. By going to a river for Tashlich, we point to the persistence of our ancestors to fulfill God’s word, even in the face of significant obstacles.

The Shelah (Rosh Hashanah) finds significance in the fish, not the water. On the day of judgment, we are reminded of God’s constant oversight, just like fish always keep their eyes open. Additionally, ayin ha-ra, the evil eye, does not reach fish because they are underwater. We wish to achieve similar positive results in the upcoming year.

III. Symbolism of Water

Rav Stern offers his own explanations, based on his extensive knowledge of Bible and Talmud. He points out that many prophets and biblical figures acted near water — Yechezkel (Ez. 1:1), Daniel (8:2, 10:4), Ezra (8:15,21; Neh. 8:1-3, 12:37), Calev (Jud. 1:15), David (1 Sam. 29:1, 30:9). Bodies of water served as a gathering place for large crowds. Why would people gather near water?

Rav Stern’s suggestions include:

  1. Making a personal covenant with God – In the ancient world, people would establish covenants based on natural features (e.g. Gen. 31:52; Ta’anis8a).
  2. Symbolizing God’s sovereignty – Kings are anointed near a river (Horayos12a).
  3. Water represents abundance of blessing. Yeshayahu uses water to symbolize the redemption: “With joy you will draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isa. 12:3).
  4. People need to curb their otherwise endless desires, as it says, “All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full” (Ecc. 1:7).
  5. Water reminds us of the inevitability of death, as it says, “For we must surely die, and are like water spilled on the ground” (2 Sam. 14:14).
  6. We must pray for rain, or at least strengthen our faith that rain — which in the ancient world meant prosperity — lies in God’s hands.
  7. Commemorating the Patriarchs, who were born on Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah11a).
  8. Remembering the first of the ten plagues in Egypt, when water turned to blood, which occurred on Rosh Hashanah.
  9. Symbolizing the purification we undergo before Rosh Hashanah, in which men immerse in a mikveh.
  10. Remembering biblical miracles happened at river, such as Nachal Arnon (Berachos54a) or Nachal Kishon (Jud. 5:21).
  11. Remembering the Babylonian exiles wept by the river (Ps. 137:2) or were drowned by the enemy (Ps. 68:23).
  12. Thinking about judgement – In ancient times, courts used to sit near rivers.
  13. To remember past wars, which were often fought near rivers (e.g. Josh. 11:5; Jud. 5:21, 10:9; 2 Kings 3:17, 23:29; 2 Chron. 20:2, 35:20; Ps. 29:3, 83:10).
  14. Tashlich Today

Rav Stern agrees that his suggestions are speculative. However, we know that the ancients gathered at rivers in order to inspire religious feelings even if we cannot be sure which specific intent was invoked. Therefore, we cannot reject the centuries-old custom of Tashlich, even if we can only speculate about its original intent.

Significantly, Rav Stern adds two important points:

  1. Communities should avoid men and women (presumably from different families) walking together to Tashlich. The day of judgment should not turn into a social scene.
  2. People should not say too many prayers at Tashlich. Over the years, publishers have added more and more passages and prayers to Tashlich. If you want to say them all, do it at home.

I find so much of this response striking. First, Rav Stern agrees in principle that religious customs shouldn’t be irrational. However, they can be meaningful even if they are only symbolic. Additionally, he believes that we have to give customs the benefit of the doubt. If generations of Jews observed a practice, it has to have meaning. If that meaning was lost, we should try to recover it.

Perhaps most importantly, Rav Stern teaches that if you do not understand something about Judaism, do not give up. It might be your failure, not the religion’s. Sometimes it can take years to find an answer, sometimes a lifetime.