by Aaron Feigenbaum.
Tashlich is one of the staples of the High Holiday season and is performed by Jews around the world. It is a way of inspiring repentance and purifying ourselves before Yom Kippur. But what is the story behind this age-old ceremony? What are the sources for Tashlikh and how did it develop into a widely accepted practice?
The earliest direct mention of Tashlich is in the writings of the medieval-era Rabbi Yaakov Moelin (better known as the Maharil) who codified the Ashkenazi minhagim. The Maharil connected the custom of Tashlich with a Midrashic story. In the story Avraham and Yitzchak are on the way to perform the Akeidah when they are blocked by the Satan who assumes the guise of a river. Avraham immerses himself in the river and recites a prayer from Tehillim 69:2 “Save me, O God, for water has come up to my soul.” In response, G-d dries up the river and allows Avraham and Yitzchak to proceed. The Maharil explains that Tashlich is meant to remind us of Avraham’s selflessness in service of his Divine mission. Just as Avraham merited Divine favor when he threw himself into the river, so should we merit to have our sins erased when we throw them into the water.
While the Maharil is credited with developing the practice of Tashlich as we now know it, the fact that he was writing about it in the first place suggests that it must already have been an established tradition well before his time. Indeed, the Rashban finds several Biblical precedents for the custom. The most well-known of these is the verse in Micah,“ He will again be merciful unto us; He will suppress our iniquities; And cast into the depths of the sea all their sins.” This verse is found in the actual Tashlich prayers. Other sources of inspiration for the custom include King Shlomo’s coronation at Gihon Spring (Book of Kings 1:38, 33) and Ezra assembling the community on Rosh Hashanah at the nearest water source for a public Torah reading (Nehemiah 8:1). As the Zohar states: “Whatever falls into the deep is lost forever; . . . it acts like the scapegoat for the ablution of sins” (Leviticus, p. 101a, b) It is preferred, but not required, to perform Tashlich near a body of water that contains fish as they symbolize the temptations that we experience in our lives. Additionally, fish eyes are always open which symbolize G-d’s constant watching over his people.
As a historical practice, Tashlich (or some approximation of it) can be traced as far back as the first century C.E. Philo, notable as the first Jewish philosopher, described a prayer recited at the seashore on Hoshana Rabbah. Tertullian the Christian historian mentions in the late 2nd century C.E. a similar practice that took place on Yom Kippur. Josephus, one of the most famous Jewish historians, noted that there was a tradition of building shuls by the sea.
Skipping ahead some centuries, Rashi describes what could be the direct predecessor of the Tashlich ritual. He says that a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Jews would make baskets from palm leaves and fill them with soil. Then they would plant a bean in the soil. On the day before Rosh Hashanah, the plant would have sprouted and Jews would wave the basket around their head seven times and then throw the basket into a river, thus combining to some degree what we now know now as Tashlich with Kapparot.
Tashlich came to gain the approval of the Arizal in the 16th century and the custom became accepted by the vast majority of both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. However, a sticking point for many rabbis was the long-standing custom of throwing bread into the water to feed fish. The Maharil himself opposed this custom as did noted Kabbalist Rabbi Isaiah Hurwitz. The Maharil’s main argument against the custom is that one is not allowed to feed animals on Yom Tov that are not under your responsibility (i.e. pets or farm animals, see Rashi, Beitzah 23b). Another reason cited is that since fish found in seas, lakes, and rivers are not dependent on humans for sustenance, carrying bread outside an Eruv is unnecessary and therefore a violation of Yom Tov. Some authorities like the Mateh Efrayim prefer that one shake out soil from one’s garment into the water while saying the word “Tashlich” rather than throw bread. Others (Likkutei Mahariach) restrict it to the dust from one’s tallis katan. Of course, if one performs Tashlich during the intermediate days (except for Shabbos) then throwing bread isn’t a halakhic problem.
When it comes to shaking out one’s garments, the vast majority of rabbinic authorities readily approved of this custom. Both Mateh Efrayim and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch describe it as a symbolic means of purifying oneself of sins. Rashban traces it back to Biblical times when people would symbolically perform a duty or ask a request; in this case, casting one’s sins into the depths of the seas.
Despite the popularity of Tashlich, some rabbis disliked it entirely because of perceived superstitious connotations. One of them was the ardent opponent of Chassidus, the Gaon of Vilna, of whom it was said that he would not go to the river to say tashlikh. Another daringly wrote in 1936 “The Halakhah, the arch-enemy of superstition, will ultimately be the cause of the complete abolition of the Tashlik (sic) ceremony which in spite of all rationalizing interpretations and symbolic meanings given to it, has its roots in ancient heathen superstitions.”
And criticism of Tashlich wasn’t only restricted to the Jewish world. Rabbis in the time of the Black Death were often forced to prohibit Tashlich observance amid Christian anti-Semitic rumors of well-poisoning. Such rumors often had catastrophic effects on European Jewish populations such as in the town of Basel where the entire Jewish community was burned at the stake in 1349 after having been accused of well-poisoning.
While Tashlich may smack of superstition to some, it is important to remember that it is in no way a substitute for real teshuva. Rather, it should be seen as an aid to teshuva and a way to connect oneself to G-d by appreciating His works in person. According to Rabbi Moshe Isserles (paraphrased by Rabbi Moshe Herzfeld) “When one sees a sea, one realizes the greatness of God and the limits of man; this realization provokes humility and penance.” The wide open sea is a visual representation of the clean spiritual slate we can achieve through teshuva. That’s something we should all strive for during the upcoming High Holidays.
(Sources: The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to Their History and Observance
By Hayyim Schauss, Entering the High Holy Days By Reuven Hammer, Tzarich Iyun: Tashlich by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, Appreciating Tashlich by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff, Tashlich: The People’s Prayer by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, Jewish Encyclopedia)