Question #1: As a child, I remember being told that tashlich was our annual opportunity to throw away all our sins into the water. What is behind this custom?
Question #2: Someone once told me that tashlich alludes to the 13 middos of Hashem’s mercy. How do these middos correspond?
The answers to both of these questions revolve around developing a deeper understanding of the custom of reciting tashlich on Rosh Hashanah. Let us research the sources and halachos of this minhag, and comprehend the lessons that we should learn while observing it.
The earliest surviving mention of tashlich of which I am aware is in the writings of the Maharil, who lived in Germany during the late Fourteenth Century, and others of his generation (Minhagei Rosh Hashanah #9). He mentions the custom of going on Rosh Hashanah to the ocean or rivers that contain fish in order to “throw our sins into the depths of the sea,” vesashlich bimtzulos yam kol chatosom.
We should note that in the verse upon which this is based (Micha 7:19), it is Hashem, and not ourselves, Who is casting our iniquities into the sea. This is important, because tashlich does not mean that we have now successfully thrown away our sins. It is the realization that only by doing teshuvah will Hashem throw away our sins.
Others cite a different biblical source, from Nechemiah (8:1), for tashlich: “On the first day of the seventh month [which is, of course, Rosh Hashanah] all the people gathered together as one, to the street that was before the gate of the water” (Rav Reuven Margulies, cited in Piskei Teshuvos 583: footnote 48). Tashlich is recorded by the Rema and the Arizal, and has become standard practice.
It is interesting to note that the earliest sources for tashlich are all Ashkenazic authors, and only later did the custom spread to Sefardic communities. For example, Rav Chaim Vital (Sha’ar Hakavanos, quoted by Kaf Hachayim 583:30) writes, “The custom practiced by the Ashkenazim, which they call ‘tashlich,’ to go on the first day of Rosh Hashanah after Mincha, slightly before sunset, to the Mediterranean Sea or to a spring is a proper custom. It is preferable to do this outside the city, stand on the seashore or alongside the spring and recite three times, ‘Mi Keil Kamocha…’ (Micha 7:18-20).”
Is it a Good Omen?
The Rema, both in Darkei Moshe and in his glosses to Shulchan Aruch, cites the custom of tashlich in what appears to be an unusual place. We would have expected that he mention tashlich as part of the discussion concerning what to do after Rosh Hashanah morning davening, which is found in Chapter 596 of Orach Chayim, or, alternatively, together with the laws of Rosh Hashanah Mincha, which are found in Chapter 598. Indeed, we find other authorities who discuss the rules of tashlich in both of these places. However, the Rema mentions the custom of tashlich earlier, in Chapter 583, where the Tur and Shulchan Aruch record the custom, mentioned in the Gemara, of eating special foods on the night of Rosh Hashanah as a good omen, a siman tov, for the coming year. Why did the Rema insert the practice of tashlich in the wrong place chronologically?
It appears that the Rema includes tashlich in the chapter of good omens for the New Year because the main reason for the custom of tashlich is its powerful symbolism. One can certainly explain why, according to the Rema, there is a preference to recite tashlich near a river, ocean, or other source that contains fish, since they are a sign of prosperity without ayin hora.
A Different Reason
The Gr”a, in his notes to this Rema, presents a different reason for the custom. He quotes the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni #99):
If Avraham could see the place of the Akeidah, why did it take him three days to get there? The answer is that the Satan first attempted to dissuade Avraham from going. When the Satan realized that this plan would not be successful, the Satan tried a different tactic, and made himself into a large river that would be impossible to pass… Avraham continued on [accompanied by Yitzchak and the two lads] until the river was up to their necks. Avraham then lifted his eyes heavenward, saying, “Master of all worlds, You revealed Yourself to me and said, ‘I am the only One, and you are the only one. Make the entire world know about My name and bring your son as an olah.’ I did not question your words, nor did I delay fulfilling them. Now we are drowning. If my son Yitzchak drowns, how will I guarantee that Your unity be known?” Immediately, Hashem scolded the Satan, who left.
According to this approach, tashlich is a reminder of the tremendous mesiras nefesh of Avraham Avinu. This should make us internalize the message repeated daily in Shema — to love Hashem with all our being, even to sacrifice our lives for Him because we love Him so. Developing this quality of Ahavas Hashem is certainly one of the main goals of Rosh Hashanah. Thus, according to the Gr”a, tashlich is primarily an educational lesson.
A Fishy Place
However, according to the Gr”a’s approach, there is no apparent reason for reciting tashlich near a water source containing fish, a preference mentioned in most early sources. We may also note that the first reason I mentioned, that we want Hashem to wash away our sins as we do teshuvah, should also not require that the water contain fish.
The answer is that there are many other reasons for reciting tashlich at a water source that contains fish. For example, the Levush explains that we should see ourselves as fish caught in a net – this symbolizes how we have gotten caught in the traps laid for us by the yeitzer hora. This comparison should encourage us to do teshuvah and to take the Yomim Nora’im more seriously.
Here is another reason why tashlich should preferably be recited at a water source containing fish. Fish, living their lives concealed under water, are not exposed to ayin hora; we, also, hope not to be exposed to ayin hora (Elyah Zuta).
Must it be Fishy?
Notwithstanding the various reasons to explain saying tashlich at a place populated by fish, the Magen Avraham (583:5) emphasizes that whereas the Maharil advised reciting tashlich at a river with live fish, the Arizal implies that it is equally acceptable to say tashlich at a well, notwithstanding that it contains no fish. I will explain more about this shortly.
Outside the City
The Arizal (quoted by Magen Avraham 583:5) emphasizes that it is preferable to go to a water source outside the city. Based on the Midrashic source cited above, we can well understand that our traveling is an attempt to reenact, in our own small way, the tribulations that Avraham Avinu underwent on his way to performing the incredible mitzvah of akeida.
I quoted earlier Rav Chaim Vital, the main disciple of the Arizal, who writes that one should recite tashlich at the seashore or next to a spring. Going to the Mediterranean or some other sea is certainly hinted at in the verse asking Hashem to throw all one’s sins into the depths of the sea, implying that one is close enough to throw something into the water. Not all gedolei Yisrael were stringent about being next to the body of water when they recited tashlich, but they were satisfied with having the water in sight. For example, it is recorded that the Chasam Sofer went to a high place from where he could see the Danube River running through Pressburg (today known as Bratislava).
Anyone who has been in Yerushalayim for Rosh Hashanah has probably noted that, because there is no flowing river near the city, tashlich is recited in interesting places, such as near mikvaos and alongside buckets of water. For much time, Yerushalayim has been without any significant natural source of water, something unusual for any old city. The custom of reciting tashlich alongside a mikvah or a water cistern in Yerushalayim is mentioned by the Kaf Hachayim (583:30), who permits reciting tashlich even next to an empty water cistern! He explains that tashlich is only an allusion, and the main “water” to which we are referring is the “yam ha’elyon.” Obviously, he is alluding to a kabbalistic reason for tashlich.
In contemporary Yerushalayim, the most common practice is to recite tashlich alongside small backyard fish ponds stocked with a few inexpensive fish from a pet store. I assume that in the time of the Kaf Hachayim, there were few pet stores in Yerushalayim, and the scarcity of both potable water and tolerable living quarters did not allow for backyard fish ponds.
Feeding the Fish
The Maharil is emphatic that one should not take bread to tashlich on Rosh Hashanah to feed the fish. Apparently, this custom of feeding crumbs to the fish was observed over six hundred years ago, despite the opposition of most halachic authorities.
What is wrong with feeding the fish?
It is forbidden to feed any animals, birds or fish on Yom Tov, if they are not dependent on you for their nourishment.
Some authorities quote an additional reason for prohibiting putting bread into the river on Yom Tov. Carrying is permitted on Yom Tov only for items that fulfill some Yom Tov need. Since fish in the sea are not dependent on us for nourishment, carrying in a public domain to feed them desecrates Yom Tov (Mateh Efrayim 598:5).
Instead of Feeding the Fish
Some authorities describe a different practice that does not desecrate Yom Tov: While reciting the word “tashlich,” one should empty out the dirt that one finds in the hems of one’s garment into the water, hinting at casting away our sins. With this act, we should accept doing teshuvah wholeheartedly (Likkutei Mahariach; Kaf Hachayim; see Mateh Efrayim 598:4).
Some sources quote, in the name of the Arizal, that one should only shake out the dust on the tzitzis of one’s talis koton (Likkutei Mahariach, cited by Piskei Teshuvos 583:footnote 50). Obviously, according to this Arizal, women cannot fulfill this part of the custom.
Women and Tashlich
Many authorities are strongly opposed to women going to tashlich altogether (Elef Hamagein 598:7). On the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, there should be no intermingling of the genders, and better that the men not see women altogether. If women want to go to tashlich, the best approach to avoid this problem is that introduced by my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Ruderman, that women go to tashlich before Mincha and men after.
The Structure of Tashlich
The main part of tashlich is to recite three verses from Micha that allude to the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s kindness. Thus, to understand tashlich well, we should understand the concept of the thirteen attributes.
After the Jewish People sinned by worshiping the Eigel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, Hashem taught Moshe to use these thirteen attributes of His kindness to achieve absolution.
Rabbi Yochanan said: Were it not for the fact that the Torah itself wrote this, it would be impossible to say it. The Torah teaches that Hashem wrapped Himself in a talis like a chazzan and demonstrated to Moshe the order of prayer. Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them” (Rosh Hashanah 17b).
Rabbi Yochanan noted that the anthropomorphism of his own statement is rather shocking, and, without scriptural proof, we would refrain from repeating it. Nevertheless, the Torah compelled us to say that Hashem revealed to Moshe a means for pardoning our iniquities. According to the Maharal, Moshe asked Hashem to elucidate, to the extent that a human can comprehend, how Hashem deals with the world in mercy. Hashem did, indeed, enlighten Moshe, enabling him to implore for forgiveness for the Jewish people and teaching him how to lead the Jews in prayer (Chiddushei Agados, Rosh Hashanah 17b s.v. Melameid).
A Word about Attributes
What exactly are the thirteen attributes? For that matter, can we attribute personality characteristics to Hashem?
To quote Rabbeinu Bachyei: Although we no longer know how to beseech, nor do we properly understand the power of the Thirteen Attributes and how they connect to Hashem’s mercy, we still know that the attributes of mercy plead on our behalf, since this is what Hashem promised. Today, when we are without a kohein gadol to atone for our sins and without a mizbei’ach on which to offer korbanos and no Beis Hamikdash in which to pray, we have left only our prayers and these thirteen attributes (Kad Hakemach, Kippurim 2).
Who Knows Thirteen?
The Torah says: Hashem, Hashem, who is a merciful and gracious G-d, slow to anger, full of kindness and truth. He preserves kindness for thousands of generations by forgiving sins, whether they are intentional, rebellious or negligent; and He forgives (Shemos 34:6-7).
There are many opinions among the halachic authorities exactly how to calculate the thirteen merciful attributes of Hashem. The most commonly quoted approach is that of Rabbeinu Tam, who counts each of the three mentions of Hashem’s name at the beginning of the passage, Hashem, Hashem, and Keil, as a separate attribute.
However, it is important to note that the Arizal counted the thirteen merciful attributes in a different way. Whereas Rabbeinu Tam counted Hashem, Hashem, Keil as three difference attributes, the Arizal does not count the first two Names (Hashem, Hashem). Thus, the first attribute mentioned by the verse is Keil. To compensate for the loss of two attributes in the count of thirteen, the Arizal reaches thirteen by dividing the two phrases, erech apayim and notzeir chesed laalafim, each into two different attributes, whereas, according to Rabbeinu Tam’s count, each of these phrases counts only as one.
Micha’s Thirteen Attributes
The kabbalistic sources explain that the three verses of Micha that form the basic structure of tashlich also allude to the thirteen attributes of Hashem. For many years, I tried to figure out how the verses in Micha correspond to the thirteen attributes, until I discovered that this allusion follows the Arizal’s approach to the thirteen attributes. Many machzorim note this method of counting the thirteen attributes by placing the word from Moshe’s original prayer above the verse in Micha to which this attribute corresponds.
What do I do?
At this point, I want to return to the above-quoted Talmudic source that explains the power of the thirteen attributes, and note a very important point:
Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them.” The Hebrew word that I have translated as “perform” is ya’asu, which means that the Jews must do something, definitely more than just reading the words. If all that is required is to read these words, the Gemara should have said simply: They should read these words. Obviously, action, which always speaks louder than words, is required to fulfill these instructions and accomplish automatic atonement.
What did the Gemara mean?
The commandment to emulate Hashem is the most important of the 613 mitzvos. To quote the Gemara: Just as Hashem is gracious and merciful, so should you become gracious and merciful (Shabbos 133b). When Hashem told Moshe: Whenever the Jews perform this order, I will forgive them. He meant that when we act towards one another with the same qualities of rachamim as does Hashem, He forgives us. Reciting the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy is the first step towards making ourselves merciful, emulating Hashem’s ways. Ya’asu means that by emulating Hashem’s kindness and His tolerance, by accepting people who annoy and harm us, we become His G-dly People!
This sounds great in theory. What does it mean in practice?
Here are several examples, all taken from the sefer Tomer Devorah, to help us comprehend what our job is:
1. Whenever someone does something wrong (i.e., acts against Hashem’s wishes), at that very moment Hashem is providing all the needs of the offender. This is a tremendous amount of forbearance that Hashem demonstrates. Our mitzvah is to train ourselves to be equally accepting of those who annoy and wrong us.
2. We should appreciate the extent to which Hashem considers the Jews to be His People, and identify with the needs of each Jew on a corresponding level.
3. Hashem waits with infinite patience for the sinner to do teshuvah, always confident in a person’s ability to repent and change. While Hashem is waiting, He continues to provide the sinner with all his needs. Similarly, we should not stand on ceremony, waiting for someone who wronged us to apologize.
4. When a person does teshuvah after sinning, Hashem loves him more than He loved him before he sinned. As the Gemara states: In a place where ba’alei teshuvah stand, complete tzadikim are unable to stand. Therefore, if someone who has wronged me now wants to makes amends, I must befriend him and accept him at a greater level than I had previously.
All of these ideas are included when we observe the mitzvah of tashlich. We should read the verses and think how we can emulate Hashem’s kindness, by demonstrating the same degree of kindness to His creations.
There are so many beautiful lessons to learn from observing the ancient minhag of tashlich. We should be careful to observe this practice in the spirit of the day, and, by internalizing these lessons, may we and all Klal Yisrael merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah.