Tashlikh - The Complement of Shofar
THE CUSTOM OF TASHLIKH
One of the most familiar and beloved customs of Rosh Ha-shana is going to a body of water in the afternoon and symbolically "casting away" our sins, in the ceremony known as "tashlikh." Yet this custom is also one of the most mysterious. Unlike the shofar, which is a mitzva of the Torah (Vayikra 23:24, Bamidbar 29:1), and the special symbolic foods or "simanim" which are mentioned in the Talmud (Horayot 12a, Keritot 6a), tashlikh is not mentioned in the halakhic literature until the period of the later Rishonim (Maharil, Rosh Ha-shana 9).
This custom originated in medieval Ashkenaz, and is recorded in the Darkhei Moshe and the Rema (OC 583). After the Ari (Rav Yitzchak Luria) expressed his approval of this custom and gave a Kabbalistic explanation for it (Sha'ar Ha-kavvanot 90), the custom rapidly spread to Sefaradi communities as well, and today is practiced throughout the Jewish world.
Tashlikh involves going to a body of water - preferably a river or a lake, and when this is impossible to a well or the like - and reciting verses from the end of Micha (7:18-20) which refer to God "casting into the depths of the sea" all of our sins. Many people also have a custom of shaking out their pockets, or of shaking their tzitzit. Some people recite special prayers, such as that composed by Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai, the "Chida" (eighteenth-century Eretz Yisrael).
COMMEMORATION OF THE AKEIDA
The Maharil, Rav Ya'akov HaLevi Segal Moelin, compiled a detailed and authoritative compendium of the customs of his native Ashkenaz (the Rhine valley in what is now Germany). In Chapter 9 of the section on Rosh Ha-shana, he explains:
"On Rosh Ha-shana, after the meal, we have the custom of going to the lakes and rivers to cast into the depths of the sea all of our sins. This commemorates the Akeida, in accordance with the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayera 99) which says that [on the way to the intended sacrifice of Yitzchak] Avraham Avinu passed through a river until the water reached up to his neck, and said, 'Rescue me, Hashem, for the waters have reached until the soul' (Tehillim 69:2). And it was actually Satan, who made himself into a river in order to prevent Avraham from performing the Akeida."
The Maharil emphasizes that tashlikh is a commemoration of the Akeida. By going to the river, we demonstrate to God that we recall Avraham's determination to fulfill His command. Not only was Avraham willing to sacrifice his only son, but he was willing to endure great hardship in order to do so. We imply that we too are willing to overcome obstacles to carry out God's will.
By emphasizing our continuing connection to Avraham Avinu, showing that we are his spiritual as well as his genetic heirs, we show that we are fully worthy of sharing in the blessing which God swore to Avraham's descendants as a result of the Akeida (Bereshit 22:16-18).
"CORONATION" OF GOD
Many works mention an additional reason for the custom of going to a river on Rosh Ha-shana: because it is customary to anoint a king next to a body of water. The gemara (Horayot 12a) explains that a king is anointed near a river as a sign that his kingdom should have continuity, just as a river continually flows. On Rosh Ha-shana, we proclaim God as our King, and by going to a river we give a tangible sign of our desire to accept His sovereignty. (See, for example, the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 129:21.)
The connection of this source to Rosh Ha-shana is not only thematic, but also textual. A few lines later, the same gemara infers from the custom of anointing kings on the river that "a sign has meaning," and this then serves as the basis for the custom of eating symbolic foods on Rosh Ha-shana night.
TASHLIKH AND THE ROSH HA-SHANA PRAYERS
These two themes, commemoration of the Akeida and the coronation of God, have a familiar ring. They are in fact two of the three central themes of the Rosh Ha-shana prayers!
The regular Musaf prayers - recited on Shabbat, Yom Tov and Rosh Chodesh - have only a single blessing relating to the day, one which recalls the Musaf ("additional") sacrifice of that day. But on Rosh Ha-shana there are THREE blessings: Malkhuyot ("sovereignty," proclaiming God as our King); Zikhronot ("commemoration," most prominently recalling the Akeida); and Shofarot ("horn blasts").
The requirement to mention malkuyot and zikhronot is derived from two biblical verses. The shofar of Rosh Ha-shana is referred to in the Torah as a "ZIKHRON teru'a" - the COMMEMORATION of the horn (Vayikra 23:23). This shows that Rosh Ha-shana requires a "remembrance." And from the verse which refers to the trumpet call as "a commemoration before your God" (Bamidbar 10:9), we learn that commemoration is always paired with coronation of God, our King (Rosh Ha-shana 32a).
Usually, the focus of the Musaf prayer is our inability to carry out the sacrificial rite we are describing. "Because of our sins we were exiled from our country, and we were distanced from our land. And we are unable to carry out our obligations in Your chosen House." We then pray that soon we will indeed be able to offer the Musaf sacrifice, among others.
However, there is nothing anachronistic in the subjects of the Rosh Ha-shana prayers. Although the Musaf prayer generally refers to the distant past and the (hopefully near) future, the themes of the Rosh Ha-shana Musaf prayer - God's sovereignty, His recollection, and the shofar - belong to the present! If the Musaf prayer represents our desire to translate longing into action, then each of these themes should be given a concrete expression in our Rosh Ha-shana conduct.
TASHLIKH AS THE COMPLEMENT OF SHOFAR
The theme of shofarot, mentioned in the prayers, is translated into action by the practical mitzva of shofar - the principle mitzva of the day. Of course, the shofar also gives expression to the other two themes: the ram's horn reminds us of the ram sacrificed in place of Yitzchak, and the shofar blast reminds us of a coronation fanfare. (See, for example, I Melakhim 1:34, 1:39.) That is why the shofar is blown during these benedictions as well as during the benediction of "shofarot."
But unlike the "shofarot," these motifs of sovereignty and memory have no practical mitzva which is unique to them. To that extent, we can view the custom of tashlikh as the complement of the mitzva of shofar. Balancing the shofar, which is the practical expression of the "shofarot" blessing, tashlikh gives a practical expression to the malkuyot/zikhronot pair.
MINHAG VERSUS MITZVA
It is also appropriate that precisely these two themes find their practical expression in "minhag" (custom), rather than in a mitzva.
First of all, unlike shofar which is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, these "sovereignty" and "remembrance" aspects of Rosh Ha-shana are inferred from subtle textual hints. It is only natural that their practical expression should also be in the more subtle area of minhag.
Second of all, there is an important difference between the theme of shofar and those of malkhuyot and zikhronot. This difference is illustrated by a well-known Midrash which explains the relationship between the three foci of the Rosh Ha-shana Musaf:
"Why did the Sages ordain to say malkhuyot first, then zikhronot and shofarot? First of all make Him King over you, and then ask for mercy so that He will remember you. And with what [will He remember]? With the shofar of liberation! But I still don't know who blows this shofar, so the Scripture teaches, 'And the Lord God will sound the shofar' (Zekharia 9:14)." (Sifri, Bamidbar 77)
This Midrash teaches that the WE are responsible for expressing the aspects of malkhuyot and zikhronot. We make God into our King, and ask for His mercy to be favorably remembered. So it is appropriate that the observance corresponding to malkhuyot and zikhronot should come from us - from the domain minhag.
In response, we hope and pray that God will react by blowing the shofar of liberation, i.e. by bringing the Redemption. So it is appropriate that the observance corresponding to shofarot comes from God, as a mitzva of the Torah.
It is also fitting that the mitzva of shofar is primarily a passive one - most people hear the shofar from the "ba'al toke'a," and the blessing recited is "to hear the sound of the shofar." This recalls the shofar of redemption which God will sound for us.
But the custom of tashlikh is performed by each person individually - corresponding to the responsibility of each individual to accept God's sovereignty and ask for His mercy.
So the beloved, but little-studied, custom of "tashlikh" provides a beautiful example of how the customs which were initiated by the Jewish people constitute a harmonious complement to the mitzvot of the Torah.
(This article is an expanded version of the section on tashlikh in Rav Meir's book, "Meaning in Mitzvot," which is serialized on the VBM as the "YHE-Kitzur" shiur.)