Parsha Halacha

Parshat Nitzavim

Ten Tashlich Lessons

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The Torah portion of Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah.[1] The portion begins with Moshe telling the Jewish people that he is establishing a covenant (brit) between them and G-d, that they should be G-d’s people and He will be their G-d.[2] Although this took place in the month of Adar before Moshe Rabeinu passed away, some say[3] that the word הַיּוֹם alludes to Rosh HaShanah and that Moshe was alluding to the fact that every year on Rosh HaShanah, we must renew our covenant with G-d to be His nation.[4]

Origins of Tashlich

This is reminiscent of the Rosh HaShanah that occurred in the days of Ezra and Nechemiah when the Torah was read publicly and the Jewish people of Jerusalem recommitted themselves to observe it fully.[5] That gathering took place in the square before the Sha’ar Hamayim, the Water Gate,[6] which was on the eastern side of the city.[7] I am not sure if this gate corresponds to any of the gates in the old city of Jerusalem today.[8]

Some say[9] that Ezra and Nechemiah chose the Water Gate for this gathering, as on Rosh HaShanah it is customary to gather at a stream of water in a practice known as Tashlich. If this is correct, it would mean that the custom of Tashlich can be traced back to Biblical times.

The Custom

It is customary in most Jewish communities to go to a water source (i.e., lake, river, ocean, pond or even a well) on the afternoon of Rosh HaShana and recite certain prayers. (If one was not able to do this on Rosh HaShana, one may do it during the Ten Days of Teshuvah or as late as Hoshana Rabbah.)[10] This article will offer ten reasons given for this ancient practice as well as lessons that can be learned.

1)     Coronating the King

It was customary in ancient times to coronate a king next to a flowing spring[11] to symbolize that his reign be long-lasting like a continuously-flowing spring. On Rosh Hashanah we coronate G-d as our king and the king of the entire world. As such, we symbolically go to a river or the like where coronations would take place.[12]

Lesson: Consistency in our Commitments 

Our acceptance of G-d as our king on Rosh HaShanah should not be erratic but constant, just like a river that flows constantly.

2)     Remembering the Akeidah

When Avraham was traveling to Mount Moriah to (ostensibly) sacrifice his son Yitzchak (this is called the Akeidah or the binding of Isaac), the Satan tried to block him in various ways. One of these was that the Satan appeared to be a rushing river, blocking their way. Avraham realized that this was just a test and he walked into the river until it disappeared. Some say that the Akeidah took place on Rosh HaShanah. We remember this event every year on this day by going to a river and evoking G-d’s mercy in this merit.[13]

Lesson: Obstacles Are Often a Mirage

Most of the obstacles that seem to block our progress are simply tests engineered by the Almighty so that we find the inner strength to overcome them. When we realize this, it becomes much easier to face challenges.

3)     Fish Are a Good Sign

On Rosh HaShanah we do many things to symbolize that the coming year be a positive one. As such, going to a water source which has fish symbolizes that we be fruitful and multiply like fish and that the ayin hara (evil eye) not affect us just as it does not affect fish (since they are concealed by the water).[14]

Lesson: Avoid the Evil Eye

We can avoid the evil eye in the coming year by not looking at other people in a jealous way.

4)     Don’t Get Trapped Like a Fish

Fish are constantly in danger of getting trapped by fishermen and their nets. On Rosh HaShanah we must realize that we are being judged and that we are in the net of His justice. This should inspire us to do Teshuvah.[15]

Lesson: Don’t Bite the Bait

Often fish are trapped when they bite the bait. We must realize that many of the pleasures of this world are like bait that lure us away from the more important things in life. On Rosh Hashanah we should realign ourselves and focus on the meaningful reasons we live for – to serve G-d and to be kind to our fellow-men.

5)     Teshuvah Like Water

We read in the book of Shmuel[16] that before the Jewish people and the prophet Shmuel began a battle with the Philistines, “they poured water in front of G-d.” The Targum Yonatan explains that they poured their hearts out before G-d (in prayer and repentance) like water. As such, we go to a water source on Rosh HaShanah to remind ourselves to do Teshuvah (repentance).[17]

Lesson: Humility Is the Key to Teshuvah

Water represents humility as it always flows to the lowest place. The key to doing teshuvah is to be humble. True humility will allow us to examine ourselves honestly and recognize what aspects of our behaviors need to be rectified.

6)     Remember Ezra and Nechemiah’s Teshuvah-Gathering

Going to a water source on Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the teshuvah-gathering, led by Ezra and Nechemiah, that took place at the Water Gate on Rosh Hashana (see above).[18]

Lesson: Changing a Generation

Ezra and Nechemia’s teshuvah-gathering was an event that changed the course of Jewish history as it got the Jewish people in the Land of Israel back on the path of Torah and Mitzvot. We too, must try to fix not only ourselves but to inspire those around us and thereby effect global and lasting change.

7)     Sweeten the Judgments

Rosh HaShana is a time of Divine Judgment and, as such, we try to sweeten that judgment so that G-d judge us mercifully. We therefore go to a water source since water represents Divine kindness, to symbolize our desire that our judgment be sweetened with chessed (Divine kindness).[19]

Lesson: Judge Sweetly

The way to ensure that G-d judge us kindly is by judging others kindly. So before passing judgment on someone else, remember that the way we judge others is how we will be judged.

8)     Like the Azazel

The Shela says[20] that we go outside the city to do Tashlich to symbolize the ritual of the Azazel, a ritual in which a goat was cast off a mountain peak outside Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. This means that when we do Tashlich we are symbolically asking G-d to rid us and the world of the negative forces associated with sin and banish them to the nethermost depths of the sea.[21]

Lesson: Some Behaviors Can’t Be Repaired

While there are often positive aspects to certain negative behaviors which can be rehabilitated and utilized in a good way, there are some behaviors that are too harmful to rehabilitate. Such behaviors should be relegated to the “bottom of the sea” so that we can remove them completely.

9)     Remember that Adam Was Forgiven

According to the Ben Ish Chai,[22] we do Tashlich at the end of the first day of Rosh HaShanah as that is the exact time and day that Adam and Chava were forgiven for the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. As the Midrash says,[23] “In the 10th hour (of the first Friday of creation) they sinned, in the 11th hour they were judged, and in the 12th hour they were forgiven.”

Lesson: Do Teshuvah ASAP

Although Adam and Chava’s sin was grievous and caused great harm to the world, as soon as they did (a sincere) Teshuvah, they were immediately forgiven. As such, we should not delay our Teshuvah. We should learn from Adam and Chava who repented immediately after their sin and were instantly forgiven.

10) The Sins Disappear Like Water

The brother of the Maharal of Prague writes[24] that going to a flowing river for Tashlich teaches us an important lesson about Teshuvah. When a person does a sincere Teshuvah, regretting his ways and resolving to change them, the sins that they did in the past are erased and they no longer exist. The flowing river is a visual aid for this lesson. Just as the water flows and the earlier water is gone, never to return, so too when we do Teshuvah, our negative actions are gone and completely washed away.

Lesson: Believe in Your Teshuvah!

When a person does Teshuvah, he needs to firmly believe that his Teshuvah was effective and that he is forgiven by G-d. This belief should take the weight of guilt off a person’s chest and enable him to turn over a new leaf and serve G-d with joy.

May we merit to take all these lessons to heart on the upcoming holy days!

[1] O.C. 428:4 see here for more about the connection between Nitzavim and Rosh HaShanah

[2] Deut 29:11-12

[3] Zohar vol. 2 page 32b. The Zohar says that the same is true about the judgment of Iyov (Job 1:6) and the discussion between the prophet Elisha and the Shunamite woman (Kings II 4:11).

[4] See Aderet Eliyahu (by the Gaon of Vilna) who says that the term הַיּוֹם refers to every single day and, as such, we must renew our commitment to Him on a daily basis.

[5] Nechemiah 8:2 The verse says, “On the first day of the seventh month” on which Rashi comments “This is the day of Rosh HaShana.”

[6] See Nechemia 3:26 that the Netinim (servants of the Beit HaMikdash) lived in the area near that gate.

[7] One of the gates of the Azarah (courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash) was called the Sha’ar HaMayim – the water gate, either because it was through that gate that the water was brought to the Beit HaMikdash for the pouring of the water on the Altar during the holiday of Sukkot or because, in the future time, the spring of water which will flow from the Holy of Holies will exit through that gate (Mishnah Middot 2:6).

This does not seem to be the same gate that is discussed in the book of Nechemia as that gate was in the south and the gate in the book of Nechemiah was in the east. In addition, the gate discussed in the Mishnah was to the Azarah and this gate was to the city of Jerusalem. (See Nechemia 12:37 where the Sha’ar HaMayim is mentioned together with other gates of the city in connection with the sanctification of the city.)

[8] According to this article, the Dung Gate was also called the Silwan Gate because it led to the Silwan Pool and the Gichon spring which are just south of the city. Although this gate is in the south and the Water Gate was in the west, it is possible that at that time the city was much smaller and the gate was in the southwest corner of the city and as such these two gates may be one and the same.

[9] Responsa Ein Eliezer by (Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Wolk of Lithuania and Russia), O.C. 51

[10] Ramah O.C. 583:2

[11] See I Kings 1:33 that King Solomon was anointed at the Gichon Spring

[12] Sefer HaChaim by Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, Siman 583

[13] Maharil, cited in Darkei Moshe on 583:2

[14] Darkei Moshe ibid

[15] Levush O.C. 597

[16] I Samuel 7:6

[17] Beit Me’ir, O.C. 583

[18] Based on Responsa Ein Eliyahu, quoted above in footnote 9

[19] Chemdat HaYamim, chapter 7

[20] Siddur HaShela, Dinim Vehanhagot LeRosh HaShanah, based on the Zohar, Parshat Emor.

[21] This reason dovetails well with the custom that many have of doing Tashlich on the day before Erev Yom Kippur (Responsa Divrei Yisrael by Rabbi Yisrael Veltz, O.C. 167).

[22] Torah Lishmah, Siman 159. The responsa is signed By Rabbi Yechezkel Cachali although the book is authored by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (the Ben Ish Chai). It seems that Rabbi Yosef Chaim wrote these responsa under a penname.

[23] Vayikrah Rabbah 29:1

[24] Sefer HaChaim, Sefer Slicha UMechila, chapter 5

Wishing You and Your Family a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach, a Chag Same’ach, and a Ketivah VaChatima Tovah leshana tova umetukah!

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