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The Tashlich Ceremony: Bribing Satan
Tashlich is a rite whose non-rational basis is obvious. It preserves a superstitious belief held by many people in ancient times concerning water and the divine beings that dwell in and around it. The rite has been reinterpreted over time, modified slightly and rationalized, but its original superstitious and pagan origin is clear.
The name tashlich is derived from Micah 7:19 where the prophet states v’tashlich, “you will cast all of their guilt into the depths of the sea.” Most scholars believe the practice began in the Middle Ages.
The basic idea behind tashlich is the recitation of certain prayers near a body of water. Many of those who observe the ceremony prefer a river or stream or any body of water that contains fish. They toss breadcrumbs or other foods to the fish. Either consciously or unconsciously, they feel that the bribe of breadcrumbs will stop Satan from accusing them of past misdeeds before God. Underlying the practice is the belief that God and demons are always near water. The association of God and demons and water can be seen long before the Middle Ages, indeed as early as the beginning of Israelite history.
The Ancient Uneducated Jew Believed That God Consults Demons
Many unsophisticated Jews in ancient times retained a primitive notion that God does not make decisions without first consulting with angels and demons and that the angels and demons can persuade God to act contrary to the interests of humans. This notion was supported by misreadings and misunderstandings of many biblical and post-biblical sources.
For example, these Jews took the first chapter of Job literally. The chapter relates a satan having a discussion with God about Job and trying to persuade God to punish him. The term satan in Job does not refer to the demon who was given this biblical name many years after the book was composed. In the book, satan means adversary. Nevertheless, the average Jew saw the Job story as a depiction of the very thing he feared and wanted to avoid: Satan acting as a prosecutor in the heavenly court, seeking to persuade God to punish him.
Uneducated Jews found reinforcement in Midrashim such as Genesis Rabbah 8:3, which comments upon Genesis 1:26, “And God said, Let us make man.” The Midrash disregards the Bible’s use of the “royal plural” and asks: “With whom did He take counsel? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: He took counsel with the works of heaven and earth, like a king who had two advisers without whose knowledge he did nothing whatsoever.”
The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b, bolsters this view. It states: “God does not do anything without first consulting heavenly beings.” These beings, the masses were convinced, were angels and demons.
Tashlich: One of Several Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Practices to Bribe Satan
The ancient custom of gathering before water and preventing Satan from appearing before God with accusations against the Jewish people was especially important on the day of Rosh Hashanah when the people expected to be judged. The ancients were convinced that heavenly beings, including God, angels, and demons, could be found in the vicinity of water. They attempted to use bribery, giving the demon gifts to keep him from accusing them. The tossing of bread to the fish was one of several methods used to transmit the bribe. The Jews who engaged in this practice were confident that the fish would take the offered food and deliver it for them to Satan.
The Ancient Belief That God and Demons Are Found Near Water
Maimonides and other rationalists would certainly reject the superstitious notion that God, whom they believe to be present throughout the entire universe, is located in a body of water. They would be shocked at the thought that some Jews would seek God at bodies of water for prayer or for any other purpose and reject the idea that demons exist near water or anywhere else. Nevertheless, the vast majority of uneducated Jews held these beliefs; they are reflected in talmudic and midrashic statements by rabbis who also bought into the superstition. The average Jew may have turned to the Bible itself for proof of divine figures, God, angels and demons near water. The following are some examples.
Demons and Water in the Bible
Demons and Water in the Midrash and Talmud
Historical References to Demons and Water
These sources show that the belief in the presence of God and demons in or near bodies of water was quite widespread. It should therefore surprise no one that the superstitious rite of tashlich arose, sending Jews to seek the demons at bodies of water in order to persuade the demons not to harm them.
The Mystics Removed the Element of Bribery but Retained the Satan Concept
Sympathetic magic is a subject that is discussed in Sir James Frazier’s classic The Golden Bough. Simply stated, sympathetic magic is a non-rational attempt to cause God or nature to act in a certain desired way by acting out the behavior that one desires God or nature to perform. A good example of sympathetic magic is the well-known practice of some Native Americans to cause rain by engaging in a dance that mimics the falling of rain. The ancients used sympathetic magic in their attempts to create what they needed and to prevent what they wished to avoid.
The mystics of Safed, Israel, in the mid-sixteenth century stated that they went to the water as a symbol of mercy. These mystics were practicing sympathetic magic, hoping that, just as they involved themselves with mercy, so, too, God would make sure that mercy would spread over the entire world, like the flow of water, and thereby save the guilty Jews from the threat of Satan. They also shook their garments, again in sympathetic magic, to cause God to toss Satan and his demon cohort into the depths of the sea.
Attempts to Rationalize Tashlich
Some rabbis understood the pagan roots of tashlich but chose to allow the continuation of the custom because of the rabbinic principle minhag avoteinu Torah hi, “the customs of our ancestors is law [for us].” However, they set about disguising its origin, rationalizing it, and turning it into a symbolic ceremony with religious significance.
For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520–1572) argues that tashlich is a reminder of the sacrifice of Isaac, a symbolic prayer for a good life and a blessing that Jews should multiply like fish in water. It is also, he states, an opportunity to observe the mighty wonders of God who made the sand a boundary of the sea.
Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe (1530–1612) suggests that the ceremony reminds us of the trial of Abraham who, when he went to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command, was, according to a Midrash, hindered in his journey by a deep river. Abraham was able to overcome the obstacle and continue on his mission. In Jaffe’s opinion, Jews go to a place with fish to help them realize that, like fish, they can be caught in a net. Thus both the river and the fish remind Jews to avoid obstacles but, if ensnared, make every effort to escape the difficulty and accomplish God’s wishes.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555–1630) writes in his popular Shney Luchot Habrit that Jews go to the water to see fish. This prompts them to think that – just as fish have no eyelids and their eyes are always open – Jews should always keep their eyes open to God.
The Time of Tashlich
Originally, tashlich was performed immediately after the noon meal on Rosh Hashanah because it was felt that Satan would be insulted if food was given to him later than the time that humans eat. However, as the rite began to be rationalized and Satan was removed from it, the time was moved to after the afternoon Mincha service; Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6b, states that “a person should be careful with the Mincha service because Elijah [the prophet] was only answered [by God] with the Mincha prayers.” Thus it was felt that this would be an appropriate time for this important prayer service.
Opposition From Many Rabbis
Many rabbis opposed the tashlich rite. Despite the attempt of other rabbis to rationalize, ennoble, and spiritualize it, it was clear to them that the root and purpose of the practice lay in ancient pagan superstition. Elijah Gaon (1720–1797) and his disciples did not practice tashlich at all because they saw it as pagan superstition. Maimonides did not include this rite in his code of Jewish law for the same reason.
 This is part of a chapter from my book “Maimonides: The exceptional mind” where I describe the thinking of the great sage who lived from 1138 to 1204.