On the face of it, Tashlich seems to date back not much earlier than medieval times. After all, there is no mention of it in the Ge- mara, nor do the Gaonim discuss it in their writings and letters. But despite the paucity of evidence, certain aspects of this minhag seem rooted in the distant past.
The Significance of Water
The Sefer Maharil (1365-1427) is the first to mention Tashlich explicitly, explaining that it is based on a medrash: “People have a minhag of going after the seudah of Rosh Hashanah to seas or rivers to throw all our sins into the depths of the sea. This is because the medrash Zecher L’akeidas Yitzchok says that Avrohom went into a river up to his neck and said. Save me, Hashem, for the waters have come up to the soul (Tehillim 69:2). This [river] was the Satan that had become like a river to stop Avrohom from doing the Akeida.
In other words, we go to the seas and rivers to arouse the z ’chus of Avrohom who was not deterred by the deep waters of Satan’s watercourse.
The wording of the Maharil, “People have a minhag of going after the seudah, etc.,” intimates that the custom was established by his time. But when did it begin? Although it is impossible to know when Jews first started doing Tashlich as it is practiced in more recent times, ancient writings indicate that davening next to water has ancient precedents.
The Jewish philosopher, Philo, who lived in Egypt shortly before the Churban, mentions that Alexandrian Jews davened at the seashore during troubled times, Christian author, Tertullian (160-220 C.E.) mentions Jews organizing prayer meetings at seashores or riverbanks. Josephus (Antiquities ch. 14, 10:23) mentions that the town of Hahcarnassus issued a proclamation guaranteeing Jews their traditional right of holding prayer sessions next to water.
“We have decreed,” it was announced, “that as many men and women of the Jews as are willing so to do, may celebrate their Sabbaths, and perform their holy offices, according to Jewish laws; and may make their proseuchae [places of prayer] at the sea-side, according to the customs of their forefathers. If any one, whether magistrate or private person, hinders them from so doing, he shall be liable to a fine, to be applied to the uses of the city.”
The Gaonim tell us that a minhag similar to Tashlich existed in the time of the Gema- ra. In fact, this custom included elements of both Tashlich and Kapparos. Commenting on the word porpissa mentioned in the Ge- mara (Shabbos 81b), Rashi explains:
“I find in the responsa of the Gaonim that they used to make baskets from palm leaves and fill them with earth and manure. Twenty-two or fifteen days before Rosh Hashanah, each person would make one of these for each boy and girl in the house and sow it with Egyptian lentils or with peas. They called this a porpissa. It would grow, and on the day before Rosh Hashanah, each one would take his basket, revolve it around his head seven times, and say, ‘This instead of this, and this is in place of me, and this is in my stead.’ And he would throw it into the river.”
The Beis Meir (ch. 583) goes back further, finding roots for the minhag of Tashlich in Sefer Shmuel where the Plishtim capture the aron of the Bais Hamikdosh and return it after being afflicted by a plague. Afterwards, Shmuel tells the people that teshuvah is the only way to stop the Plishtim’s depredations: If you return to Hashem with all your hearts, put the strange gods and Ashtaros away from you and prepare your hearts to Hashem and serve him only, He will save you from the hand of the Plishtim (I Shmuel 7:2). In response, the people gathered at Mitzpeh where they drew water and poured it out before Hashem and fasted on that day and said there, We have sinned against Hashem (ibid 7:6). The Targum explains the verse as an allegory, saying that their hearts poured with repentance like water. But Rashi points out that according to the simple meaning of the verse, the people poured actual water as a sign of humility, as if to say: Before You, we are like this water that we have spilled. This episode may be the oldest link to the custom of Tashlich.
The Rashban (Rav Shlomo Tzvi Shick, a talmid of the Maharam Shick) finds additional scriptural correlations between Rosh Hashanah and water. He begins with sefer Nechemiah (8:1-3) that reports Klal Yisroel observing Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos after rebuilding the walls of Yerushalayim: On the first day of the seventh month [Rosh Ha- shanah], Ezra the Kohein brought the Torah before the congregation both of men and women… and read therein before the street that was before the water gate. The Rashban argues that the juxtaposition of this Rosh Hashanah ceremony next to the water gate was no coincidence, but an early precedent to the minhag of Tashlich. As to the association of Rosh Hashanah with water, Chazal comment on Shlomo’s anointment as king next to a river (Melochim 1:1), that that this symbolized that his kingdom should run smoothly as a river (Horayos 12). By the same token, the Rashban argues, we go to a water source on Rosh Hashanah to symbolize our acceptance of Hashem’s kingship (Siddur Rashban, volume 2 page 35b).
A Bone of Contention
Originally, Tashlich was practiced only among the Ashkenazim. A major influence of its spread among Sephardi communities was the dissemination of the Arizal’s customs throughout the Middle East. A principal factor in this process was Rav Chaim Vital’s Shaar Hakavonos that praises the minhag of Tashlich: “The minhag of the Ashkenazim to go on the first day of Rosh Hashanah after Mincha a little before sunset to the sea or to a spring, or a well of living water to say Tashlich, is a beautiful minhag, and it is better if done outside the town, etc.”
Although Rav Chaim Vital’s preference for reciting Tashlich out of town is no doubt based on kabalistic considerations, the sefer Minhag Yisroel writes that the preference might also have a historical basis — non- Jews might imagine that the Jews were poisoning their water sources. Indeed, this preposterous claim provoked pogroms during the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) of the 14th century. Perhaps suspicions such as these provoked the populace of the Russian town of Mogilev into attacking its Jewish population during Tashlich in the year 1645.
In this context, it is worth noting that Kurdish Jews used to suffer from Muslim opposition to shofar blowing. The world traveler, Yisroel Yosef Binyomin, first mentions this in his book, Eight Years in Africa.
“The Jews of that city [Rowandis] were [once] even sold like cattle, and attacked in that which to them is most sacred – their faith,” he writes. “Thus for instance on Rosh Hashanah, when the shofar sounded in the shul, the Kurds rushed into the shul attacked the women and maltreated them, broke the shofar, and compelled the Jews to desist from their ceremony ”
Enmity to shofar blowing was widespread in Kurdistan. A later traveler (Erich Brauer, The Jews of Kurdistan) found that in some districts the Kurdish Arabs still forbade the blowing of the shofar, perhaps due to fear of magic, and that in the town of Zebar Jews carried out the mitzvah of shofar blowing while hiding in a cave.