Tag Archives: Arizal

The Origins and Meaning of Tashlich

‘Hasidic Jews Performing Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah’ by Aleksander Gierymski (1884)

On Rosh Hashanah, there is a widespread custom to go to a body of water and symbolically “shake off” one’s sins into the water. This little ritual is called Tashlich (more accurately, Tashlikh), a name that comes from Micah 7:19, where the prophet declares that God will “cast away”, tashlikh, all of the people’s sins into the depths of the sea. Where did this custom come from, and why are some people careful to avoid it?

A look through the sources reveals that no ancient text, mystical or otherwise, mentions Tashlich. It is not in the Zohar. It is not in the Shulchan Arukh either. It is discussed by the Rama, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (c. 1530-1572), who wrote the “tablecloth” to the Shulchan Arukh to incorporate Ashkenazi traditions. Tashlich did indeed originate as an Ashkenazi custom. The earliest source to mention it is the Maharil of Mainz (Rabbi Ya’akov Levi Moelin, c. 1365-1427). The Maharil explained that the reason for going to a body of water is to recall the famous Midrash about Abraham and Isaac on their way to the Akedah (which took place on Rosh Hashanah), when Satan drew up a large river before them to stop them from fulfilling God’s command. Undeterred, they went into the torrential waters anyway and continued on their journey.

The Rama adds more, and connects the practice with Creation itself. After all, Rosh Hashanah commemorates Creation, which began with the Spirit of God “hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). He also notes the Micah verse above, and that we are metaphorically casting away our sins into the sea (but not literally casting them away, of course—one still needs to genuinely repent!) The Rama was a contemporary of the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572), and the two probably passed away in the very same year. The Arizal’s father was Ashkenazi, but he was raised by his Sephardi mother and uncle in Egypt. As such, the Arizal conducted his life entirely according to Sephardic norms, prayers, and customs—except for the High Holidays, when he followed the Ashkenazi rite. The Arizal was therefore quite familiar with Ashkenazi High Holiday customs, and it was through him that Tashlich spread to the Sephardic and Mizrachi world as well.

Not surprisingly, the Arizal is the first kabbalist to have spoken about Tashlich. In Sha’ar HaKavanot on Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Chaim Vital (who was Sephardi) records the Arizal’s teachings, and starts by reminding us “The meaning of the custom instituted by the Ashkenazim to go on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after Minchah, a bit before sunset, to the sea or to a spring or to a well, which they call Tashlikh… and recite there three times the verses ‘Mi El kamocha…’” (Micah 7:18-20) The Arizal goes on to explain that the verses in Micah have 13 parts which parallel God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy, as follows:

מי אל כמוך א’. נושא עון ב’. ועובר על פשע ג’. לשארית נחלתו ד’. לא החזיק לעד אפו ה’. כי חפץ חסד הוא ו’. ישוב ירחמנו ז’. יכבוש עוונותינו ח’. ותשליך במצולות ים כל חטאתם ט’. תתן אמת ליעקב י’. חסד לאברהם י”א. אשר נשבעת לאבותינו י”ב. מימי קדם י”ג

The Arizal explains at length the deeper mystical meaning here, and how the 13 parallel the 13 parts of God’s “image” or “visage”, so to speak. (These correspond to the 13 “locks” of the beard, as explored in ‘Shaving and the Mystical Power of Beards’ in Garments of Light.)

The Arizal then explains that there is a powerful allusion in the words m’tzulot yam, “depths of the sea”. He points out that m’tzulot (מצלות) is an anagram of tzel mavet (צל מות), the “shadow of death” that King David mentions in Psalms. Last week, we saw how “Shadow of Death” is one of the seven realms of the underworld. The Arizal says that m’tzulot yam is another name for the Primordial Serpent and the forces of evil. The Arizal does not state that performing Tashlich will save one from these forces, rather it is the study of Torah that offers protection from m’tzulot yam. So, Tashlich is really only a symbolic ritual. For this reason, even many kabbalists avoided performing Tashlich.

The most famous of these kabbalists is the Vilna Gaon, who was one of the great expositors of the Arizal’s Kabbalah. Nonetheless, and despite being Ashkenazi himself, the Vilna Gaon did not perform Tashlich (see Ma’aseh Rav #209). Others cautioned against Tashlich for halakhic reasons, since it is forbidden to feed wild animals on Shabbat or Yom Tov, and those that empty out their pockets into the water may inadvertently provide crumbs for fish. (Some people intentionally throw bread crumbs into the water, which is definitely forbidden, and the Maharil himself mentions this.) Although the custom spread by way of the Arizal to the Sephardi world, there are still numerous Sephardi and Mizrachi communities that do not do Tashlich either. Those that do should only symbolically shake the corners of their clothes or tzitzit. Truly, even this is not necessary, as the Arizal did not mention it, and only describes the prayers and mystical meditations to have while by a body of water.

A final note on the connection between Tashlich and tzitzit. On a mystical level, tzitzit connects to the great “electric” mystical force known as chashmal (חשמל), which can be split into ח׳ שמל, a garment with a fringe of eight strings (this was explored in depth in ‘The Secret Power of Tzitzit’ in Garments of Light, Volume Two). Wearing tzitzit serves as a sort of “force field” against the forces of evil. Such a garment also protects from m’tzulot yam, especially if the tzitzit are dyed blue with tekhelet, as the Torah intends. Our Sages state that the blue is for the colour of the sea, which reflects the sky, which is symbolic of God’s blue sapphire throne. Hidden away within the Throne is the Or haGanuz, the divine light of Creation which, as mentioned in multiple sources (such as in Yalkut Shimoni here, for instance), is destined to destroy all the forces of evil in the time to come.

Shana Tova u’Metuka!

Counter-Sefirot and the Seven Chambers of Hell

This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, records some of Moses’ final instructions to the people before his passing, and what the nation should do upon entering the Holy Land. Among these things is to have the Twelve Tribes divided upon two mountains, and pronounce a set of curses and blessings. The Torah records a total of 11 distinct curses. Although the word “cursed” appears twelve times, the last instance is only a general statement that “Cursed be the one who does not uphold the words of this Torah, to fulfill them…”

In his mystical commentary on this week’s parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim), the Arizal explains that the 11 curses are neutralized by the 11 ingredients of the special Ketoret incense. Similarly, they are blocked by the 11 curtains of the Mishkan. Why specifically 11? The Arizal explains that just as there are Ten Sefirot in the realm of holiness, there are ten opposing “counter-Sefirot” forces in the realm of kelipah, the unholy “husks”. These ten counter-Sefirot have an additional 11th source which gives them energy, since they are otherwise empty on their own. This is unlike the holy Sefirot, each of which is imbued with, and shines forth, its own unique energy and light. Having said that, among the Sefirot there is indeed an eleventh aspect, too, which is the unifying Da’at (itself portrayed as only the inverse of Keter).

Although Rabbi Chaim Vital records little else in Sha’ar HaPesukim that the Arizal said on Ki Tavo, we do know that the Arizal’s source for the counter-Sefirot was actually the Zohar—not on this week’s parasha, but on parashat Pekudei. In one of the longest, most complex, and most esoteric passages of the Zohar (starting at II, 242b), we learn about the energies that oppose (and, in some ways, balance out) the Sefirot in the realm of the Sitra Achra, the “Other Side”. Making sense of the Zohar’s cryptic language is a huge challenge, and I hope to do it some justice in the overview that follows. Continue reading

The Origins and Meaning of ‘Lecha Dodi’

The Haftarah for this week’s parasha, Shoftim, has several phrases that are very familiar from our prayers, such as hit’oreri hit’oreri (התעוררי התעוררי), uri uri (עורי עורי), and hitna’ari m’afar kumi (התנערי מעפר קומי). We recognize these words, of course, from the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat song of ‘Lecha Dodi’—but they are originally adapted from the prophecies of Isaiah. The first letters of the eight main stanzas of ‘Lecha Dodi’ spell Shlomo haLevi (שלמה הלוי), alluding to the author of the song, Rabbi Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576).

Rabbi Alkabetz was born in Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki, Greece) to a Sephardic family. He was a student of the great Rabbi Yosef Taitazak (1465-1546), who was among the Spanish Jewish exiles of 1492 and settled in Salonica. Rabbi Taitazak would become the “father” of the Tzfat Kabbalists, for many of his students (including Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488-1575) were from, or settled in, Tzfat and transformed it into the capital of Jewish mysticism. Another one of Rabbi Taitazak’s students was Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the “Ramak”, 1522-1570), who was the brother-in-law of Rabbi Alkabetz. Together, the Ramak and Rabbi Alkabetz famously popularized the ancient mystical practice of staying up all night to study Torah on Shavuot.

Tzfat in the 19th Century

Rabbi Alkabetz settled in Tzfat in 1535. One of the notable practices of the Tzfat Kabbalists was to go out into the fields on Friday evening to welcome the “Sabbath Queen”. This is based on the Talmud (Shabbat 119a), which says that Rabbi Chanina would do so, as did Rabbi Yannai, who would also call out bo’i kallah, bo’i kallah. In another place, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 32b) adds that some would say to go out likrat Shabbat, kallah, malkata, to welcome the Sabbath Bride and Queen. The Tzfat Kabbalists resurrected this ancient practice. Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the preeminent student and scribe of the great Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), records in his Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar Shabbat) the Arizal’s precise procedure for Kabbalat Shabbat:

He would go out into the fields and first recite Psalm 29 (‘Mizmor l’David’). Then he would say bo’i kallah three times, followed by Psalm 92 (‘Mizmor Shir l’Yom haShabbat’). That was it! The Arizal would then return home, and had another set of rituals around the meal table. One of these was to recite the words Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru, to recall the mitzvah of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments. Recall that in the first passage of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, God says zachor et yom haShabbat, to “commemorate” the Sabbath day, while in the second passage of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses recorded it as shamor et yom haShabbat, to “safeguard” the Sabbath day. Our Sages explained that God had said both words simultaneously—the people heard zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad, to “commemorate” and “safeguard” in a single utterance.

The Arizal passed away in 1572, while Rabbi Alkabetz outlived him and passed away in 1576 (or 1580 according to alternate sources). We do not know for certain when Rabbi Alkabetz wrote ‘Lecha Dodi’, but it is quite possible that it was composed in his final years, as the Kabbalah of the Arizal was already spreading. A major clue is that Rabbi Alkabetz incorporated the Arizal’s practice of reciting Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad into his song (though it is possible that the Arizal had himself adopted the practice from earlier Tzfat Kabbalists). Rabbi Alkabetz also included the key words from the Talmud, and the phrases from this week’s Haftarah about the Final Redemption and rebuilding of Jerusalem, among other Biblical verses. Encrypted into the popular song are some fundamental and profound ideas. Let’s take a deeper look into what the verses of ‘Lecha Dodi’ really mean. Continue reading