1545 Bushkill Street
Easton, PA 18042
Phone: (610) 258-5343
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Thursday, 7:25 am
Minyan

Friday, 8:00 pm
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Saturday, 9:30 am
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BAS Rabbi's Message

Rabbi's Message Archive

September, 2014

Not infrequently, I am asked about the Jewish view of angels, demons, ghosts, ghouls, and the general world of supernatural spirits. Although there is a rich folk tradition filled with this material, much of it has been suppressed in the modern periods. Academics, influenced by the enlightenment, had little time for such superstitions. Their general attitude was famously summed up in the following (perhaps apocryphal) tale.

[A word about the players: Gershom Scholem was the foremost scholar of kabbalah and mysticism in the modern period; Saul Lieberman was a great, rational student of Talmud. Louis Finkelstein—recorded here as “grandpa” by his grandson Professor Ernest Davis— was the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary].

Gershom Sholem was once in substantial need of money because his wife needed an operation, so he made inquiries about teaching a course at the Seminary. Grandpa didn't really want him there, though, since there were no students to work with him and since he was not observant. So Grandpa suggested that, instead of having him teach, the Seminary would give him the same money — $10,000 — as a special prize for having created the field of the history of Jewish mysticism. Scholem realized what was behind the offer, and was somewhat annoyed. Lieberman, however, persuaded him that it would be a good thing. ‘If you teach the course,’ he pointed out, ‘you lose a third of it in taxes. Prizes are tax-exempt.’

At the presentation of this award, Lieberman began his speech, "Nonsense is nonsense. But the history of nonsense is scholarship.” Given this attitude, it is not surprising that scant research has been done into the field of Jewish superstition. What might surprise some is that one of the greatest books on the subject was written by Joshua Trachtenberg, once the rabbi of Temple Covenant of Peace here in Easton. As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, it is worth looking at one of his insights, into the observance of Tashlich. In Jewish Magic and Superstition, he writes:

[T]he rite of Tashlich, observed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, [derives] its name from the words of Micah 7:19, "Thou wilt cast (tashlich) all their sins into the depths of the sea." The first direct reference to it in its modern form is by R. Jacob Mölln (Maharil, d. 1425), and the general impression has therefore been that it originated not earlier than the fourteenth century, with the German Jews. Professor Lauterbach, however, has shown that this ceremony represents merely the latest version of a complex of superstitious practices centering about the belief in the existence of spirits in bodies of water, which reaches back to remote antiquity....

Whatever its origin, the explanations varied widely. Maharil viewed it as a symbolic affirmation of faith: according to a Midrashic legend, when Abraham was on his way to fulfill God's demand that he sacrifice Isaac, Satan flung a swift-flowing stream across his path, but the patriarch pressed forward, confident that God would respond to his plea for aid. Mölln, then, stressed the mere act of visiting a river as paramount, and in fact, opposed the practice of throwing crumbs into it. Others suggested that since the limitless deep saw the beginning of Creation, visiting a body of water on New Year was the most impressive reminder of the Creator's might; or that man should emulate the river, endlessly renewing itself, forswear his evil ways and return home a new man; or that the fish which devour the crumbs illustrate the plight of man, who is "as the fishes that are taken in an evil net" (Eccl. 9:12), and arouse him to repentance; or, again, that the fish, whose eyes never close, symbolize the Guardian of Israel who slumbereth not. These explanations only too patently evade the main issue, the bread offering to the spirits. Under Kabbalistic influence an attempt was made to limit the rite to shaking one's clothes at the river-side ("to dislodge the kelippot," the clinging demons of sin) and reciting various prayers and Biblical selections "whose secret significance is very profound." What the popular conception of the purpose of this rite was may be gleaned from the rabbinic animadversions against "those men, with as little sense as a woman, who say, 'I am going to the river to shake off my sins,' and grasping the edges of their garments shake them violently and imagine that in this way they can slough off a whole year's transgressions." However, it is with this meaning for the masses that the ceremony has survived.

Dena, Miri, and I wish you all a Shana Tova--a sweet year filled with blessings and good health. We look forward to greeting you over the holiday season, whether you join us for Tashlich or any other service.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah--May you be inscribed for a good year!

Rabbi Stein