Pagan Customs

August 20, 2011 | by

I am interested in the idea that Jews, living in the Diaspora, have modified their observance of Jewish holidays as they have become influenced by the cultures of the countries they live in.

I'm in a two-year adult B'nai Mitzvah program and am beginning to think about a research project. A guest lecturer was here for a weekend and spoke about folk Judaism. As part of one of her talks, she mentioned some of the pagan roots of Jewish rituals (for example, feeding the river god became Tashlich) and the ability of Judaism to incorporate some of the pagan practices and transform them into something Jewish.

It is the historical precedent for these kinds of ideas that interests me -- how the rabbis adapted parts of the rich pagan culture at the time to make Jewish practice more vibrant and accessible to the people. If you have any suggestions for where I can look, I'd love to hear them.

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Typically, the starting point of comparative religion operates on the "law of conservation of ideas" -- i.e. a presumption that two similar practices must have common cores.

But I don't believe this can be applied to Jewish tradition. On the contrary, adopting (or adapting) pagan practices is expressly forbidden by the Torah: "Do not follow any of their traditions" (Leviticus 18:3). This specific injunction not to adopt the customs of the non-Jewish world is repeated in Leviticus 20:23 and Deuteronomy 12:30.

Does this mean that Jews cannot use Velcro, the internet, and other inventions of non-Jewish society?! Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (19th century Germany) explains:

"You may imitate the nations among whom you live in everything which has been adopted by them on rational grounds. But do not imitate anything which is irrational, or has been adopted on grounds derived from their religion, or for forbidden or immoral purposes." ("Horeb" #505)

To cite one practical example, it is forbidden to play the organ in a synagogue, since it is copying a non-Jewish religious practice. ("Sridei Aish")

One incident we know of where Jews tried to take a pagan incident and make it Jewish is the episode of the Golden Calf. Ancient Egyptians believed in a plethora of gods; one such demigod was "Apis" whose head was that of a bull. Apis's job was to take the prayers of the people to the gods and to deliver their bounty in return. It would seem that the Jewish people saw Moses as a sort of intermediary. Hence when they thought that Moses was dead, they needed a new intermediary - and so they resurrected Apis.

Let's examine the specific example you mention of Tashlich, the custom of going down to a river on Rosh Hashana and "casting away our sins." I don't think this could have derived from paganism. Why? Because the custom of Tashlich is only a few centuries old. It is not mentioned in the Talmud (5th century) or in the codification of Maimonides (11th century). It was first mentioned by the Rema (16th century) in his notes on the Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 583:2). Thus, "Tashlich" came about many centuries after idol worship ceased to be an issue!

Actually, many commentators do not approve of emptying the pockets during Tashlich, for the specific reason that it may be originally a pagan custom of "giving the devil his due." (Primitive man believed that evil spirits lived in streams and wells.) Of course, it is foolish to think one can rid sins by shaking out his pockets. Rather, the Jewish approach is deep introspection and commitment to change.

So what is the source of Tashlich? It is derived from the Midrash which says that when Abraham went to the Akeida (binding of Isaac), he had to cross through water up to his neck. This was God's way of giving Abraham added reward, for overcoming an obvious excuse to turn back. The Akeida occurred on Rosh Hashana, and represents the quintessential act of commitment to God. (Mishnah Berurah 583:8)

(By the way, blowing a ram's horn on Rosh Hashana is also party related to the fact that the Akeida occurred on Rosh Hashana, when a ram's horn was caught in the bush -- see Genesis 22:13.)

Furthermore, there are even precedents in Jewish law where we adopt practices specifically because they are the opposite of non-Jewish practices. The Taz (17th century Europe) explains this as the source for wearing a yarmulke, either all the time, or at least in synagogue. Non-Jews would traditionally take of their hats as a sign of respect, for example when meeting a dignitary or when praying in Church. (When I visited Lenin's tomb in Moscow, everyone was required to remove his hat before entering.) So because of the Torah directive "not to follow their traditions," Jewish men began wearing a head-covering at all times.

There is a good book on this topic, called "Why Jews Do What They Do: The History of Jewish Customs," by Daniel Sperber. For more classical sources, see Tosfot (Avoda Zara 11a), Sefer HaChinuch #262, Maharik 88, and Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:53.

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