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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Pagan Customs

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.

Doing Teshuva

In my youth I did some horrible things - both unethical and illegal. Is it possible to make amends for having lived a sinful lifestyle? Sometimes I feel so low that I can't imagine how I'll ever get back up. Is my soul permanently stained from all this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It is never too late, for as the Sages teach: "As long as the flame is burning, we can still make amends."

Teshuva is the Jewish idea of return. When we "do teshuva," we examine our ways, identify those areas where we are losing ground, and return to our own previous state of spiritual purity. And in the process, we return to our connection with the Almighty as well.

Teshuva was created even before the world was created, because God knew that it would be needed. Nothing stands in the way of teshuva, and the very fact that you have made the important step of writing this letter means that you have already begun the process of teshuva.

For successful teshuva, we have to realize that God loves us - even in light of all the mistakes we've made. Realize that God understands you, that He's "cheering you on," and wants to help. Don't feel guilty; any mistakes you've made are part of a growth process to get where you are today. Growth is what God created us for, and even the hardships are the best thing for us. God is not the "big bully in the sky"; He's on your side.

The classic Jewish book, "Gates of Repentance" says that if you do teshuva out of love, you can even transform your mistakes into mitzvahs. Sort of like "dry cleaning for the soul."

The process of Teshuva involves four steps:

Step 1 - Regret. Realizing the extent of the damage and feeling sincere regret.

Step 2 - Cessation. Immediately stopping the harmful action.

Step 3 - Confession. Articulating the mistake and ask for forgiveness.

Step 4 - Resolution. Making a firm commitment not to repeat it in the future.

These steps go only so far, however. If our past actions have hurt another person, we must ask their forgiveness.

By the way, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most auspicious time to do Teshuva. Though it can be undertaken at any season of the year, at any time of day.

For a full discussion of this topic, see: www.aish.com/h/hh/gar/

Ruth's Conversion as Moabite?

I have a question about the Book of Ruth. As a Moabite, why was Ruth allowed to convert to Judaism, given the biblical injunction against accepting converts from the Moabite nation?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Excellent question! Before I answer, I need to add an important clarification to your question. The Torah does not exactly forbid a Moabite to convert, only to "enter the assembly of God" (Deut. 23:4). This is understood by the Talmud to mean that they may not marry a pedigreed Jew (Yevamot 77b). Thus, a Moabite may in fact convert, but may not subsequently marry into the Jewish people – but must rather marry another convert or a Jew of poor lineage. Although a Moabite may personally become Jewish and observe the mitzvot, as a result of the historic cruelty they showed to the Jewish people, the Torah did not permit their truly becoming a part of the nation (v. 5).

The question is thus not how Ruth could have converted, but how she could have subsequently married Boaz. In fact, Ruth's descendant – the illustrious King David – was hassled by some of the greatest scholars of his time claiming that Ruth's marriage had never been permitted, and so David was not fit to rule.

However, upon closer inspection we see that the Torah was precise in writing the word "Moabite" in the masculine form, indicating that only Moabite males are forbidden to marry in, but Moabite females are allowed to.

Initially her name was Gilith, but she changed it to Ruth when she married. The Hebrew name Rut (for Ruth) spelled backwards is "tur" which means dove. A dove is a bird that is allowed to be offered on the altar – symbolizing that Ruth was permitted to fully become a part of the Jewish people.

(Sources: Talmud – Yevamot 77a; Zohar Chadash – Ruth 78a)