On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a body of flowing water with fish and some bread crumbs are all that’s needed to begin the transformative process of tashlich. (Edmon J. Rodman)
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Can ridding oneself of a year’s sins really be as simple as tossing a piece of bread into the water?
Basically that’s tashlich, or “casting away,” a custom that many Jews practice each year at the seashore, lakeshore, stream or even koi pond. Simply find a place with flowing water and fish, and toss in a piece of bread (others turn out their pockets) to symbolically cast off sins.
Any place with fish will do, as their eyes are always wide open — symbolically like God — watching.
But is it really that easy? The list of transgressions we will recite on Yom Kippur is a long and complicated alphabet of falling short, and each year standing before the water, I wonder how can tashlich possibly work?
I’m not alone.
The commentary in the Rabbinical Assembly’s Machzor Lev Shalem, which has a tashlich service, points out that “Some rabbis opposed Tashlich because it makes the complex process of separating sin from our lives seem too facile.”
Too easy or not, for the growing number of Jews I see at the beach each year, tashlich does seem to provide the crust of a new us.
The custom, which is not mentioned in the Talmud and has origins dating probably to the Middle Ages, is related to a verse in the Book of Micah (Chapter 7-19) that during tashlich is usually recited:
“He will take us back in love / He will cover up our iniquities / You will hurl (v’tashlich) all our sins / Into the depths of the sea.”
Maybe tashlich works because like our confession on Yom Kippur, it’s all so public. It’s one of those moments when we each get to see each other’s sins — or at least an expression of them — and discover that we’re not alone.
Standing side by side with other casters, we see the size and type of bread they toss and let the interpretations fly. Last year I received an email with some of those interpretations: pretzels for twisted sins, rice cakes for tasteless sins, a long loaf for laziness.
But in terms of size, does a bigger piece mean a bigger sinner? I suppose, or perhaps simply someone who likes to feed the fish.
Regardless, when the group is done tossing, the bread washes up on the beach: crusts, crumbs, crackers — while in terms of spirituality, I am still looking for the Wonder Bread.
Why bread anyway to represent our sins? Is it all those evil carbohydrates?
In another use of High Holy Days symbolism, on Yom Kippur we read about the scapegoat chosen to carry all the sins of Israel and then sent into the wilderness. At tashlich if the bread is our goat, then for me that’s a lot on which to chew.
My slice is that bread, in Jewish tradition, the thing our homes are not supposed to be without — represents the every day — the very thing we are trying to change.
At the New Year, whether placing my errors on a goat or on rye, the issue is does casting them away create space for change?
Last year before the High Holidays, tossing away two garbage bags full of column false starts, meanderings and half-finished angry letters gave me room to move creatively. Would tossing away a piece of bread, psychologically speaking, provide room to move in other ways as well?
Looking for an answer, I contacted Chaya Lester, a Jerusalem psychotherapist and observant Jew who believes that tashlich is the first step toward making a change. Last year, Lester wrote a piece titled “The Psychology of Tashlich” on her jpost blog in which she said that “Tashlich is like Jewish ritual medicine. It’s a classic psycho-spiritual technique for inner cleansing and health.”
According to Lester, with whom I spoke recently, before tossing their bread away an individual should ask, “What happened this year that should now have my attention?”
“The individual needs to be conscious of the personal issue that they are placing on the bread,” she said. “Movement happens when we access the power of our emotions.”
“Write down the top 10 things that you want to cast off,” said Lester, who with her husband, Rabbi Hillel Lester, founded the Shalev Center, a place for personal Jewish growth in Jerusalem.
Lester, who sees tashlich as “transformative,” suggested that after tossing away their bread, individuals need to ask, “What should my action be? What is my next step?”
Lester and family observe tashlich at a lake in Jerusalem where the fish come up and take the tossed bread.
“It connects me to the Jonah story,” said Lester, referring to the haftarah that is read each year on Yom Kippur afternoon and with verses — “you cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea” — that also are recited at tashlich.
When we do tashlich, we are “casting out the negative narrative, authoring a new story,” she said, referring to the High Holy Days’ sefer chayim, the book of life.
And that’s the wonder, bread or no, we all seek.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org).