August 19, 2011
Recipe for forgiveness: One slice of bread, one body of water. Break bread into small pieces. Add bread to water and watch the year’s sins float away.
Sure, that’s a huge oversimplification of the tashlich concept, but it does help explain why Jews all over the world throw bread into oceans, rivers and creeks on Rosh Hashanah.
At its most basic, tashlich (which means “to cast away”) is a spiritual ceremony designed to symbolically cast away one’s sins as we celebrate the new year and prepare for Yom Kippur. Pieces of bread are used to symbolize sins, which are then cast off into the water and taken away. Any body of water may be used, but a running body of water (such as a river or ocean) is preferred.
“I love tashlich,” said Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura.
“It’s one of those wonderful Jewish practices. It goes from having a simple communal value to having a deep personal value. In a way, it crystallizes the entire experience of the High Holy Days,” she said. “It’s very personal — only you know what is in your heart.”
Hochberg-Miller says that the requirements for tashlich are simple: a body of water, bread and a willingness to look inside yourself. Typically, tashlich is observed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, unless that happens to fall on Shabbat. In that case, tashlich may be performed on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Technically, tashlich can be done any time up until Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot.
When it comes to choosing bread, there are lots of opinions. A popular e-mail joke has been circulating for years about the appropriate variety of bread to use for various types of sins. For example, if your sins are complicated, choose multigrain bread. For sins of amour, go with French bread. For sins committed in haste, choose matzah. The humorous options add a bit of levity to an otherwise solemn observance. Truth be told, any bread will do.
Many 30-, 40- and 50-somethings have scant memories of observing the custom of tashlich as children, but there seems to be a resurgence in the practice.
“I think it was one of those pieces of Judaism that was probably hidden away in the Orthodox world,” Hochberg-Miller said. “It was sort of rediscovered in the 1970s by Jews who were looking for ways to make Judaism richer and more meaningful.”
Today, many congregations make the observance of tashlich an event. Gatherings at nearby creeks, rivers and especially beaches, can turn into all-day affairs. In the Los Angeles area, Balboa Park, Marina del Rey and Marina Park are popular options.
Perhaps the central focus of tashlich is that it helps us work toward self-improvement.
“For people who are really taking the fullness of the High Holy Days into their hearts, there is that notion of self-reflection and moving past last year,” Hochberg-Miller said. “Working to improve ourselves is an incredible mandate of Judaism — continuing to be mindful of how you are as a person.”
This concept is not lost on the younger generation. Michelle Starkman of West Hills says her children, both of whom attend Jewish day school at Kadima, look forward to observing tashlich with their family and schoolmates.
“I think it make the kids think about their actions and their reactions,” she said. “And the impact that those things have on others around them. During tashlich, they are washing their misdeeds away — or what they perceive as misdeeds — and asking forgiveness from God. But it’s all in a way that is easy for the kids to understand.”
Hochberg-Miller says that the practice of cleansing one’s sins takes a physical act and makes it a spiritual one. “Just like Pesach, when we clean out the chametz from our homes, tashlich is a physical act that shows how our faith requires action. The most important thing is that our faith lead to action.”