September 25, 2003
Cast Thy Sins Away
If you've ever been to Ocean Parkway -- that long thoroughfare traversing all neighborhoods Brooklyn, connecting the BQE from "The City" (Manhattan), to the Belt Parkway from Long Island -- you'd have seen the two "island" streets lining the two outer streets like an Israeli flag, where old men played chess, young mothers strolled their children and we teenagers hung out.
And one afternoon a year, when a tease of a chill hovered in the air, and the dark green leaves prepared to change into their red outfits, thousands of people would stream out onto Ocean Parkway and head en masse toward the center of the long thoroughfare, as if they were called by a Pied Piper or beckoned by an alien spaceship.
If you were Jewish -- and who wasn't in Brooklyn? -- you were celebrating Rosh Hashanah, and you were going "to do Tashlich," as we said in our Hinglish (Hebraicized English).
Tashlich, which means "you will cast away" in Hebrew, refers to the custom of throwing bread into a live body of water to symbolize ridding yourself of your sins.
The ritual -- one of many steps of repentance beginning the month before Rosh Hashanah and culminating on the fast of Yom Kippur -- has, in recent decades, grown so much in popularity that what started as a little-known custom with few historical sources has entered the mainstream: One of these years, on the High Holidays, Tashlich will be as ubiquitous as apples and honey.
If you want to see how Tashlich has gone mainstream, watch the beaches: Here in SoCal, from Malibu down to Manhattan Beach, on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (or the second, if the first day of the Holiday falls on Shabbat), you are sure to find a crowd -- one that is bigger than last year's -- heading toward the ocean, preparing to throw away their sins.
Surely, Tashlich has reached the tipping point because there is even a joke Tashlich e-mail circulating on the Internet:
"Occasionally people ask what kind of breadcrumbs should be thrown," the e-mail reads. "Here are some suggestion for breads, which may be most appropriate for specific sins andmisbehaviors:
For ordinary sins..................White Bread
For complex sins..................Multigrain
For twisted sins.........................Pretzels
For sins of indecision...................Waffles
For sins committed in haste......Matzah
For sins of chutzpah..............Fresh Bread
For substance abuse......Stoned Wheat..."
What's the meaning of this custom? Where did it come from? And why the sudden surge in the practice?
"In recent years, for reasons that have nothing to do with the ceremony itself, Tashlich has become a very social mitzvah," Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in "Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History " (William Morrow, 2001).
"People often descend on the same body of water from different neighborhoods, where they encounter friends and acquaintances they may not have seen since the preceding Tashlich. Partially for that reason, even though the ceremony itself is solemn -- Tashlich has become more widely observed."
We Brooklyn Jews, of course, were religious trendsetters, practicing a giant community Tashlich since the 1970s. Each Rosh Hashanah, at about 4 p.m., tens of thousands of people slowly inched along the parkway, making their way through the sea of black hats, knitted kippahs, wigs, and coiffed heads that stretched as far as Ocean Parkway could go. It was the height of fashion, literally: one year, The New York Times even sent a photographer for the Sunday Styles Section. Our accessories? A bag of bread and the Rosh Hashanah Machzor, which had the liturgy for the ceremony from the prophet Micah (7:18-20):
"Who is like you God? You forgive sins and overlook transgressions,
For the survivors of Your People;
He does not retain His anger forever, for He loves kindness;
He will return and show us mercy, and overcome our sins,
And You will cast into the depths of the sea all their sins;
You will show kindness to Yaakov and mercy to Avraham,
As You did promise to our fathers of old."
While the first official mention of Tashlich only dates back to the 14th century, most commentators agree that the idea of Tashlich emanated from the same biblical passage that gave us the custom of the shofar, the ram's horn blown on the High Holidays.
Both customs are performed in remembrance of The Sacrifice of Issac, the Genesis portion we read the second day of Rosh Hashanah. When God commanded Abraham to "take your son, you only son" Isaac and bind him and sacrifice him to prove his devotion to God, Satan was given permission to put obstacles in Abraham's way in order to weaken his devotion. Finally, Satan placed an impassable river in Abraham's path, but it did not stop our plucky forefather. With his son in tow, he entered the river, until it came up to their necks -- and then called out to God for help, and the river disappeared.
The custom of going to a body of water, the rabbis say, is to remember Abraham's perseverance and devotion to God, and in our time of repentance, we should exhibit similar devotion, no matter the obstacles.
At Tashlich, when we recite the prayer, "Grant truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham, as you swore to our fathers from ancient times. In distress I call upon God, With abounding relief, God answered me" -- we are recalling Abraham's ancient cry for help.
By the 15th century, though, there was opposition to the practice of Tashlich. Some rabbis opposed it on religious grounds, because of the prohibition of feeding fish on a holiday. Yet fish are an integral part of Tashlich: The Kabbalah teaches that water symbolizes kindness and fish, with their ever-open eyes, are like the ever-watchful eye of God. (Today, many observant Jews perform Tashlich on a weekday, usually on the day before Yom Kippur, but even as late as Hoshanah Rabah, the seventh day of Succot, which is technically, the "extended" deadline for Tashlich as well as for the final closing of the Book of Life.)
Later, 18th-century maskelim (educated Jews) opposed Tashlich because they thought it primitive. But much of the opposition to Tashlich emanated from the fear of anti-Semitism: In the days of well-poisoning and blood-letting accusations, having a group of Jews walk en masse to a body of water to throw bread into it while chanting a prayer didn't exactly help race relations. Some rabbis forbade the practice, others encouraged their followers to do it secretly, and some people just symbolically emptied out crumbless pockets.
In Brooklyn, we had plenty of crumbs to throw at Tashlich -- just not a whole lot of water. Despite the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island, for some reason everyone made their way to this one landlocked yeshiva. You had to wait your turn -- okay, it was Brooklyn, so you had to push your way -- up to the black spike metal fence. After you said the prayers, you tossed your bread toward the center of the patch of grass, upon which stood a three-tiered bird bath. I hoped that if I made the shot, my sins would be cleansed.
But would they? Behind the bird bath, over the hundreds of pieces of challah littering the floor, was a sign that read, "Please Do Not Throw Bread."
So how important is the bread throwing anyway? For that matter, why bother engaging in the whole repentance process if we can just throw away all of our sins in one fell swoop? (Okay, for some of us it might take more than one throw to get rid of our sins...)
Tashlich is not the only repentance custom that suffers from literalness (throwing out bread = throwing out sins); it is similar to kaparos (atonement), the ritual practiced on the day before Yom Kippur. During kaparos you wave a live chicken over your head and then slaughter it, saying, "This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption. This chicken is going to be killed, and I shall enter upon a long, happy and peaceful life."
The slaughtered chicken is then donated to charity. Today, many people wave a bag of coins over their head instead of a chicken, as they are discomfited by the voodoo-ishness of the ceremony, which has also drawn, at times, rabbinic disapproval.
Both Tashlich and kaparos, though, find their roots in the "Scapegoat for Azazel," literally, the goat that Aaron was commanded to send off into the wilderness in place of the nation's sins.
Here's the thing, though. You're not supposed to take any of these things literally: the bread we throw into the water, the chicken we slaughter, the goat which was sometimes actually thrown off a mountain to repent for the Nation of Israel -- they are not our sins.
How can they be? Repentance, for us, is a complex process involving introspection, confession, apology and the pledging not to repeat your transgressions, not a simple equation of confession and absolution ("Forgive me father, for I have sinned..."). So the question remains, why bother with Tashlich at all?
"There's something about the ocean," mused Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, when asked what the custom means to him.
"It's always changing, reshaping and reforming," Leder said. "It's a powerful place to do a powerful thing."
The Reform movement only recently adopted this custom. Even so, the Wilshire congregants have embraced the custom wholeheartedly.
"It's an opportunity to do something concrete and symbolic in the same moment," Leder said. "The best Jewish practices connect both symbolically and physically."
Leder said some 500 people come to the beach, where everyone builds a long "wall of sand" which rises about 4 feet and stretches hundreds of feet down the beach.
People inscribe their sins on the wall of sand, and then grab fistfuls of the wall and toss the sand into the ocean.
"We want to do it in an ecological yet dramatic way," Leder said.
Mishkon Tephilo's Rabbi Dan Shevitz is also concerned with the environmental effects of Tashlich, which is why he makes sure his group of hundreds clean up after themselves and feed the fish in moderation. But for him, the main problem is the entire concept of getting rid of your sins, shrugging them off like yesterday's outfit.
"We don't throw our sins out. As we have learned from environmentalists, there is no such thing as out. One can no longer flush [bread] into the sea and pretend it's not there anymore," he said.
His Conservative temple has been practicing Tashlich since its inception in 1918, Shevitz said. But he tries to make it about feeding the fish, rather than unburdening yourself of sin.
"We don't simply get rid of things, we have to improve them," Shevitz said. Your sins are a part of you, and if you try to throw it into the ocean, the wind will just throw it back in your face, he said.
"Real transformation [recognizes] that you are who you are, you have what you have, and you improve incrementally."
Can we get rid of our sins? Can we erase the past? Traditional liturgy seems to believe so. "Repentance, Prayer and Righteous acts temper judgement's severe decree," we say in the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer.
"Repentance is not rational," explained Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Simon Wisenthal Center's Project NextStep.
"There is really no human way of undoing what you've done. It is counterintuitive. But the holiday season teaches us that if we take the first steps, God will take care of the rest. The scapegoat of Leviticus symbolized our ability to rid ourselves of sins simply by completely dissociating ourselves from them, by exiling them far from our immediate world. Tashlich tells us the same -- that not all sins penetrate to the core, but we can change if we will it."
This Sunday, when we stand at the water's edge, the sun blinding us as it begins to gracefully ascent, we will rip off chunks of challah and cast it off into the tumultuous blue waters. Maybe a seagull will dive down and grab it, or a hungry fish will jump up in an arc and gobble it up.
Perhaps these creatures will have swallowed our sins, thus cleansing our souls, and ending the teshuva process.
On the other hand, having rid ourselves -- symbolically or literally -- of our worst transgressions, perhaps it signifies not an ending, but a beginning. After Tashlich, we are now ready to start anew.
For information on Tashlich services, see our Calendar on page 54.