Casting off sins to cleanse the soul

Students from Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School walked to a nearby pond to perform tashlich last week. Photo: Patty Bloom/SMJCS

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The words of Carol Rubin float through the September air with a solemn, meditative quality as she encourages the dozens of grade schoolers surrounding her to control their breathing while they focus their attention inward.

“In through your nose,” she repeats quietly. “Out through your mouth.”

She pushes the group to consider the gift of time they’ve been given to reflect on their lives and how they might improve themselves and make the world a better place.

“Remember faces,” intones Rubin softly. “Remember meaningful moments of joy, sadness, accomplishment and challenge and ask yourself ‘What promise did I make to myself last year? What behavior did I promise never to do again?’”

But as the children begin to unleash a fusillade of wadded bread into the lake, it becomes clear that this is no neither a New Age relaxation technique nor the latest self-help idea. Instead, Rubin, director of Jewish Life at the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, is leading her charges through tashlich, a centuries-old Rosh Hashanah ceremony that encourages observers to cast off past sins for the new year. This group of children will be experiencing the first such observance at SMJCS, which is marking its inaugural year in existence.

Fifth grader Bella Segal seemed to appreciate the meaning.

“[You] can just take bad behaviors with tashlich and throw them into the river and get rid of them,” said the 10-year-old. “It’s done and you’ve got a fresh table to fill with all your better deeds.”

Rubin said it’s a part of the High Holidays to which children can really relate.

“I think they got the message that this is a time to reflect and be mindful of our behaviors and that Judaism really gives us time to do that and make changes for the coming year,” said Rubin, who has done this ceremony with students for 13 years. “It’s a gift and if we keep repeating that, I do think they get it.”

Bread is the material most often used to symbolize sins and unwanted personality traits to be ejected from one’s character but it’s not the only one. Rubin said in the past she’s led groups using birdseed or pieces of paper with sins written in watercolor, which is then dipped in liquid so they disappear.

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona said that tashlich is old but not ancient, with the first instances appearing among  13th Century Jews, particularly those in Europe, though Sephardic communities also adopted the practice by the 1500s. Meaning to “cast off,” the idea comes from Micah who spoke of casting sins into the depths of the sea. 

The tradition of using bread seems to derive from emptying one’s pockets of crumbs in symbolic preparation for the new year. Yet Rose said that in some ceremonies, burning straw is used or pieces of paper with sins written on them.

“In some places in the world they actually take themselves into the water, much more in line with the Jonah notion,” said Rose. “They actually went into the water and it was cleansed and any negativity that was on them was carried away so they were purified.”

This was something Rose was willing to try. One year, he promised congregants that if enough showed up for the shul’s tashlich at a nearby lake, he would take a dip himself. He even brought a bathing suit however the sight of the less-than-hygienic water put the group off the idea of their rabbi going for a swim.

“My congregants would literally not let me go in,” he chuckled. “They were worried about my physical health.”

Other humorous moments have been caused by wildlife.

“Some of the geese respond in interesting ways to the sound of the shofar,” Rose said.

At Central Reform Congregation, tashlich takes place in Forest Park. Rabbi Susan Talve said that for many, it’s their favorite time of year.

“We’re inside for so much of the prayers,” she said, “but this is a ritual that takes you outside into nature and kind of reminds you on the birthday of the world that we’re connected to the outdoors as well.”

She said some use bread but leaves and twigs are also employed. She thinks it’s a positive, physical reminder of spirituality.

“[It’s good] that we can get in touch with rituals that really challenge us to take seriously the liturgy while taking a look at our life on Rosh Hashanah so we can do the turning we need to do by Yom Kippur,” she said. “This is one of those rituals that is less about the words and more about just the doing.”

There are a lot of variants to the doing however. At Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, Rabbi Ze’ev Smason said that his congregants often don’t throw anything. They simply pray after trooping down to the edge of what he jocularly refers to as the “mighty, majestic Olivette River,” a small creek near the shul, the real name of which he doesn’t know. 

Smason said it is preferable for the ceremony that the body of water have fish.

“I think one idea is that fish don’t have eyelids so their eyes are always open and this reminds us that God’s eyes are constantly open and he’s constantly supervising us,” he said.

Still, that’s not a requirement. In fact, sometimes it’s enough of a challenge just finding water at all. During his time spent in Israel, where creeks are uncommon, Smason once found himself on top of a building in Jerusalem where he could barely make out the Dead Sea miles away. He used that to say the prayer.

In another instance, he turned on the faucet and did tashlich at the sink.

“Until this day, my wife still gives me a hard time about that,” he chuckled.

Smason said that many observant communities don’t throw bread or other items. In fact, some feel they shouldn’t do so due to traditional prohibitions regarding the feeding of wild animals. Some might empty crumbs from their pockets however.

“The bread and the crumbs have become a part of the ceremony only in as much as it prompts a person to remove the crumbs from within – the crummy things about ourselves,” he said.

If some don’t need the bread, others don’t feel they need the water. Debbie Bram, director of Jewish Life and Learning at Congregation Shaare Emeth, said that while many at the congregation go the traditional route, the synagogue found that it was often tough for young families to pack up and travel to water. Instead, they introduced a form of tashlich that can be practiced right on-site. Participants use a Magic Slate, a self-erasing board where sins can be written down and when the sheet is pulled up, they vanish.

“It was a totally out of the box way to include families in what is a very beautiful ceremony,” said Bram. “For people who had never done tashlich before I think it was a great introduction. From the few conversations I’ve had, I think that next year we’ll probably do something similar for young families.”

At Shaare Zedek Synagogue, Hazzan Joanna Dulkin said her shul has done a variety of tashlich ceremonies over the years including at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Most commonly however, they go to a lake at nearby Lewis Park. She talked of the interesting similarity to Passover, a time when getting rid of crumbs is also a persistent theme.

“The crumbs have a very different significance at Passover because we are trying to move from slavery to freedom. It’s more of a communal shift,” she said. “Tashlich is a very personal reckoning.”

Often they have company at Lewis Park. Congregants from Bais Abraham also do their tashlich there.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, Bais Abe’s spiritual leader, said that at his congregation, tashlich is done but it is not thought of as central to the holiday.

“We kind of downplay it a little bit,” he said. “It’s important because it’s your tradition but it’s really not the way one repents from sin where there is some magical thing you can do.”

He said that there is a disagreement in Jewish thought over how much emphasis should be put on the ceremony with some fearing that participants might mistake the physical act for deeper change. In that respect, he sounds a note of caution about the ritual.

“It’s a metaphor for what we have to do but it’s not the actual doing of repentance,” Shafner said noting its best use may be to build awareness. “We should not see tashlich as a solution in and of itself.”