The Beauty of Tashlich

By Rahel Musleah

In Great Neck, N.Y., they do it by the duck pond. In Venice, Calif., they do it on the beach. In Boston, at a waterfall in a park.

All over the world, Jews gather on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah to perform tashlich, a simple but ancient ritual for symbolically casting away our sins (often in the form of bread crumbs) into a flowing body of water. Today, tashlich has acquired a contemporary resonance and a surge in popularity as an inspirational, experiential, back-to-nature moment for inwardness and psychological unburdening.

“Words work really well for a lot of people, and the language of our liturgists is gorgeous and moving, but for others, sitting in services is a time to count pages and ceiling tiles,” says “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold, who offers Jewish celebrations in the outdoors. “During tashlich, there is no intermediary. No cantor, no rabbi, no prayerbook. Just you and the water. It’s a tactile, hands-on experience.”

At Korngold’s Rosh Hashanah retreat in Winter Park, Colo., tashlich concludes a one-and-a-half-hour hike to an outdoor “sanctuary,” with chairs and an ark overlooking a lake and the Continental Divide. Unlike the traditional tashlich on the afternoon of the first day (second day if the first day is Shabbat), tashlich precedes Korngold’s service. “That moment of private contemplative time helps us prepare,” she says. “We stand at the shores of the lake, 200 people surrounded by golden aspen leaves shining in the sun, and we move into silence. We don’t throw bread, because it’s not good for the ecosystem. We take something natural like a stone, a leaf, a twig, let go of the behaviors or patterns we want to get rid of, and toss them off. One year we even used snowballs.”

Though several historical, midrashic and symbolic reasons are given for tashlich, one popular explanation attributes its basis to a verse from the prophet Micah, addressed to God: “You will cast all their sins/Into the depths of the sea” (7:19). Rabbi Shefa Gold has translated the verse as follows: “Wash over me; carry my prayers to a God who hears./Wash over me; send me an answer to my tears./I cast out my worries; I cast out my fears.”

“Every time I go inside a building to find my spirituality, it doesn’t work for me,” says April Halprin Wayland, author of New Year at the Pier (Dial), a children’s book about tashlich. “When I’m outside in nature, it’s easier for me to respond to my higher spirit.” Like many of her contemporaries, Wayland had never heard of tashlich until she joined a Conservative congregation in Manhattan Beach, Calif., 15 years ago. Now, it’s a “life-changing” highlight of her year.

Tashlich is profound, joyous, public but also private,” Wayland says. She described the ritual in her acceptance speech for the Sydney Taylor Book Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries. “We gather at the foot of the pier near the lifeguard tower, first a few families, some 6-year-olds running in circles, the rabbi in his sunglasses, the cantor with his guitar and bullhorn. More of us come in sundresses, in sandals and jeans, moms and dads, teens…We walk up the pier, all 200 of us, singing Avinu Malkeinu…a sea of celebration. And after a contest of shofars, after the mothers have handed out slices of bread or little bags of bread crumbs, some of us take moments, private moments in this public gathering, for silent reflection.”

“I think about each thing I could have done differently,” Wayland adds in a phone interview. “My mom’s aging and I could’ve spent more time with her. I’m always on the computer, and I don’t always acknowledge my husband when he comes into the room. I look out into the ocean in the distance and toss the bread crumbs in the air, and it feels like I can really move on.” Wayland adds that the “community feeling” is critical. “That’s so much what Judaism is about for me.”

Both for children and adults, tashlich is a physical act that engages all the senses–whether it’s the walk on the way to the water, the chance to see how far a bread crumb will travel, or its plop in the water. “We all need more standing up and doing,” Wayland says. “You’re not sitting and shuffling your feet in a nice dress. It’s a very visceral experience.”

In Reclaiming Holy Days, Rabbi Goldie Milgram suggests the following practice that she learned from the Locher family in Holland. “Ask each child to think of some quality in himself that he is working on. Invite her to call out that quality while throwing the bit of bread up into the air over the water. Everyone witnessing the act then calls out ways that quality might be transformed.” “Lies” become “truth.” “Temper tantrums” become “telling your strong feelings.” Other suggestions are included on her website, “Good ritual facilitates desired change and provides one more way to empower yourself in the direction of your hopes,” she writes.

As a child, Vanessa Ochs spent Rosh Hashanah with her Orthodox grandparents. She remembers tashlich as a simple family ritual at a park with a lake. The family did not take bread crumbs; instead, they turned their pockets inside out and made “sprinkling gestures.” “You reach deep into yourself as you reach deep into your pockets,” says Ochs, author of Inventing Jewish Ritual. Today’s tashlich is a “sweet communal activity,” but, she says, you don’t need a rabbi to find a fish pond or a lake. “Each Jewish family can be its own autonomous ritual-making enterprise.”

“I love tashlich,” says Ochs. “It’s a very contemplative time. When we come home, I feel personally refreshed in a way I don’t feel after a long service in the synagogue. Sometimes it’s the first good conversation with God I’ve had all day, maybe because I’m the author of it.”