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Casting Away Your Sins: It's Not Just Fish Food

September 13, 2012 By:
Edmon J. Rodman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
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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 process of tashlich. Photo by Edmon J. Rodman

Los Angeles
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 on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which falls this year on Sept. 17. 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 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: "Some rabbis opposed Tashlich because it makes the complex process of separating sin from our lives seem too facile."

Too easy or not, for a growing number of Jews, 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 biblical Book of Micah (Chapter 7-19) that is usually recited during Tashlich:

"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 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.

And why bread to represent our sins? Is it all those evil carbohydrates?

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.

But does casting away our errors create space for change? Does tossing away a piece of bread, psychologically speaking, provide room to move in other ways as well?

Chaya Lester, a Jerusalem psychotherapist, is an 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.com blog in which she said, "Tashlich is like Jewish ritual medicine. It's a classic psycho-spiritual technique for inner cleansing and health."

Before tossing their bread away, Lester recently told me, individuals 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 her family observe Tashlich at a lake in Jerusalem where the fish swim up to eat the tossed bread.

"It connects me to the Jonah story," said Lester, referring to the Haftarah portion that is read each year on Yom Kippur afternoon and whose verses -- "you cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea" -- 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 Holidays' sefer chayim, the book of life.

And that's the wonder, bread or no, we all seek.

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