Tashlich Rituals

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Traditional casting away of sins can usher in room for self-improvement.

Preschoolers at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield take part in a tashlich ritual at the temple’s pond in preparation for last year’s Rosh Hashanah. In one of the earliest examples of “public space Judaism,” Jews head to the water on Rosh Hashanah to “cast off” their sins in a ritual called tashlich.

From the Detroit River Downtown to the Huron River in Ann Arbor, as well as local lakes large and small, Jews of all levels of observance take this opportunity to atone for their sins by not only praying in synagogue, but also actively and physically removing crumbs of bread from their pockets. As they symbolically empty from their pockets the misgivings from the previous year, they make way for self-improvement during the next.

Shrouded in mystery, tashlich developed around the 13th century. Rabbis of the time initially rejected the practice because they feared that people would believe that tashlich, rather than actively asking forgiveness from others, had the power to change their lives.

The custom was later given ethical meaning through the following midrash connected to the binding of Isaac: When Abraham was on his way to sacrifice Isaac, Satan tried to stop him. When Abraham refused to heed his voice, Satan became a raging river blocking Abraham’s way. Abraham proceeded, nevertheless. When the water reached his neck and he called out for God’s help, the waters immediately subsided.

The ceremony includes reading the source passage for the practice, the last verses from the prophet Micah (7:19): “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”

Most Jews perform tashlich on the first day of Rosh Hashanah or the second day if the first falls on Shabbat. However, Congregation Shir Tikvah of Troy, seeking to avoid a “carbon copy” of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, incorporates an extended tashlich service as their second day of Rosh Hashanah observances at Jaycee Park in Troy.

“Tashlich is a very spirited ritual,” Shir Tikvah Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg said. “After publicly reading a litany of mistakes we have committed over the past year, to see the birdseed and bread crumbs floating away is very uplifting. It feels like a big birthday party.”

Shir Tikvah’s tashlich service starts with an adult text study session. It includes traditional prayers and liturgy from the Rosh Hashanah service as well as Jewish and American folk songs, and the traditional gospel song “Down by the Riverside.” The service is attended by as many as 150 people who, after the service, all enjoy a potluck meal in the park’s shelter.

Although Rabbi Dorit Edut of Huntington Woods will be spending her High Holidays officiating services at a congregation in San Diego, she has fond tashlich memories by Lake Huron in Bay City and along the Detroit River with the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

“Tashlich is a symbolic way of taking out our sins and revealing them publicly and letting them undergo a purifying process by letting them go so they are no longer a burden,” Edut said.

This year, after many in her Huntington Woods neighborhood were ravaged by this summer’s floods, water can take on a completely new meaning.

“We now realize the power of water, that it can be destructive and purifying all at once. After grieving over what we lost in the flood, we are all in need of a renewed sense of energy, and are also awakened to what we are doing to our environment.”

Ken Goss of West Bloomfield, a member of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, developed his own tashlich tradition over the past two decades with his family performing the ritual at a pond right out his back door. As years passed, the tradition grew to include anywhere between 50 to 125 people.

“Performing tashlich with family and friends is a spiritually cleansing experience,” Goss said. “I reflect on how the past year has gone by, where I made mistakes and what I can improve on for the coming year.”

 By Stacy Gittleman, Contributing Writer

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