Congregations in the Milwaukee area and throughout Wisconsin are preparing for the annual practice of tashlich as the year 5782 begins.
Each year, as Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah and approach Yom Kippur, they gather at bodies of water to cast away their sins and begin the next year afresh. Each congregation takes its own approach to mark the occasion.
Rabbi Joel Dinin of Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee said tashlich translates to “toss” or “throw.” The gesture is connected with Yom Kippur, he said, when Jews “ask God to cleanse away their sins.”
The practice is symbolic, he said. It takes place near a body of water – typically one that is naturally flowing, although Dinin said a running toilet technically would suffice.
“It doesn’t really have any real power,” Dinin said. “It’s a psychological thing to help inspire us toward the idea of, just as this water washes away everything that goes into it, so too God should wash away our sins.”
Over time, he said, tashlich at some congregations came to involve casting an item such as bread into the water.
Dinin said tashlich is neither a law nor a commandment, but rather a custom. Unlike with laws and commandments, he said tashlich’s status as a custom means the practice has no requirements.
Although Jews typically participate in tashlich on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, a person may complete the practice any time between the start of the new year and Yom Kippur.
Dinin said his congregation gathers in Lake Park and walks to Lake Michigan for tashlich. He brings a packet with texts for people to recite in Hebrew and English. Although congregants gather as a group, he said the practice of tashlich is an intimate, independent activity.
“What somebody thinks about as they look at the water is going to be different from the person standing right next to them,” he said. “It’s not communal, the way that most prayer typically is.”
Rabbi Cheski Edelman of The Shul Center in Bayside said Jews practice tashlich for multiple reasons, including that Rosh Hashanah represents coronation day.
“It’s the day that we accept God as our king and we, so to speak, crown God as king of the world,” he said. “In Jewish tradition, the coronation of a Jewish king took place by the water.”
The Shul Center conducts tashlich after the service on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Edelman said. In past years, the congregation gathered at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. Edelman said The Shul Center’s plan had not been finalized at the time of the interview.
Edelman said his congregation’s process for tashlich does not include tossing bread into the water.
“It’s very hard to understand how this custom developed,” he said. “According to Jewish law, you are prohibited from throwing bread into the water on the holiday.”
An article published on Chabad.org says the custom likely derived from verses in the book of Micah, which refer to casting sins into the water. Specifically, the core verses are Micah (7:18-19):
“Who is a G-d like you, who forgives iniquity and passes over the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He does not maintain his anger forever, for he desires loving-kindness,” a Chabad translation reads. “He shall return and grant us compassion; he shall hide our iniquities, and you shall cast into the depths of the sea all their sins.”
Among other issues, the article says, Jewish law for Shabbat and the holidays prohibits feeding animals that aren’t one’s responsibility and that do not depend on that person for sustenance.
For Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, a conservative synagogue in Glendale, tashlich includes scattering breadcrumbs in the water, along with reciting appropriate verses from the bible and potentially singing fitting songs, said Rabbi Joel Alter.
The shul typically meets for tashlich on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah by the waterfall at Kletzsch Park. Alter said the activity is a “very sweet community event.”
“The morning is very formal – one of the most formal services, if not the most formal service, of the whole year,” Alter said. “People may be spending long hours quietly in their seat, wearing fine clothes. But by Rosh Hashanah afternoon, they’re probably dressed down and can talk and interact. Hopefully, those who are fully vaccinated will be able to gather without anxiety and really be together.”
Congregation Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Fox Point, gathers for tashlich after its family service at the brook behind its building, said Cantor Richard Newman. Participants receive bread and materials to read, including the traditional Micah verses and poetic readings.
“It’s something that is as individual as it is communal for us,” Newman said. “We want to provide them with the tools to do that and understand it on their own.”
He said participants are also encouraged to take a meditative walk after.
In Kenosha, Rabbi Dena Feingold of Reform synagogue Beth Hillel Temple said her congregation gathers after its morning service on Rosh Hashanah and walks to a park along Lake Michigan three blocks away. A leader typically brings a guitar, and participants are provided a booklet with prayers and a piece of bread.
“Everybody has their own private time to go to the edge of the water and tear up their pieces into breadcrumbs and do their own private moment of thinking about what sins they want to get rid of,” Feingold said.
When they’re finished, Feingold said, the group regathers to sing another song and read another passage, then walks back to the synagogue for refreshments.
As Rabbi Betsy Forester puts it, tashlich is a practice of “symbolically cleaning out the schmutz that sticks in the cracks of things.” Forester is the rabbi at the Beth Israel Center, a conservative congregation in Madison.
“We symbolically are shaking out our pockets to rid ourselves of the clutter and distraction and issues that get in the way of our full flourishing and our full attunement to our purpose in life and to our spiritual purpose in life, more particularly,” she said.
For her synagogue’s tashlich experience, congregants gather at Vilas Beach on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The group sings together and talks about the meaning of tashlich. Bread is provided for those who didn’t bring it. Participants then have time for their reflections.
Forester said the synagogue provides a sheet with the traditional liturgical readings for those who want to use them.
“Tashlich is a wonderful ritual that appeals to people of all ages,” Forester said. “It’s very tactile. I have seen entire families find it meaningful and find it to be a touch point, year after year, to go out to the water and a really nice way of bringing nature into the observance of the new year.”