For centuries, Jews have tossed breadcrumbs into bodies of water between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, symbolically casting off their sins to the water itself, or to be consumed by fish that then swim away.
It is a ritual embraced by Jews of all ages and denominations, providing a tactile reminder of the process of letting go of the qualities in the past that we no longer wish to possess, and the chance to start fresh, with a renewed soul.
“The ceremony’s source is a verse from the prophet Micah, 7:19, ‘He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast (tashlich) all their sins into the depths of the sea,’” according to Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“Like many of our customs, tashlich began as a superstition,” Aaron wrote in an email to the Chronicle. “In this case, beginning in the 13th century, people would shake off their clothes over the water to brush away any evil that might be clinging to them. This, in turn, evolved into people bringing their own bread crumbs to cast on the water as a symbol of tossing away their transgressions.”
Today, the explanations for the ceremony “are as varied as the congregations who gather by the water’s edge,” Aaron continued. While it is preferable for the ceremony to occur where there are fish, he said it is not a requirement “because the fish are simply symbolic reminders to us … not literal consumers of our sins.”
“Therefore,” Aaron said, “in a pinch one can even perform tashlich at the kitchen sink with the water running out of the faucet and down the drain.”
While it may be kosher, most Jewish Pittsburghers can do better than tashlich in a sink this year, as area congregations and organizations have planned tashlich programs as varied as the Jews of Pittsburgh themselves.
The following is a taste of tashlich around town.
The Homestead Labyrinth
Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom will join together on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Labyrinth near the Waterfront shopping center.
“There is a path of stone there used for meditative walking,” said Rabbi Michael Werbow, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom. Religious school students from the two congregations’ joint religious school, J-JEP, will be bussed to the Labyrinth to join in the ritual.
“There will be time for people to do the meditative walk through the Labyrinth, reflecting on the past year, and what they want for the coming year,” Werbow said.
Following the walk, people will gather at the water to perform the tashlich ritual of casting breadcrumbs into the Monongahela River.
Water in the parking lot
Beth Shalom will host another tashlich program in its parking lot on the first day of Rosh Hashana, at 6:15 p.m.
“We set up a waterfall in the back parking lot, with a bunch of layers of different rocks and tubs,” Werbow said.
Although the water comes from a hose, and not a natural body of water, the fountain in the parking lot is nonetheless a kosher way to do tashlich, Werbow said.
“There are sources that say you can do it around a tub of water,” he said. “There are other cities that do it around city fountains.”
Likewise, Chabad of the South Hills will be setting up a pond in its parking lot for tashlich, said Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “We will even have fish in there,” he said.
Southside Riverfront Park
Congregants of Temple Sinai will gather at 5:15 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashana, for “a lovely, moving and meaningful ritual,” said executive director Deborah Fidel in an email.
Fidel said Rabbis James Gibson, Ron Symons and soloist Sara Stock Mayo will lead the congregation and guests in prayer, meditation and song, accompanied by Gibson.
“The mood is very tranquil,” Fidel said.
About 20 students from the Hillel Jewish University Center will set off in kayaks on the Allegheny River on Sunday, Sept. 8. After engaging in a meditative discussion, the students will cast their breadcrumbs into the water while still in their kayaks, according to Danielle Kranjec, senior Jewish educator at Hillel.
The kayak/tashlich program was initiated by students last year, although they were rained out.
“Students respond really well to unique, experiential Jewish inspirational experiences,” Kranjec said.
Cedarhurst Lake, Mt. Lebanon
Both Temple Emanuel of South Hills, and Beth El Congregation of the South Hills have their respective tashlich services at this small lake, nestled in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. Jewish owners of a home overlooking the lake welcome both congregations to their deck to perform the ancient ritual.
Beth El will meet at the lake around 6 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashana, according to Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, spiritual leader of the congregation.
“It’s the only body of water I know of in Mt. Lebanon,” he said. “We get about 100 people. There are ducks and fish around. We do mincha, then we do tashlich. I do the same jokes about all the different kinds of bread meaning different things. Then we do a mareve service.”
“We’ve been doing this about 10 or 11 years,” Greenbaum continued. “We do it rain or shine. It’s one of my favorite services.”
Temple Emanuel members will come to the same location at 4:30 p.m., also on the first day of Rosh Hashana.
“We have a little two-page service,” said Temple Emanuel member Robin Hausman, who leads the service. “A lot of families come with children.”
The service, which Hausman describes as “kind of modern,” draws about 30 to 50 people, and includes a recitation of different kinds of sins, and the singing of various Jewish songs.
“We sing songs the children know,” she said. “We want this to be more participatory, symbolic, and hands-on. We want people to participate and feel like a community. Some people hang around and talk.”
The ritual, Hausman said, is “communal, tactile, auditory and in a beautiful setting. All the senses are engaged.”
Members of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha meet at the synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashana at 4 p.m. and walk together to Chatham Pond.
“It’s BYOB,” said Rabbi Chuck Diamond, spiritual leader of the congregation. “Bring you own bread.”
“We have a few creative readings about looking back and looking ahead, and then we feed the ducks and the fish,” Diamond said.
The service typically draws about 40 to 50 people, he said, who then walk back to the synagogue for “a snack and to hang out,” Diamond said.
The congregation also takes its religious school students to the pond for tashlich on their first day of classes.
The duck pond at North Park
Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park has been heading to North Park for tashlich for over 10 years, according to Ellen Sapinkopf, president of the Women of Ohav Shalom.
“A few years ago, when the lake at North Park was drained, we thought that we’d have to find a different location, but it turned out that the area — I believe it’s called Marshall Island — where the ducks are was not affected by the lake draining,” she wrote in an email.
The congregation has been holding tashlich at the duck pond ever since.
“Our service includes prayer, reflection and song along with the throwing of permissible food into the water to cast away our sins,” Sapinkopf wrote.
The service will be held at 4 p.m. on Sept. 5.
Nine Mile Run Stream
The Jewish Women’s Center of Pittsburgh will be gathering at Nine Mile Run Stream for tashlich/shalichet on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 11 a.m.
“It will be a combination of singing and poetry reading and guided meditation,” said Malke Frank, president of the Women’s Center.
The service is called tashlich/shalichet, using both terms, which have the same root letters, Frank said.
While tashlich refers to “casting out bad things,” shalichet is a feminine word, meaning “to shed,” according to Frank.
“It’s a letting go,” she said. “That’s what women do every month with our menstrual cycle. It’s not throwing away things that the fish eat and then goes back into the food cycle. It’s more like leaves that shed from the tree, that help things grow in the springtime.”
The service begins with each woman saying her name, as well as the name of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmothers if she likes.
“It’s a link to history,” Frank said.
The group is led in a guided meditation, including prompts to help people recall each month of the previous year.
Everyone in the group is also invited to write on cards things “we no longer need,” Frank said. The cards are then put in a basket to be taken by others who may need the traits being shed by others.
In addition to throwing bread into the water, Frank brings rose petals to toss.
The service ends with the blowing of the shofar if there is someone present with the skill to blow it.
“If not, we listen to our inner shofar,” Frank said. “We end with a prayer for our journey.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)