Tashlich is symbolic, and real: Montclair’s synagogues celebrate together
By GWEN OREL
Next Thursday, Sept. 21, at 5 p.m., more than 100 people will be standing around the pond at Edgemont Memorial Park.
Some will be ready to throw bread in the water. Some will throw pebbles.
Some will just imbibe the peace of the day.
They will be there for Tashlich, a Jewish ritual of casting away sins, held on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
Congregations Shomrei Emunah and Bnai Keshet have been holding the ceremony together for longer than either of the rabbis at the synagogues can remember — it precedes them both.
For Bnai Keshet’s Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, this will be his 16th Tashlich ceremony. It will be the ninth for Shomrei Emunah’s Rabbi David Greenstein.
The word “tashlich” means “to cast,” and the ritual stems from a passage in the Bible.
But is it really casting away sins?
“Rabbis have historically hated this ritual because of exactly that question,” Tepperman said. “Because of appearance of doing something that is essentially kind of a magical act, that people have done their work.
“Over and over and over again, rabbis and Jewish teachers have wanted to emphasize that the real work of tshuvah — change, repair — has to be done between people, and impacted through actions.
“On the other hand, ritual has power. To take a moment and actually, consciously think of things you’re trying to let go of,
and in a physical way, cast them off, is an important step that can be transformative and can add to one’s commitment to make a deeper change.”
Nobody knows how the ritual got started, Greenstein said. “It’s rooted in the Biblical appeal, ‘God, please throw all of our sins into the water.’ It’s a prayer we ask God to do. In Tashlich, the Jewish people took it upon themselves to act that out.”
Greenstein said his own father, who was a rabbi, was aghast that he would institute Tashlich in his shul, because it can be seen as a superstitious custom.
And while the social aspect of Tashlich is huge, he said, “you can do it on your own. In traditional neighborhoods, in Brooklyn for instance, you’ll see Jews standing by the river reciting prayers.” Some would throw bread and some wouldn’t, he said.
The concretizing of the spiritual work can help serve as a springboard, Tepperman says. “Getting all the thinking out of your head gives it an anchor.”
Which is what every good ritual does, Greenstein pointed out.
Because Tashlich is a minhag, a custom, and not a law, there isn’t a fixed way of doing it, Greenstein said. He tells people not to throw crumbs, because the park department says it’s not good for the ducks and geese. “People feel like if you don’t throw the crumb in, you haven’t done it,” he said.
“I throw in bread,” Tepperman replied.
Just because something is a folk tradition doesn’t make it less powerful: Tepperman pointed out that Kol Nidre is a folk
Some rabbis have been opposed to Kol Nidre, the sung prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur that absolves Jews of all vows made to God in the past year and for the year to come, he said.
“But Jews were committed to it, and dedicated to it. So we do it.”
That the two congregations celebrate the ritual together, with visitors from other congregations and religions, is part of what makes the Montclair Tashlich special.
Bnai Keshet broke off from Shomrei Emunah in 1978, Tepperman said: “Every moment our two communities are able to say we are united is a moment of its own kind of repair.
“Many people who come will speak to the importance of what it feels like to be part of the bigger Jewish community, on this of all days, on the afternoon of Rosh Hashana.
“There’s just a sense of good will. It’s almost always on a sunny gorgeous day.”
Greenstein said that Tashlich touches on the question of religion and tradition. “There’s a tension between the beauty of it and the meaningfulness of it.
“It’s a cantankerous thing of ‘don’t throw crumbs in...’ I would love people to come and imbibe the spirit of standing in the waters and knowing life goes on, the cleansing power of the water, take that into your consciousness also.”
“Sometimes,” said Tepperman, “it’s enough to say it’s this little fun thing that Jews do, and let’s do it, and it’s nice.” Not every tradition finds an audience and energy, but “this one people vote with their feet. They show up. They like it. Why wouldn’t I do it?”