Alexander Gierymski's "Feast of Trumpets," depicting taskhlikh, the ritual casting off bits of bread as a symbolic shedding of the prior years' sins. (1884)

“Talk to Me Tashlikh” – A Humanistic Reading for Tashlikh

Alexander Gierymski's "Feast of Trumpets," depicting taskhlikh, the ritual casting off bits of bread as a symbolic shedding of the prior years' sins. (1884)

Alexander Gierymski’s “Feast of Trumpets,” depicting tashlikh (1884)

One of the fixtures of Rosh Hashanah for many communities is tashlikh. Traditionally, tashlikh is a ceremony during which a community’s members will gather near a body of water on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah and cast off bits of bread. The bits of bread are representative of the transgressions of the prior year, which are swept away in the water. The ceremony is accompanied by recitation of a short set of texts taken largely from biblical verses. (The bread might be incidentally eaten by ducks and fish, though traditionally one is not to intentionally feed non-domesticated animals on Shabbat or Yom Tov. Do animals that eat crumbs from tashlikh become sin-eaters? The mind boggles a bit.)

(Incidentally, the title of the post is a paraphrase of a Yiddish and English saying, “Talk to me tachles,” meaning something like, “let’s get down to brass tacks.”)

What if your community isn’t doing tashlikh? Or what if you don’t have a community? Or ready access to a body of water? (That will be the case for the service I’m leading in Indianapolis.) Or what if you just want something specific to read for tashlikh as a way to recognize that the act is itself symbolic? Or perhaps you want a slightly subversive text that questions the wisdom of engaging in tashlikh at all, as though we can really cast off the ills and errors of the prior year that now inform our identities?

You can use this; I wrote it. It’s humanistic in focus. I claim no special gifts in writing poetry or the like (though I get a lot of “likes” on Facebook when I write limericks and haikus about my coffee habits). That said, if you use it in a group, reproduce it, distribute it, etc., please cite the source and my name. (The alternating bold/regular text is for use in responsive reading situations. I imagined this as congregation first, leader second.)

We arrive bearing the last year’s load of leaven.
Triumphs and failures,
Missed chances,
Joys and sorrows.

At tashlikh, we cast away the staler bits;
Throw aside our regrets,
Like so many breadcrumbs
Carried off in water.

If we cast away our ills, what do we lose?
Can we learn from mistakes?
Might good turn bad?
Might bad be made good?

This tashlikh let’s not cast our selves away.
We’ll keep the crumbs of our pasts,
Hold tight these few morsels –
The bread of our lives.


Yom Kippur – Say What You Mean

One of the things that, when I was in a more “mainstream” movement Jewish setting, frustrated me was the language of prayer. What I mean by that is the translations in most of the “liberal” are also themselves quite, erm, liberal vis-a-vis the original Hebrew; once I actually learned Hebrew, the highly artistic-ish English translations of say, Siddur Sim Shalom became very, very suspect because they are really not accurate.

Last night, I thought I would take a look at the (it’s the old one from 1972) Conservative mahzor on my bookcase (prosaically titled “Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” in English, and Mahzor L’Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew) to see if I could find anything interesting/inspiring/appropriate for setting a course on thoughts for Yom Kippur. After taking a quick spin though the Kol Nidre prayer and not really finding great inspiration there (it is, after all, a preemptive mulligan on vows for the coming year–nice, legal stuff), I went to the beginning of the Yom Kippur evening service.

Boy, did I find something. But, as is so often the case, it’s not what I hoped it would be. It was something way, way better.

After setting forth Deuteronomy 30:15 & 19 in Hebrew with a pretty decent English translation on the opposite page, we get this gem (my translation from the Hebrew):

Master of the Universe, Merciful and Forgiving Father whose right hand is extended to accept those who return, I have conducted myself according to the will of my inclination toward evil; I have rejected the good and chosen the bad. And not only have I not sanctified my limbs, but I have also made them unclean.

I will admit, it’s a rough translation, not great in the details and not artfully done (it’s early and my son is running around jabbering about VeggieTales). It is, however, something the Conservative mahzor is not; basically literal. The English on the facing page of the mahzor doesn’t even attempt a literal translation, instead including paraphrases like “Is there a person anywhere altogether righteous…? I am but flesh and blood, often yielding to temptation,” and “The struggle is ceaseless, the choice is ours.” (Mazhor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, p. 347)

The next few paragraphs all begin the same way: “barata bi”–“You [God] have created in me” various characteristics–a mind and heart to contemplate the good and to discern holy things, eyes that can see the universe’s beauty, etc. Several of them conclude similarly, too: “oi li ki”–woe unto me, for “I have followed my eyes and made them impure,” or “I have made my ears too impure to hear words of prayer.”

The English? “I have been created with eyes” or “ears” or “a mind,” but always passive, deemphasizing the clearly active voice of the underlying Hebrew. And the conclusion does not include the “woe unto me,” but rather says, “Often I squander God’s gift and look without seeing,” or “hear without listening.” (p. 347)

The problem–and it’s like this throughout the mahzor–is that the English is gussied up, sanitized a bit, and presented as if what we’re saying in Hebrew is what we’re saying in English. (Yes, it’s the older mahzor. Guess what? The Conservative movement’s approach hasn’t really changed much on translation over the last few decades.)

It is not. And if you care about the integrity of public liturgy–whether you want to call it prayer, shared ritual, or something else–that’s a problem. It’s a problem that the mainstream liberal Jewish movements don’t really deal with well, because they live in a strange world where the “sancta” of Judaism (Mordechai Kaplan’s terms) are largely preserved and retained in use, put into the mouth of the average congregant (or at least recited on her or his behalf), and yet are clearly not what the leadership of those movements understand their members as willing to affirm or have affirmed for them.

Yet on the High Holidays, when synagogue attendance quadruples (or more!), those most important of days in the calendar, shouldn’t we say what we mean? And for those of us who will or have taken leadership roles, shouldn’t we provide our fellow Jews with the ability to say what they mean?

This is a hard thing, without question, because it presents us with a challenge: how much do we preserve? What do we set aside? How do we do so in a way that respects a wide range of beliefs? And how do we do so for ourselves?

I think the place to start is by acting for ourselves. And so that is what I plan to do this year. As we move through the calendar, I will try to use or craft language that reflects what I actually think.

I recognize that this will be a challenge for me. It already has been, and we’re not through Yom Kippur yet. I still find awkward–because they are unfamiliar–the blessings for Shabbat and Havdalah that are in the Society for Humanistic Judaism materials. But I can’t in good conscience recite the traditional blessings, because I don’t believe in a god that directly created the universe or acts in history; and that is so regardless of how comfortable or nostalgic I find the traditional texts.

I am comforted, however, by a reminder that this isn’t the first time I have had to adjust to the new. In that timely way they have, Tablet Magazine published an article this week, “Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year.” It reminded me that I learned to play guitar awkwardly, at first, but became more natural over time. So, too, with Hebrew (and I’m still learning there). So, too, with the traditional prayers I know so well.

So, too, will this be. And it will be an adventure.

I’ll keep you posted. Hopefully, you will have or have had an easy fast, if you fasted. I wish my Jewish readers all the best in the coming year. (To my non-Jewish readers, too, but you’re likely not so preoccupied by Yom Kippur.)

And now, here in Indianapolis, the sky is a clear blue, the temperature is wonderful, and after this morning, we will be headed out to be in the world a bit to cap off the High Holidays.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah.

So, surely I’m coming late to the party

So, surely I’m coming late to the party on this, but I’ve been reading Greg Epstein’s “Good Without God.” (Yes, I’ve already read Ron Aronson’s “Living Without God,” and I’ll get to Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” eventually, but I’m busy reading some other materials, too. Yes, I love how Hitchens writes, no I don’t love what he says, and I find Thomas Nagel more intriguing than Dawkins and Harris.)

B’khol zot, as they say, I think Epstein hits the nail on the head when he identifies a division between religion and belief, and points out the need for humanists to have rituals. What I worry about is, as you’ve probably noted if you’ve read prior posts, the prospect of ritual feeling contrived.

But I think I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that I’ll need to figure out a way to get over this concern. There are certainly aspects to ritual that arise, for lack of a better word, “organically.” But at some point, someone must have, say, gotten a bunch of people to agree that the Shema has to be recited, or that the text of the various versions of the Amidah should be what they are. For heavy in biblical imagery and language as the Amidah may be, it’s not strictly speaking in the text of the Tanakh.

I think the challenge for me, then, will be to understand how to reduce the dissonance that comes with new rituals. That seems like a worthy challenge.