Every year around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my neighbor, Jan, asks me if I’m going to go down to the ocean to throw bread into the water as a way of casting off my sins. And every year, I tell her, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I grew up on Long Island in a conservative Jewish household, which meant I and all my Jewish friends went to Hebrew school a few days a week after regular school, and we all had bar and bat mitzvahs. When we moved to a new town and joined a reform temple, I realized it wasn’t that my parents held conservative Jewish beliefs. It was that the conservative synagogue was the one closest to our house. But in neither temple did I ever hear of a ritual about throwing bread into water. I figured my neighbor, Jan, who is not Jewish, must have been mistaken and that she may have been confusing the custom with Teiglach, a Rosh Hashanah dessert of small pieces of bread or pastry that are boiled in honeyed syrup and piled into a sticky little heap with maraschino cherries.
Even if I hadn’t heard of it, I decided to try my neighbor’s ritual. I set off for the beach on Saturday, which was Yom Kippur, at about 5 p.m. Having fasted all day, I was dizzy with hunger and somewhat indecisive. First, I wasn’t sure which bread to bring: our fresh bread – a soft, 15-grain Pepperidge Farm loaf — or the moldy bread that had been sitting out on the counter for a few weeks. The moldy bread seemed like it would make a cheap symbol for my sins. If I can’t spend a little money on my atonement to do it right, why do it? I then struggled with how many pieces to take? One or two seemed too little. How many sins fit into one piece of bread? But throwing in half a loaf might be considered polluting. I feared someone would yell at me if they saw me chucking what looked like my household garbage into the water. I settled on three slices of the good bread and put them in a plastic baggie and set off for the beach.
I’ve since looked up the bread and water custom and it turns out my neighbor is right: there’s a Rosh Hashanah custom called “Tashlich,” which means “casting off” in Hebrew, in which people symbolically cast off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so, too, are the sins symbolically carried away with the hope that one can start the New Year with a clean slate.
It’s a wonderful ritual, full of all the poetry and symbolism you’d want in a custom. One might really feel like they were casting off their sins by throwing them into the water and watching them float out to sea. My problem was that as soon as I threw a piece of bread into the water, a seagull dove into the surf and seized it. I threw another piece, and another seagull dove down to get it. Soon another began circling, waiting for bread. And then another. There were four, then six, then 12, and they were swooping in closer and closer in anticipation of the bread. I couldn’t focus on my sins because I felt like Tippi Hedren in “The Birds,” and I feared I was going to be attacked.
But worse, every time I threw a piece of bread toward the water, the birds would dive in and grab it. After a while, they became so adept, they were catching my bread pieces before they even hit the water. I thought, how am I going to send these sins out to sea if the birds keep intervening? No matter how far I tried to throw them, I couldn’t get them to float away.
By the time I emptied my baggie, there were 23 seagulls swirling around my head, and I was beginning to feel like a spectacle. I closed the bag and scurried back up the beach toward my car and thought there’s no way I cleaned my slate. But before I left the beach, I turned back around toward the ocean and took one last look out. It was a glorious day – warm enough but with a slight chill in the air, a reminder that Fall was creeping in. The sky was all shades of blue, a light blue green toward the water and a dark almost periwinkle blue if you looked directly upward. The clouds were puffy like cotton, defining that layer between heaven and earth. As I looked out at the vast beauty, I remembered this concept from a Buddhist book I flip open every now and then. “Wherever you go, there you are.” Indeed.