Weird Customs Before Judgment

As I ascended the stairs in my apartment building coming home in the middle of the night, I heard the shofar blow outside.  The sound is meant to be stirring, and it is.

It’s a somber time.  Israel changed the clocks back last week on Saturday night, well in advance of the rest of the world, as far as I know, so that the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) fast that begins this evening will seem easier.  It doesn’t of course make the fast any shorter, as it begins before sunset and ends after dusk the following day, no matter what.

So the shorter days, quieter social calendar, and I suppose impending Day of Judgment just hit me hard.  Enter…

Weird Jewish customs!

Sukkot, the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Festival of Booths” in English (that alone puts a smile on my face) is soon upon us (begins Wednesday night), and the booths are popping up everywhere – on porches, in front of cafes, at hotels.  We will also be waving palm fronds to and fro.

I didn’t check it out this year, but many Jews are observing a custom of kapparot, atonement, by flinging live chickens around their heads, which are later donated to the poor.  I’ll be practicing a more widely-observed custom this afternoon by using money that will be donated to charity.

This morning I went to the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens to observe tashlich, the casting away of sins.  In this custom, Jews go to a body of water, and some cast away pieces of bread.  It’s all part of the weeks-long season of teshuvah, return, that technically began on the first day of Elul, five weeks ago, and continues until Shemini Atzeret, the day after Sukkot, two weeks from today.


This swan was chewing on nylon. It's important to cleanse the spiritual, but we have to protect our physical environment too!

I was happy that the garden was open on Erev Yom Kippur and also that I could get access to the pond without paying an entrance fee.  I first came to the garden five years ago when I came to Israel for my first long-term stay.  The skies were gloomy and I was underwhelmed by the foliage.  But it seemed today to be quite nice.  I miss having greenery in my life, and even the house plans that my roommate and I bought for Tu B’Shevat in February don’t fully do the trick.

I don’t hike as much as I used to when I lived in Washington, D.C.  Having Shabbat be your entire weekend certainly makes things like that difficult.  But, the botanical gardens were about a twenty-minute bike ride away.  I’m making a mental note to return more often.

There is a reason I suppose why it is highly recommended that tashlich be done outside the city (okay, I didn’t technically do that, but it was a nature oasis) and by a body of water.  I was really able to get outside of myself, calm down, and reflect on what exactly was getting me down and how I could cleanse myself for this new year.

Children at the pond of the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, watching the fish eat bread.

While most Jewish customs, especially the obscure ones, are much easier to practice in Israel than elsewhere, tashlich is actually a tricky one!  I have fond memories from my childhood of walking down the street to the pond and feeding the ducks and fish my sins.  In upstate New York, rivers and ponds were aplenty.

Not in Israel, and definitely not in Jerusalem.  The best natural body of water one could hope for is perhaps the stream that runs by City of David, or a wadi or pool outside of the city.  This time of year, at the end of the summer, it’s dry!


Fish (and some turtles!) eating my sins in bread form.

Like most prayers, Tashlich is ideally said in Hebrew but can definitely be said in whatever language you understand best.  I was able to read the Hebrew fluently, being pretty familiar with most of the psalms and phrases, and I even understood about 95% of it.  That made me very happy.

Having the physical action helped me focus.  Sometimes the prayers just don’t do it.  And even afterwards, I felt like I needed to focus on exactly what I was feeling, not what the prescribed prayer said to ask for.

It’s always a balance – fixed vs. personal prayer.

Also, when I find a meaningful experience, I feel a desire to document it.  So, admittedly in the back of my mind, I was trying to record what I would say for the blog, and I wanted to take good accompanying photos too!  Another balance I struggle with is documentation, evaluating and recording vs. just living in the moment!

On the bike ride home, I tackled some really rough hills, and I stubbornly wanted to keep the big gear in gear 2.  And then a thought hit me – gear 1 was created for a reason.  And that reason is the tough hills.  Lesson learned today: Sometimes when the hills are steep, it’s okay to move to a lower gear.  When things are difficult, it’s okay to slow down and take it easy, because then you can continue to climb.  And it’s all about continuing to climb.

I didn’t want to go this morning.  I wanted to stay home.  I felt trapped, not wanting to move forward.  But Gd doesn’t reschedule, and Yom Kippur comes in in a few hours.  Since I’ve returned, I feel much more prepared.

May we all have the strength to boldly face the challenges ahead of us in the upcoming year and accept that moving into low gear is okay.  Gd created that too.

Gmar chatimah tova!


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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