A Family Ritual for Blessing the New Year

A Sephardic Rosh Hashanah ceremony combines elements of Tashlich and a healing ritual.

With joy we share our family tradition of “Lavar la Cara” (washing our faces in the ocean). It seems that this tradition combines many elements of two ceremonies. The first is “Tashlich” from the Hebrew “to cast off,” referring to the custom of tossing bits of bread in the water to symbolize the casting off of our sins. The second is a healing ritual of the Rhodeslis — those who trace roots to the island of Rhodes, tossing ailments into the ocean and receiving renewed health from the ocean, HaShem and the incantations and blessings of our elders.

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Over the generations, our family tradition had been to go to the beach on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.  Now that we live in disparate parts of Los Angeles, have differing synagogue schedules and levels of observance, our extended families (about 40 of us) come from throughout the greater Los Angeles area and meet at Venice Beach on the Sunday morning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, bringing our beach chairs and something to share at our informal brunch that follows.

Once set up, we go down to the water, usually in smaller family groups. A family matriarch, one by one, blesses us and washes our faces. Bending down to capture a handful of water from a new wave, she washes the face of each of us, saying in Ladino, “todo mal ki se vaiga” (“everything bad should go”). She elaborates: “Everything that is bothering you, worrying you, anything that is harming you, any sickness, illness, any fright or discomfort, all this, should be swept away to the very depths of the ocean.” She then bends down to scoop a fresh handful of water from a new wave. Washing our face and the back of our neck again, this time saying “todo bien ki se venga” (“everything good should come”).  Again, she elaborates, “Everything now will be good, your pain will go away, any illness will leave your body, healing will come to you. Every worry is now gone. New ideas and good thoughts will fill your mind.  Your heart will be content.”

To each, now, she gives a specialized blessings for the New Year. To children she might offer that they will do well in school, be happy, enjoy their friends, make their parents proud or have a good year in sports, theater, Hebrew school; whatever is appropriate to that child.  To the young adults, she might offer that they will do well in school, find jobs or the right person to share their lives with. Newlyweds are blessed to find happiness together, build a home and life together, have children. After the individual blessings, the matriarch gives each of us a finger full of sugar, which she puts in our mouths for a “sweet” year. This is no regular sugar; the sugar is from the Rosh Hashanah table. After we use sugar for our Hamotzi prayer on this holiday, the remaining sugar goes into a baggie and comes with us to the beach.

There are variations.  Sometimes we invoke the names of the Patriarchs, “Con el hombre del Dio di Avram, Izhak, Yaacov, Rey David i Shelomo,” as well as the Matriarchs, “Rivka, Sarah, Rachel, i Leah.”

On occasion we add a new tradition, like dancing along the shore. New traditions are always welcome!

Blessings complete, we return to our beach chairs, sit for a nice ‘vijita’ (visit) and enjoy coffee, juice, bagels, bourekas (Sephardic cheese and rice or potato pastries), biscochos (tea cookies), spinach quashado (soufflé), assorted cheeses with olive oil (usually feta and ricotta), homemade breads (rosca), fruits and dessert pastries. We stay and visit, feeling renewed, and certainly feeling a great deal of love from and for our family. It’s a New Year. The Day of Atonement is coming soon. We are ready to face it with a humble heart, renewed spirit and a refreshed outlook.

Learn more about bourekas and find a bourekas recipe.

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