On each day of Sukkot, the kohanim in the Temple would circle the altar once; on the seventh day they circled it seven times. During these hakafot (circuits) they called out: “Lord, please, save us. Lord, please, grant us success” (“Ana Hashem hoshi’a na. Ana Hashem hatzliḥa na”). According to R. Yehuda, they called out: “Ani Va-hu, hoshi’a na” (Sukka 45a). Some maintain that they carried the lulav with them during the hakafot, while others maintain that they carried the aravot (Sukka 43b).
The Sages tell us that the Temple hakafot were instituted in commemoration of God’s command to Israel to circle Yeriḥo (Jericho) at the time of Yehoshua bin Nun, enabling them to conquer it and the rest of the land (y. Sukka 4:3). The circuits at Yeriḥo were done as follows: The procession was led by soldiers and kohanim. A vanguard walked at the very front, followed by seven kohanim blowing the shofar. Then came the Ark, carried by other kohanim. The rest of the soldiers walked behind the Ark. They circled Jericho once a day for six days; on the seventh day, they made seven circuits. With the conclusion of the final circuit, the kohanim blew a teki’a gedola, the entire nation shouted, and miraculously the walls of Jericho sank into the ground, allowing Israel to conquer the city (Yehoshua ch. 6).
According to the kabbalists, Jericho, which is the lowest city in the world, was the center of Canaanite culture; Canaan’s spirit of impurity was concentrated there. The Canaanites subverted the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael to serve their mundane desires. The great walls that surrounded the city served as a barrier blocking the divine light and allowing the Canaanites to carry on with their corrupt ways without any disturbing thoughts of repentance or pangs of conscience that emanate from the divine illumination that envelops all of existence. This is why Jericho was the “lock” that prevented Israel from entering the land and revealing God’s word there. (See Bamidbar Rabba 15:15.) God commanded Israel to circle (lehakif) Jericho and thus disclose the divine light that envelops (makif) all existence. This caused the walls of Jericho to fall, allowing Israel to conquer it and begin revealing the sanctity of the mundane.
Just as the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael illuminates all of existence and discloses the sanctity of the mundane, so too the mitzva of dwelling in the sukka, which encompasses the entire human being, reveals the sanctity of the mundane by transforming the physical aspects of life, such as eating and sleeping, into mitzvot.
The Sages instituted hakafot around the altar on Sukkot in order to bring down the walls of impurity that block the divine light from shining upon us, and to strengthen the illumination of the enveloping light. Through this we can increase our faith and reveal the sanctity within the physical world.