The seventh day of Sukkot is also known as Hoshana Rabba. It is an especially significant day because on Sukkot, God renders judgment about how much water there will be during the upcoming year, so on the seventh day of Sukkot, the final verdict is sealed. Since all plant, animal, and human life depends upon water, on this last day of judgment, we multiply our pleas of “hosha na” (“please save”) to God. On this day, we take aravot (sometimes called hoshanot), because they require more water than the other species, and it is easily discernable when they dry out. The Sages made sure that Hoshana Rabba never falls on Shabbat, so that we have the opportunity to plead and cry out for water (Roke’aḥ §221).
Just as water sustains physical life, the Torah sustains the life of the spirit. In the words of the Sages, “Water refers to Torah” (Bava Kamma 17a). Accordingly, the judgment concerning water on Hoshana Rabba includes judgment about human life in its entirety, the physical and the spiritual. This is the meaning of Zohar’s statement that there are three times of judgment: Rosh Ha-shana, Yom Kippur, and Hoshana Rabba (Zohar II 142a). Similarly, there is a tradition that God told Avraham, “If your children are not forgiven on Rosh Ha-shana, they will be forgiven on Yom Kippur; and if not on Yom Kippur, then on Hoshana Rabba” (Mateh Moshe §957; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 664:2).
This is also expressed in another way: Even though verdicts are recorded (“written”) on Rosh Ha-shana and finalized (“sealed”) on Yom Kippur, the directive to execute the verdict takes place only on Hoshana Rabba. This can be compared to a human court. Even after a verdict has been handed down, if it has not yet been written in an execution order and conveyed to the agents of justice responsible for carrying it out, it is still possible to work for its reversal. This is the idea of Hoshana Rabba, when each verdict is written on an execution order, or “petek,” and given to messengers to convey to the angels in charge of carrying it out. Until then, it is still possible to reverse the judgment, as the execution orders have not yet been written and sent out with couriers. Therefore, it is appropriate to repent on Hoshana Rabba (Zohar III 31b). Furthermore, even after the verdict is conveyed to the angels on Hoshana Rabba, they are not permitted to carry it out until the end of Shemini Atzeret. Therefore, repentance is still effective in reversing or improving one’s verdict until then (Zohar I 220a and II 142a; Sha’ar Ha-kavanot, Derushei Ḥag Ha-Sukkot, pp. 314-316).
Some hold a large, joyful celebration on the night of Hoshana Rabba, like on the other nights of Sukkot (Zera Emet 2:157), but the widespread custom is to study Torah on the night of Hoshana Rabba, thus combining Torah study with festival joy, albeit without music and dancing. There is a pious custom to stay awake all night studying Torah on Hoshana Rabba, to repair and purify the soul before judgment is final. Some have the custom to read the entire Torah on this night (Shibolei Ha-leket §371). Based on Arizal’s teachings, a tikun focusing on Devarim and Tehilim was composed for recitation on this night (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 664:3-4).
As we have learned (5:10), on each day of Sukkot there is a custom to circle the bima once while carrying the four species, reciting supplications before, during, and after the circuit. On Hoshana Rabba, we circle seven times, after which we recite many supplications.
Because of Hoshana Rabba’s sanctity and its special mitzvot, it is customary to have a festive meal during the day (AHS 664:13).