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Peninei Halakha > Sukkot > 06 – Hoshana Rabba > 02. The Custom of the Arava in Temple Times and Today

02. The Custom of the Arava in Temple Times and Today

In addition to the Torah’s commandment to take aravot as one of the four species (4:1 above), there is another mitzva, which originates as halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai, to bring long aravot branches to the Temple and stand them next to the altar with their tops bent over onto the altar. When the aravot were brought, the kohanim sounded a teki’ateru’ateki’a blast on the shofar. This was done on each day of Sukkot except for Shabbat. However, if Hoshana Rabba coincided with Shabbat, it was done, because the main significance of the mitzva of arava was on this day. To avoid Shabbat desecration, the aravot were picked before Shabbat and left in golden vases filled with water to prevent their withering. Then, on Shabbat, the kohanim would simply stand up the aravot next to the altar (Sukka 45a).[1]

Extending this practice, the prophets instituted that aravot be taken not only in the Temple, but by Jews everywhere. They also instituted that the aravot are beaten. After the destruction, the Jews continued this custom in commemoration of the Temple. Even though in Temple times they took aravot every day, after the destruction it became the custom to do so on one day only. The seventh day was chosen, as it had been the primary day for the mitzva in the Temple, when they circled the altar seven times. According to the kabbalists, there is a hidden link between the mitzva of arava and the seventh day.

The mitzva of arava is so important that according to some Amora’im, after the destruction, when the Sanhedrin was still sanctifying each month, it avoided declaring Rosh Ha-shana on Sunday, so that Hoshana Rabba would never be on Shabbat, and people would always be able to take the aravot (Sukka 43b). Likewise, when the last Sanhedrin in Eretz Yisrael fixed the Jewish calendar as we know it, they made sure that Hoshana Rabba would never fall on Shabbat (Ran; Levush; see Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 1:3).

It would seem, at first glance, that since an arava has neither taste nor smell, it represents the simplest Jew, who has neither Torah nor good deeds. The Torah commands us to bundle the aravot with the other species in order to protect this type of Jew (Vayikra Rabba 30:12; 4:2-3 above). Given this, we may ask: Why take the arava on its own? Clearly, the arava has another dimension. Precisely because it lacks both taste and smell, it represents the penitent, who is aware of his limited value and many deficiencies, and who realizes that God alone can help him. From this perspective, a penitent is closer to God than someone who is completely righteous. The latter has earned his right to exist in the merit of his good deeds; he does not need special help from heaven. In contrast, a penitent is aware that he is totally dependent upon God, Who extends a hand to him despite his sins and accepts his repentance. This connects him to God more profoundly. Of this, the Sages declared: “Where penitents stand, even completely righteous people cannot stand” (Berakhot 34b).

By the time Hoshana Rabba arrives, after we have already done our best to repent, praying extensively on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, we now approach God to humbly ask for help. We take the aravot to show that, like penitents, we know that our salvation is dependent upon God alone. Perhaps this is why the aravot are called hoshanot, which allude to our repeated plea to God to “save us.” For if we deserve to be saved, it is in the merit of the humility that they represent. The custom of beating the aravot also expresses our willingness to disregard ourselves and our evil inclination in order to serve God wholeheartedly.

[1]. Technically, the concern for Shabbat desecration was only regarding the lulav. Since everyone fulfilled that mitzva, there was reason to be concerned that some people would end up carrying the lulav 4 amot in the public domain. In contrast, the mitzva to bring aravot to the altar, which was halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai, was fulfilled by the kohanim in the Temple. Even the custom later established by the prophets for everyone everywhere to take aravot would not have led to a concern about Shabbat desecration, since the gabbai would have brought the aravot to the synagogue before Shabbat. And there was no reason to be concerned that people would desecrate Shabbat by carrying the aravot to ask if they were kosher for use, since there was no concern that they are invalid. Nevertheless, if the arava ritual had been done in the Temple on Shabbat, it might have led people to mistakenly conclude that the mitzva of arava, which is not explicit in the Torah, was more important than the mitzva of lulav, which is explicit in the Torah, so they did not perform the arava ritual on Shabbat (Sukka 44a). Hoshana Rabba, though, was different. If it was on Shabbat, the mitzva of arava was practiced in the Temple. This way, everyone would be aware that it carried the significance of halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai, and from a certain perspective it is considered a mitzva from the Torah (Sukka 43b).

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman