06 – Hoshana Rabba

01. Hoshana Rabba

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).

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).

03. Beating the Aravot

The custom of Israel is to take aravot on the seventh day, to commemorate the Temple, and to beat them on the ground or something else, as the prophets instituted in Temple times (MT, Laws of Shofar, Sukka, and Lulav 7:22). The Amora’im disagree as to whether the prophets introduced this practice as an enactment, in which case a berakha is recited, or as a custom, in which case no berakha is recited (Sukka 42a-b with Rashi). The accepted practical ruling is that it is a custom, and no berakha is recited (SA 664:2).

The aravot need to be 3 tefaḥim long (like the aravot bundled with the lulav). Technically, one arava is enough, but it is customary nowadays to follow Arizal and take five aravot (SA 664:4; MB ad loc. 16). Some prefer not to tie the five aravot together. Others prefer to tie them, and this is the custom (MB 664:17; Kaf Ha-ḥayim ad loc. 35).

Although the aravot used for the mitzva of the four species are invalid if most of its leaves have fallen off, aravot used for the custom of beating are acceptable as long as one leaf remains on each arava. Nevertheless, one should not be lenient. Rather, one should beautify the custom and use nice aravot that are valid for use with the lulav (SA and Rema 664:4; Kaf Ha-ḥayim ad loc. 34).

Le-khatḥila, one should take new aravot for beating, rather than those that have already been used by someone else. However, technically, many people can fulfill the custom with the same aravot. The beating itself does not disqualify them. As long as each is 3 tefaḥim long and has at least one remaining leaf, they may be used multiple times to fulfill the custom.

The aravot are beaten two or three times on the ground or something else (Rambam; SA 664:4). According to Arizal, the custom is to beat the aravot five times on the ground. Some Aḥaronim write that it is preferable to first beat the aravot on the ground in accordance with Arizal’s custom and then beat them on pews or other furniture, because some maintain that it is better when the beating tears off leaves, which is more likely to happen when beating them on furniture (Bikurei Yaakov 664:16; MB ad loc. 19). Those who follow Arizal meticulously beat the aravot five times on unpaved ground and make sure that the aravot remain kosher enough to be used for a lulav throughout the beating (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 664:37).

In most communities, the four species are not taken together with the aravot for beating. Rather, the seven hakafot and the subsequent prayers and liturgical poems are conducted while holding the four species. Then the four species are put aside and the aravot picked up. Additional prayers and liturgical poems are then recited, and the service concludes with the beating of the aravot (Rema 664:7; MB ad loc. 26 based on Arizal; Kaf Ha-ḥayim ad loc. 32). The Yemenite custom is to hold the four species plus the aravot during the hakafot of Hoshana Rabba (as described in SA 664:3).

One cannot fulfill this obligation using aravot that are still bundled with the lulav. However, if the aravot are removed from the bundle after the four species have been taken, one may use them for the mitzva of beating aravot (SA 664:5; MB ad loc. 21).

04. The Status of the Four Species After the Festival

As we have seen (5:8 above), during the festival the four species are set aside (muktzeh) for mitzva purposes and may not be used for any other purpose. Therefore, even after one has taken the lulav on Hoshana Rabba and is finished with the mitzva until next Sukkot, he may not eat the etrog or smell the hadasim (unless he had made a condition before the festival). With the completion of Hoshana Rabba, they are released from the prohibition, and they may be smelled or eaten (Tosafot, Sukka 10b, s.v. “ad”; BHL 665:1, s.v. “etrog”). In fact, if one has no further use for the four species after fulfilling the mitzva on the final day of Sukkot, he may leave them in the yard or anywhere that people leave grass clippings or yard trim. Since they are considered tashmishei mitzva (objects used in a mitzva), they need not be buried (as do tashmishei kedusha – objects with intrinsic sanctity, like a Torah scroll, tefilin, or mezuza). Nevertheless, they should not be thrown in the garbage or left where they will be trampled. Since they were used to perform a mitzva, they may not be treated disrespectfully (SA 664:8).

As for the aravot that were beaten on Hoshana Rabba, some have a custom to leave them atop the ark. Perhaps this was to ensure that they are not thrown on the ground outside of the synagogue where they would be trampled. Ultimately, however, it is preferable to protect the dignity of the ark and not leave the aravot there. Instead, they should be left on the side of the yard or wherever yard trim is left. Some set aside the aravot until Erev Pesaḥ, at which point they burn them together with the ḥametz or use them to fuel the oven for baking matzot (Rema 664:9). Some keep the aravot in their house or yard as a protective charm.

05. Taking Leave of the Sukka

The sukka should not be taken down until Sukkot is over. Even if one finished eating on Hoshana Rabba and does not intend to sleep for the remainder of the day, he should not take down his sukka. This is because the mitzva of sitting in the sukka continues until day’s end, so if one wants to study Torah or chat with friends, it is still a mitzva to do so in the sukka. However, c. 2.5 hours before sunset, one may move furniture from the sukka back into the house, in preparation for Shemini Atzeret (SA 666:1).

It is appropriate to spend time in the sukka at the end of Hoshana Rabba, in order to spend as much time as possible in the shade of a mitzva from which we are about to take leave for an entire year. Some kiss the sukka as they depart at the end of Hoshana Rabba (Shlah; MB 477:5). Some recite a prayer, found in some siddurim, when leaving the sukka, (Rema 667:1).

The sekhakh, walls, and decorations of the sukka were set aside for mitzva use, and therefore may not be used for any other purpose during the festival. Even though there is no longer a mitzva to sit in the sukka on the eighth day, they remain muktzeh then too, since the prohibition extends until the end of bein ha-shmashot of the seventh day, and at that point, the eighth day has already begun (SA 667:1;2:16 above).

Since the sekhakh, walls, and decorations are tashmishei mitzva, they do not require burial, but they may not be treated disrespectfully. For example, sukka beams may not be used as floorboards, and paper decorations may not be used as toilet paper (MB 638:24).

In Eretz Yisrael, it is forbidden to eat in the sukka on the eighth day. If one does so while intending to do a mitzva, he transgresses the Torah prohibition of bal tosif, as it is written: “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it (lo tosef) nor take away from it” (Devarim 13:1). Even if he does not have in mind that he is fulfilling the mitzva, he is still transgressing the rabbinic prohibition to eat in the sukka on the eighth day, because it looks like he is trying to add to the mitzva. If someone has nowhere else to eat, before the eighth day he should remove sekhakh that covers an area 4 tefaḥim long (c. 32 cm) and 4 tefaḥim wide, making it clear that he is not interested in the sekhakh (SA 666:1). The concern that one appears to be adding to the mitzva applies only on the eighth day. One who wants to eat in the sukka any time after that need not remove sekhakh, because by that late date nobody would think that he means to add to the mitzva (Rema 666:1).

Outside of Eretz Yisrael, people eat in the sukka on the eighth day, because it is treated as though it might be the seventh day. However, no berakha is recited. Since the day is primarily treated as Shemini Atzeret and not Sukkot, reciting the berakha would render the day’s practices self-contradictory (Sukka 47a; SA 668:1; see Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim ch. 9 n. 4).

On the ninth day, when Simḥat Torah is celebrated outside of Eretz Yisrael, it is forbidden to eat in the sukka, because it looks like one is adding to the mitzva. If one has nowhere else to eat, he may not remove sekhakh before the ninth day, because of the prohibition of Soter on Yom Tov. To avoid looking like he is transgressing bal tosif, he should bring dirty pots and dishes into the sukka. Since it is prohibited to do so on Sukkot, this makes it clear that he is not intending to fulfill the mitzva of sukka when he eats there (SA 666:1).

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