On Hoshana Rabbah, as the High Holidays’ period of judgment comes to a conclusion, give your chicken soup a taste of something meaningful
By Carol Ungar for Tablet Magazine
Hoshana Rabbah—the holiday that falls on the seventh day of Sukkot—includes one of the strangest of Jewish rituals: beating willow branches against the floor.
This beating occurs right after the Hoshana prayers, long liturgical poems whose main theme is visceral request for God’s mercy. The word hoshana literally means “save us.” After all of the Hoshanas have been said (on Hoshana Rabbah there are seven; during the rest of Sukkot, only one) everyone takes out their bundles of five willow branches (not by dismembering the lulav but from another arava set purchased specifically for this day), and then comes the high point of the holiday: Everyone bends down and whacks their bundles against the floor five times.
This is nothing new; Jews have been doing this since the First Temple was standing, in preparation for the following day’s holiday of Shemini Atzeret, when the prayer for rain is recited. Willows are related to rain and water; that is how the plant is able to thrive. But what is the beating all about? No one seems to have a good answer. Even Eliyahu Kitov, the leading expert on the Jewish holidays and their lore, seems to throw up his hands at this one: “The custom of beating of the arava on the ground contains profound esoteric significance and only the Great of Israel merit the knowledge of those secrets,” he writes in his classic work The Book of Our Heritage.
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