succot four minim 298.
(photo credit: AP [File])
Today, Hoshana Raba, is the 21st day of the month of Tishrei. It is also the seventh day of Succot, the festival's last day - well, not exactly. Although it is the final day of Hol Hamoed - the intermediate days of Succot - Hoshana Raba is followed by another day of the festival, Simhat Torah (referred to in the Bible as Shmini Atzeret). Confused?
Outside of Israel, where Jewish holidays are observed for two days each, the two days at the end of Succot are called Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah; in Israel, both names are used for the same day.
Tomorrow's Yom Tov - again, in Israel, both Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah - has a dual identity: it is both its own holiday and the eighth day of Succot. If one views Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah as part of Succot (though without the commandments of dwelling in a succa and without the taking of the Four Species), the entire festival consists of a first day of Yom Tov, six intermediate days of lesser sanctity (but more than a regular weekday) and a final day of Yom Tov. Outside of Israel, there are two "first days," five days of Hol Hamoed and two "final days." Still confused?
Let's get back to today's quasi-holiday, Hoshana Raba.
The Mishna tells us of various rituals practiced in the Temple during the seven days of Succot. One involved bringing large branches of willow, grown in the Motza area just outside Jerusalem, and leaning them against the altar in the courtyard of the Temple.
Known as river willow (different from the willow tree species), the aravot are one of the Four Species - the others being etrog (citron), lulav (palm branch) and hadassim (myrtle branches) - shaken during festival prayers (except on Shabbat).
The willow represents a silent prayer for beneficial rain during the imminent rainy season. The Mishna teaches us that the world is judged four times during the year, one of which is the divine judgment for water supply on Succot.
In the Temple, the arava-draped altar was circumambulated once on each day of Succot, and on the seventh day, seven times.
During these hakafot (circuits), prayers were recited, including the petition to God: "Ana adonai hoshiya na" (Please God, save us!). Hoshana is a contraction of the words "hoshiya" and "na," and is itself a word oft-repeated in the text recited during the circuits.
In commemoration of the circumambulation of the Temple altar, we march around the synagogue during the morning services carrying our Four Species, once on each weekday of Succot (on Shabbat, hoshanot are recited without the Four Species and without circling the synagogue) and seven times on the last day of Succot, which is known as Hoshana Raba because of the many hoshana prayers that are recited.
The word "hoshanot" has also become synonymous with "aravot," especially those used in the special Hoshana Raba service. (The English word "hosanna" is derived from "hoshana" and is used to express praise or adoration of God.)
Traditionally, five willow branches are tied together - this in addition to the two that are joined to the lulav for the duration of Succot - for the commemorative practice of Hoshana Raba. Toward the end of the hoshanot prayers, the willow bundle is symbolically beaten on the ground and a special prayer for favorable judgment - of ourselves - is recited.
The four times of the year that God judges the world are at Pessah for grain, Shavuot for fruit of the trees, on Rosh Hashana when all people "pass before God" and are inspected and judged, and during Succot, when our rainfall hangs in the balance.
Although the Mishna mentions Rosh Hashana as a judgment day (yom hadin), we consider our personal judgment period to begin on Rosh Hashana, continue through Yom Kippur and culminate on Hoshana Raba, when the "object of judgment" shifts from people to rainfall.
Because of our obvious dependence on rainfall - and the dire consequences of drought, hurricanes, floods and the like - our "personal" judgment continues and is inextricably linked with the judgment for rainfall.
On Shmini Atzeret, we openly pray for rain, as opposed to the silent and subtle prayers during the seven days of Succot to avoid inviting rainfall during the festival.
Nonetheless, it is obvious that we focus on water throughout Succot. The Four Species are all particularly water-intensive plants, and during Temple times the water libation rite was performed.
Although Hoshana Raba is a judgment day, it is of a significantly different nature from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. God's judgments are hopefully met by our introspection, reflection and resolve to become better people. This process is known as teshuva (repentance). Its main but lower motivation is fear/awe.
Fear of God (yirat Hashem), fear of sin and fear of punishment are the main motivations of teshuva during the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
A much higher motivation toward repentance is known as teshuva me'ahava (repentance out of love): love of God, love of Torah and love of Judaism. Our tradition teaches us that the most that the lower form of repentance can achieve is complete forgiveness for transgressions.
Repentance out of love accomplishes more - it actually transforms our sins into merits! Such is the relationship we (strive to) have with God, and such is His love for us that He considers a sin genuinely repented (out of love of God) as if we performed a mitzva.
The tradition of spending the night of Hoshana Raba studying Torah, for example, is an expression of our repentance and of our joy of Judaism.
The morning services of Hoshana Raba echo those of the High Holy Days: The cantor wears a white kittel (robe) and many of the tunes are the same as they were on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Also, the traditional greeting for Hoshana Raba is "Gmar tov" (good finish), which is similar to earlier in the month, but with a happier undercurrent.
Succot is known as zman simhateinu (the season of our joy). Part of the reason for the title comes from our being able to turn over a new leaf - many new leaves - and to be happy in the feeling that this resolve is what God wants most from us as people and as Jews.
The writer is the educational director of the OU Israel Center and editor of its weekly publication Torah Tidbits.