The Mystical Ritual of Hoshana Rabbah: Summoning God
Describing the Hoshana Rabbah Service
The final day of Sukkot, known as Hoshana Rabbah, has one of the strangest and most remarkable prayer services. The service is a culmination of a weeklong Sukkot prayer ritual called the hoshanot, in which the congregants make a circle around a Sefer Torah holding a lulav and etrog. While making this circuit an alphabetic acrostic prayer is recited responsively; each phrase in this prayer begins and ends with the word hosha῾-na (meaning, “Save, please!”).
On Hoshana Rabbah, instead of circling one Sefer Torah one time, all of the Sifrei Torah are removed from the ark and are circled seven times. The seven hoshanot each come with one of the acrostic prayers featuring the word “hosha῾-na” but the service does not end there. After making the seven circuits, a new set of hosha῾-na themed prayers begins. Each one rhetorically expands the key supplication of “save, please” by a notch (I quote from the Ashkenazi tradition, with which I am more familiar).
כהושעת… כן הושע נא - As you saved… thus please save!
אנא, הושיעה נא - Please, save please!
אנא, א-ל נא, הושע נא והושיעה נא - Please, God please, save please and deliver please!
אנא, א-ל נא, הושע נא והושיע נא, אבינו אתה - Please, God please, save please and deliver please, you are our father!
הושע נא, א-ל נא, אנא הושיע נא - Save please, God please, please deliver, please!
הושע נא, סלח נא והצליחה נא, והושיענו א-להי מעוזנו - Save please, forgive please and make us prosper please, and deliver us, God our strength!
רחם נא קהל ישורון, סלח ומחל עונם, והושיענו א-להי ישענו - Have mercy, please, [upon] the congregation of Yeshurun, forgive and pardon their sins, and deliver us, God our savior!
שערי שמים פתח ואוצרך הטוב לנו תפתח, תושיעינו וריב אל תמתח, והושיענו א-להי ישענו - Open the gates of heaven and open up the storage rooms of your bounty to us, You will save us and not extend the quarrel; deliver us, God our savior!
The build-up of tension in the first five of these phrases is palpable. The desperation in the voice of the congregation is impossible to overlook. The last three are longer and include a greater repertoire of words and concepts. In the second to last of these phrases, God is asked not just to save but to forgive our sins. In the final phrase, in a sentence reminiscent of the ne'ilah service on Yom Kippur, we request the gates of heaven to be open; we also request God’s storehouses to be opened—all this in addition to the usual request for being saved. The line about the gates of heaven is not the only piece of the service to be reminiscent of the high holidays; like on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the shaliach tzibbur (the person leading the service) wears a kittel (white robe), representing purity.
By this point in the hoshanot service, the congregants have put down their lulavim and etrogim and have picked up their “hoshanot”; the term used thusly means a bundle of willow sprigs. Holding these sprigs, the final prayer in the service is intoned. This one is quite different. The refrain reads “קול מבשר מבשר ואומר (a voice announces, announces and says).” The voice, ostensibly the voice of God, announces something, but the prayer does not say what.
A reference to God’s voice evokes the story of the revelation at Sinai, where the people hear the “voice” of God (Deut. 4:12), and see the “voices” of thunder and lightening (Exod. 20:15), and where Elijah returns hundreds of years later to hear the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). Additionally, the prayer for which this line serves as the refrain is replete with biblical imagery and verses about the “voice,” the effect of which is to make the image of God’s appearance on earth seem immanent. At the conclusion of this prayer the refrain is repeated three times.
At this point the oddest of all the day's rituals takes place: the congregants take the sprigs and beat them against the ground five times. The Torah scrolls are then returned to the ark and the ark is closed (in some communities this is done before the beating of the hoshanot); the congregation then says some verses and supplications quietly and the service returns to its normal pattern. What is the meaning of this odd ritual?
Hoshanot and Decorating the Temple Altar
According to the Mishna (Sukkah 4:5), the origins of the hoshanot ritual go back to the Temple period.
מצות ערבה כיצד? מקום היה למטה מירושלם ונקרא מוצא יורדין לשם ומלקטין משם מרביות של ערבה ובאין וזוקפין אותן בצדי המזבח וראשיהן כפופין על גבי המזבח תקעו והריעו ותקעו.
How is the mitzvah of the willow performed? There was a place below Jerusalem called “Motza”. They would go down to there, gather up branches of willows, come, and lean them against the sides of the altar with their tops bent against the sides of the altar. They would then blow atekia, a teruah and a tekiah.
בכל יום מקיפין את המזבח פעם אחת ואומרים: "אנא ה’ הושיעה נא אנא ה’ הצליחה נא. "” רבי יהודה אומר: “אני והו הושיעה נא." ואותו היום מקיפין את המזבח שבעה פעמים.
Each day they would make a circuit around the altar once and recite [the verse (Psalms 118:25)] “Please, Lord, save please, please, Lord, make us prosper, please!” Rabbi Yehudah says: “Ani ve-Hu/Ho, please save!” On that day (the final day of Sukkot) they make a circuit around the altar seven times.
בשעת פטירתן מה הן אומרים? "יופי לך מזבח יופי לך מזבח." רבי אליעזר אומר: "ליה ולך מזבח ליה ולך מזבח."
When [the people] are leaving, what do they say? “How beautiful you are, Altar; how beautiful you are, Altar!” Rabbi Eliezer says: “He and you, Altar; He and you, Altar.”
This ritual, and the personification of the altar with which it ends, is downright strange, as is the inclusion of phrases to recite that are inexplicable. As fascinating as the altar decoration is, this piece will focus on the current form of the ritual and its prayers. Also, I will offer a phenomenological/psychological explanation for the ritual, not a historical one. Although it would be fascinating to trace the development of the ritual and how it grew into the one we have now, to determine when each prayer was written, etc., such a study is beyond the scope of what I am trying to accomplish here.
Seven Circuits and the Walls Came Tumbling Down
A possible understanding of the meaning—or one of the meanings—of the hoshanot ritual can be teased out upon comparison with a similar ritual that appears in Tanakh. When Israel attacks the city of Jericho, God informs Joshua that the conquest of this city would be unconventional (Josh. 6:2-5).
ב ויאמר י-הוה אל יהושע: “ראה נתתי בידך את יריחו ואת מלכה גבורי החיל: גוסבתם את העיר כל אנשי המלחמה הקיף את העיר פעם אחת כה תעשה ששת ימים:ד ושבעה כהנים ישאו שבעה שופרות היובלים לפני הארון וביום השביעי תסבו את העיר שבע פעמים והכהנים יתקעו בשופרות: ה והיה במשך בקרן היובל בשמעכם כשמעכם את קול השופר יריעו כל העם תרועה גדולה ונפלה חומת העיר תחתיה ועלו העם איש נגדו:
2 The LORD said to Joshua, “See, I will deliver Jericho and her king [and her] warriors into your hands. 3 Let all your troops march around the city and complete one circuit of the city. Do this six days, 4 with seven priests carrying seven ram’s horns preceding the Ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the horns. 5 And when a long blast is sounded on the horn—as soon as you hear that sound of the horn—all the people shall give a mighty shout. Thereupon the city wall will collapse, and the people shall advance, every man straight ahead” (NJPS).
This ritual has many parallels with that of the hoshanot. The ritual takes a week. Each day of the week one circuit is made around a particular spot, in this case the city of Jericho. On the seventh day seven circuits are made and a “voice” (kol) is invoked for the end of the ritual. Although the Israelites do not walk around a Sefer Torah, the kohanim (priests) do carry the ark along with them on their circuit.
Why does the wall come down? What is the causal connection between the ritual of the seven circuits and the collapse of Jericho’s wall? The ritual appears to be a summoning ritual, generically similar to the summoning of the “friendly angel” Gorgon by the children of the planet Triacus in the original Star Trek (epis. 60, “And the Children Shall Lead.”) The children hold hands, dance in a circle, and recite, “Hail, hail, fire and snow. Call the angel, we will go. Far away, for to see. Friendly angel come to me.” They say this line repeatedly until Gorgon appears. There are parallels to this in Ancient Near Eastern summoning rituals, like the summoning of the ancestors (rapaim) in the Ugaritic coronation ceremony.
In the conquest of Jericho account, God has taught Joshua how God can be summoned. It requires a magic ritual, using God’s number (seven is God’s number in many biblical texts): seven circuits in seven days, done seven times on the seventh day. Having done this while carrying the ark and ending with a loud sound (the blowing of the shofars) God appears over Jericho and crushes it—and the walls come tumbling down.
Hoshana Rabbah Liturgy as a Summoning Ritual
I suggest that the hoshanot ritual, like the circuits around Jericho, is a summoning ritual. With this ritual we bring God’s presence (shekhinah) into our synagogues so that we can make our request. What is our request? Specifically, rain, more broadly, survival.
In rabbinic literature, the holiday of Sukkot is associated with water. Specifically, the Rabbis, following the Pharisees, believed that the Oral Torah included a requirement for a ritual called nissuch ha-mayim, the pouring of the water, which was performed at the Temple from the second day of Sukkot through the seventh. This ritual is also the origin for the term the Rabbis use regarding the night time Sukkot celebrations that occurred in the Temple: Simchat Beit ha-Shoeivah, “The Celebration of the House of the Drawn Water.”
Sukkot marks the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. This transition from dry season to rainy season is marked in Rabbinic liturgy; on the day following Sukkot, the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the prayer for rain is recited by the congregation and the request for rain is inserted into the Amidah prayer, where it will remain until Passover, the holiday marking the beginning of the dry season.
Considering the devastating nature of a drought, the desperation in the tone of the Hoshana Rabbah prayers begins to make more sense. Additionally, when one understands that this is a summoning ritual, a number of other features of the holiday and the ritual begin to make more sense as well.
Jewish tradition sees Hoshana Rabbah as the final day of the High Holiday cycle, the last day before the decrees go into effect, the day the gates of heaven are closed, a mini Yom Kippur with the shaliach tzibbur dressed in a white kittel. The opening of the ark and the removal of all the Torah scrolls makes sense in this context as well; the Torah scroll, like the Ark of the Covenant, is the closest thing to a physical manifestation of God that exists in Jewish tradition.
Beating the Willows: The Danger of Summoning God
Having explained the seven circuits, there remains the odd ritual of beating the willows. If the summoning of God has been successful, shouldn’t the ritual end with some expression of joy and relief as opposed to something aggressive?
Here again some biblical analogies are instructive. God’s appearance among the Israelites in the Bible is both powerful as well as frightening. Seeing the evidence of God on Mount Sinai, the Israelites panic, claiming that if they hear God’s voice they will surely die (Exod. 20:16). When the glory of God appears at the Tabernacle during the dedication, the people fall upon their faces (Lev. 9:23-24).
Not only is the appearance of God frightening, but also it is dangerous. One false move and the person interacting with God will, in fact, die. When Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the high priest, improperly offer an incense offering during the above-referenced dedication ritual, they are immediately struck dead. When Uzziah sees that the Ark of the Covenant is falling off of its wagon and goes to stabilize it by grabbing it, he is struck dead (2 Sam. 6:6-8). When God explains to Moses why God cannot travel with the Israelites in their camp, God warns Moses that this is because Israel is a stiff-necked people, and if God were with them even for a moment God would destroy them (Exod. 33:5).
We find ourselves in this bind on Hoshana Rabbah. On one hand, we wish to summon God so God can hear our unmediated plea for rain, sustenance, and life. On the other hand, what can be more dangerous that God’s presence in the room? When Joshua summoned God to Jericho, the danger to Israel was averted because God’s attention was focused on Jericho, which God destroys. How do we deflect God’s wrath in the synagogue, lest we cause our own demise by calling God into our midst?
This, I believe, is the purpose of the willows ritual. Before we recite the “voice” prayer, which represents the appearance of God in our synagogues, we pick up the willow sprigs and hold them before us. This has the appearance of a transference ritual, where the willows take the place of the congregants holding them. Since the willows have now experienced the presence of God as well, we deflect the possible negative consequences to ourselves by beating the willows.
This is a common theme in apotropaic magic, where allowing a small bad to occur (hurting the willows) protects us from a more significant bad later on. Sending the scapegoat to the demon Azazel carrying all of Israel’s sins (Lev. 16:21-22) would be a classic example of this. In short, the beating of the willows protects the Jews from any negative consequences that might have come with the summoning of God to hear our prayers.
Hoshana Rabbah is one of my favorite services but it was not always so. In my twenties I considered myself a Maimonidean rationalist and I always felt there was something tribal or primitive about this prayer service. I used to imagine what it would look like to an outsider, watching the men in prayer shawls, holding their lulavim and etrogim walking around in circles and chanting the word hosha῾-na over and over again. At the time, I could never have considered the explanation of the ritual offered in this essay.
However, my views on ritual and its purposes have shifted over the past decade or so. Instead of seeing Jewish ritual as “rational acts” with deep philosophical meaning, I now see them as acts that express deep psychological truths—acts that contribute to emotional catharsis and spiritual healing. There is a deep truth embedded in the hoshanot ritual. As the new year begins we are afraid. We are afraid that we or our loved ones may become ill; we are afraid that we may lose our livelihoods; we are afraid of terrorism or war; we are afraid that our marriages may collapse or our children may take a bad path.; we are afraid that we are not succeeding or that we are not worthy of succeeding. We want to call out to God, to speak to God directly but we cannot. As Ecclesiastes—the book read every year on the Shabbat of Sukkot—proclaims, the world does not work that way.
Thus, every year we take these fears, this nervous tension, and we act out in ritual form a way of communicating with God. We force God ka-ve-yachol (so to speak) into our synagogues with our summoning ritual—the very one God taught to Joshua millennia ago—and we pour out our hearts in person. It is the culmination of the High Holiday season, a worthy ending to this season of hopes and dreams.
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September 23, 2013
December 29, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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