Hosha’na Rabbah: The day of the willow

willowOf the four species used on Succot, the lowly willow – seen to represent the Jew who has neither learning (aroma) or good deeds (flavour) – is the symbol of the last day of the festival: Hosha’na Rabbah (“the great salvation”). By a similar token, the willow can also be seen to represent the parts of each of us that have been unmoved by the penitential atmosphere of the days of Awe. Hosha’na Rabbah is the time when even the willow finds salvation.

The S&P service for Hoshagnah Rabbah is beautiful and much of it recalls the services of the Days of Awe. While we pray sincerely, fast and read the penitential prayers for the whole day on Kippur, Hoshagnah Rabbah is perhaps more a symbolic acknowledgement that there are parts of our community – and of ourselves – that have ignored the days of awe, and been unmoved by them, and that they too are in need of salvation.

The seven circuits on Hoshanna Rabbah

The hymns sung during the seven circuits in the Sephardi tradition draw heavily on the propitiatory prayers of Kippur, but in an almost optimistic and uplifting way.

The texts refer in turn to seven biblical characters and link them with seven characteristics (wisdom, strength truth, etc.). Interestingly, these characteristics happen to be – in the correct order – the seven lower Sefirot (Divine attributes) which are central to kabbalistic teaching!


In the S&P “list of seven”, the sixth character is Pinchas. Thus the list corresponds exactly to that in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta 1:6: “With seven patriarchs covenants were made: Abraham [Gen. xv. 18], Isaac [Gen. xvii. 21], Jacob [Lev. xxvi. 421, Moses [Ex. xxxiv. 271], Aaron [Num. xviii. 19], Pinhas [Num. xxv. 12], David [Ps. lxxxix. 41].”

The kabbalists identified these seven characters with the seven lower Sephirot (Divine Emanations) and the poems we read during the curcuits make explicit reference to these; one of the few places in the S&P liturgy where kabbalistic tradition is so obviously followed. However kabbalistic tradition tends to replace the sixth character with Joseph, or at least add him, while the S&P tradition mentions Pinhas alone.

Holding the Lulab during the Musaf Amidah

The lulab and etrog are held during the silent Amidah throughout Succot.

This is one of the distinctive and beautiful S&P customs. Although we are particular not to hold anything that might distract us while saying the Amidah, certainly not a wallet or a mobile phone, with the exception of a prayer book, another exception specifically mentioned in Shulkhan Arukh is the lulab. To my knowledge the S&P and the Italians are the only communities who do this,  and I personally find it a wonderfully inspiring custom.

The mystery of the willow

There is something of a mystery about when and how the willow fronds are to be taken.

Both Abudarham and the Sepher ha-Manhig say that a separate willow (not the one from the lulab) was taken on Hosha’na Raba but do not mention beating it on the floor.  Maimonides calls it a custom of the prophets. Manasseh ben Israel (Thesouro dos Dinim) has the willows beaten on the floor or benches “as a sign for a happy and joyful year” but doesn’t say at what stage in the service. So it would certainly seem to be an authentic Iberian custom.

Haham Moses Gaster in the first edition of his Tabernacles prayer book (1906) has the beating (on the floor or benches) at the beginning of the first circuit at ‘Hoshangna’. The rubric does not appear before the remaining hakafot, but is not qualified and very possibly is intended for all of them.

“When the Minister says “Save us,” the Congregation beat the willows branches on the floor or benches two or three times.”

In his Preface Gaster gives a poetic explanation:

“The Festival closes with the Hosha-gnana Rabba, the Great Hosha-gnana, when we beat the twigs of the willow tree; the leaves are falling one by one, with the days that pass, and the approaching winter denudes the trees of their adornment, to be clothes again in green foliage by the coming spring.”

That lovely explanation of the symbolism may perhaps be an apologetic to justify its inclusion and and to guard against criticism that it is superstition.

However, in the revised Gaster edition of 1931 – produced during Gaster’s lifetime – this rubric has disappeared, and it is omitted from all subsequent London editions of the prayer book. Could Gaster have ‘restored’ the old Iberian custom in the first edition and then been forced to remove it from the second?

I am told that in Amsterdam and New York while there are congregants who beat the willow at the end of the service after Adon ‘Olam, the rabbis, hazanim and officials do not join in, to emphasise that it is not part of the tradition.

In London, ministers from Gibraltar and North Africa seem to have reintroduced the custom which is now unofficially observed by many of the congregation. Some of the children – who readily transform any ritual into a parody of itself if not provided with a decent explanation by the adults – sometimes turn it into a competition to see how few whacks it takes to get all the leaves to fall off.

However, the kabbalistic insistence on taking five willow fronds, and that they must all be kosher as required for the mitzvah of arba’ minim, and of tying them together, is not observed.

Hoshanna Rabbah Breakfast

After the morning service, a festive breakfast (or more accurately “brunch”, since the morning service is a long one) is served in the succah. As this is usually the last proper meal to be eaten in the succah that year, it is a very special and emotive meal.

Hoshagnah Rabbah breakfast cannot be considered complete without Hameen Eggs (a.k.a. Hamindas). These brown hardboiled eggs are a central feature. Their mellow brown colour and slightly nutty flavour are an essential aspect of the occasion.


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