Explaining Hoshana Rabbah, Simchat Beit Hasho’eva and Simchat Torah and How Can We Connect to Them?
An in-depth guide to understanding the last days of the Tishrei holiday season
I wanted to know a little more about Hoshana Rabbah, Simchat Beit Hashoeva and Simchat Torah, and what is the meaning of all these special days. How can we connect with them today because they all took place many years ago, and it seems to me that you need a lot of imagination to feel it is alive and meaningful today.
We will explain below what is Hoshana Rabbah and show that it is as relevant today as when it was first enacted.
Hoshana Rabbah is the last day when we keep the commandments of the Four Species and a sukkah (Outside of Israel, there are different customs concerning a sukkah also on Shmini Atzeret). It is called Hoshana Rabbah because on this day we say many Hoshana sections in our prayers more than all the other days of the festival. We also take a willow branch which is also called Hoshana after the Hoshana prayers of that day: Even though the Torah doesn’t differentiate Hoshana Rabbah from the other days of Sukkot, Jews through the generations have adopted special customs for this day and made it like a minor festival.
Laws and customs of Hoshana Rabbah
The custom to take willow branches goes back to the times of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. After saying some prayers, the willow branches are banged on the floor. It is not like other rabbinical commandments because from the beginning it was ordained to be a custom only. This is why we do not recite a blessing over the willow branches when we bang them.
Many also have the custom to be awake the entire night and recite a Tikkun and read the Book of Deuteronomy and complete the Book of Psalms. In this way, they utilize the night and day together in Torah study and prayer. Those who are stringent in how they perform commandments, will immerse themselves in a mikvah before dawn.
The reason why it is the custom to stay awake at night is because it is the Ushpizin of King David (he is the last of the fathers of our nation who visit the sukkah each night of Sukkot) who never slept more than 60 breaths of sleep at night. He would arouse himself like a lion in the night to recite songs and praises of G-d. The discomfort of losing sleep on this night is also reminiscent of the discomforts we experienced on Yom Kippur. On a day when one seeks atonement, it is appropriate to reduce his physical comforts.
We dress in festive clothes and some even wear white clothes as is done on Yom Kippur. Some light leftover Yom Kippur candles.
After Hallel or after Mussaf, the Hoshanahs are recited in the order that they appear in the prayerbook, and the bima is circuited 7 times. When they reach the piyyut “Ta’aneh Emunim”, they put down the lulav and etrog and take the willow branch (aravah) and finish the order of Hoshanahs only with it. Some follow the kabbalistic practice of not taking the willow branch until the time comes to bang it on the floor.
We do the minimum of work necessary even of work permitted on chol hamoed until finishing prayers in the synagogue.
We enjoy a festive holiday meal.
Hoshana Rabbah’s meaning
Hoshana Rabbah is the last day of the period of judgment that began on Rosh Hashona, when all creations were individually subjected to G-d’s scrutiny. On Sukkot, the world in general is judged concerning the amount of water it will be allocated, and on the seventh day of the holiday, which is Hoshana Rabbah, all judgments are finally signed. Because mankind’s life depends on water, and everything depends on the final verdict, Hoshana Rabbah is somewhat akin to Yom Kippur, and we increase our prayers and repentance just like on Yom Kippur.
The early sages say, ”The heavenly kingdom is like the earthly kingdom”, which means that the judicial process is similar.
In an earthly kingdom, if a merciful and righteous king sits in judgment and finds a merit, he will immediately decide the case to the side of merit. If not — he will allow the defense to find exonerating circumstances and will only afterwards decide the law. If he decides on a merciful judgment, he announces it right away, but if not — he delays his judgment in case a merit can be found at the last moment so he can tear up the verdict and instead give a lenient verdict.
In the end, the sentences are given to the heavenly agents to act on, whether for death or life. If the verdict is for mercy — it can never be exchanged for one of strict judgment. But if the verdict is for strict judgment, it can be exchanged for a merciful judgment at the last second.
How is this done? If a certain person who rebelled against the king receives a draconian verdict, and the king’s officials come to the condemned person’s house and find that he venerates the king and rejoices in his kingdom and accepts all his decrees with joy — what do they say? ‘This can’t be the person on whom this decree was passed. This person looks completely different.’ They return to the king and he agrees with them and says the man’s a different person. So they tear up his verdict and sign him for a good life!
It’s the same with the heavenly kingdom. On Rosh Hashana all creations pass before G-d. Completely righteous people are written down and signed for life, while average people are held in abeyance until Yom Kippur and then their verdict is signed but still pending. The final signature on their verdict is made on Hoshana Rabbah but the execution of the sentence is held up until the morning of Shmini Atzeret. That’s why we spend so much time in prayer and supplications on Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, and why we try to arouse ourselves to repent and seek G-d’s compassion. Even if we had a terrible verdict, our actions can completely change it, and heaven will tear it up and write for us a good verdict.
The day after Sukkot is Shmini Atzeret. It is called this name because Atzeret means “remaining another day.” The Jewish people have spent a close, intimate month with G-d and are reluctant to return to normal life, as if to say, “It is difficult to bid farewell to this special time. Even if the commandments of sukkah, the Four Species, the holiday sacrifices and the water libations have finished, we want to remain another day and just exult in You.” The heavenly agents come down and when they see the Jews deliriously happy with love of G-d, then even if there were some among them who were to get a bad sentence, it no longer applies because they have become different people, people who love G-d, and who rejoice in Him and in His commandments.
Our sages say in the Midrash: “G-d said to Avraham: I am the only One, and you are an only one — I will give your sons a special day to atone for their sins, which is Hoshana Rabbah.”
“G-d said to Abraham: If your sons do not attain atonement on Rosh Hashona, they could do it on Yom Kippur. And if not, then on Hoshana Rabbah.”
Why did G-d make this promise particularly to Abraham? Just as Abraham’s light began to shine in the world after 21 generations, so will the light of his sons. Even if they delay in achieving this light, it will not take longer than the 21 days from the beginning of the judgment on Rosh Hashana until Hoshana Rabbah.
The main theme of this day is prayer and compassion at the moment when the final signature is affixed to G-d’s verdict and the sentences are delivered. This is why the custom is to wish each other on this day “pitka tova”, which means may your sentence be good.
On Hoshana Rabbah, the Jews do not seek deliverance in the merit of all their righteous deeds from the whole year or in the merit of our Fathers. They ask for life for themselves and the entire world only in the merit of prayer. They say before G-d, “Master of the universe, we come before you poor and empty, there is nothing in our hands, not Torah study and not commandments, not good deeds and not the merits of our Fathers. We have nothing but our mouth with which to pray to you. Please answer us only in the merit of this prayer that we are saying before you with a broken and humbled heart.”
All the customs of the day are hinted to in the prayers: the many circuits around the bima, the prayers of Hoshanos, taking the willow branch; and the heavenly guest of the day and the last of the seven faithful shepherds of the Jewish people — King David.
On every single day in Sukkot, the bima is encircled during the prayer of Hoshanahs once, but on Hoshana Rabbah — it is encircled seven times. After the seven circuits, many other piyyuts and supplications are said, all of them using the word “Hoshana” (“Please bring salvation”). The implication is that we feel we have no merit which we can attribute to ourselves and can only ask to be saved because of G-d’s compassion.
Why is the willow branch used especially on Hoshana Rabbah? Because willow branches grow near water, and on this day the world is judged for the amount of water it will receive this year.
We also encircle the synagogue bima with the Torah scrolls in remembrance of the circuits that were done in the Temple during Sukkot. Today, all that is left to us from our past glory is the Torah and it atones for us like an altar.
We ask G-d humbly to bless this year with lavish rain and dew, and clean aquifer water that will rise to irrigate the land.
These words of humility and prayer that we say when encircling the bima are called “Hoshana” or “Hoshanot” in plural. The word “Hoshana” is actually a combination of two words Hosha Na, or Hoshia Na (“Please bring salvation”) This word is repeated in every verse of the prayers said when encircling the bima, and it is the main part of the prayer. In the Temple too they would mention Hosha Na while encircling the altar, emphasizing the concept of salvation instead of other similar terms like rescue, help, and save.
The term Hoshana also contains a hint: It can be read as Hosha Na (Na is numerologically 51), as if we are saying “Bring us salvation on the 51st day — referring to Hoshana Rabbah which is the 51st day from when Selichot began to be said [by Sephardim] on the first day of the month of Elul. This is our annual period of repentance and judgment.
Yom Kippur is the 10th day after Rosh Hashona and Hoshana Rabbah is the 10th day after Yom Kippur. The numerological value of the letters spelling the word Yud (the letter which numerologically is equal to 10) equal 20 (yud-vov-daled = 10+6+4). This hints that Hoshana Rabbah is also a time of atonement.
Hoshana Rabbah was also the day that G-d spoke through the prophet Haggai to Zerubabel the son of Shaltiel, to strengthen him in rebuilding the Temple.
The Significance and Hints Concerning the Aravah (Willow Branch)
The willow branch that we take on Hoshana Rabbah after putting aside the etrog and lulav, also hints to prayer. The willow leaf is similar to the mouth and lips, and it corresponds to those Jews who are neither Torah scholars and have not done commandments and good deeds. Now we put aside the Four Species that were tied up together which represents the different kinds of Jews, and we take only the willow branch as if to say that we have no Torah knowledge and no commandments worthy of mention. We are not even like an etrog or lulav or hadas and instead we are all like the aravah, the willow branch. The only thing that we can claim to have is our mouth to pray. We are like the willow branch, whose leaves are similar to a mouth.
It is brought in the sources that this is also the meaning of the circuits done around the bima. It is as if we are intimating that we have no beginning or end, and no one who is at the head or the tail, but we all are equal before G-d and are awaiting His salvation. Such a prayer is sweet to G-d even more than all our supplications. Do not read the wordaravah, but areivah, which means “sweet”.
The heavenly guest on Hoshana Rabbah is King David, the sweet singer of Israel. His whole power in prayer was, as he himself said in Psalms 102, “The prayer of the poor man when he is faint.” He also said: (ibid. 109) “I am a prayer.” The psalms that David said are the wellsprings of prayer for all people in every generation.
The Willow and its Laws
Moses received at Sinai the law that the willow branch is taken in the Temple during the entire seven days of the holiday. It is mentioned in the mishna that they would pick it in Motzah which was near Jerusalem. Taking the willow branch was a commandment in itself separate from the willow branch that was tied together with the lulav. They would take a willow branch and circuit the altar once a day, and on the last day of Sukkot, they would encircle the altar seven times.
This law which was given to Moses at Sinai applied only to the Temple but nowhere else where the Jews lived. Then the last prophets, Haggai Zechariah and Malachi, came and they ordained that the custom of the willow branch should be performed wherever Jews lived (as we mentioned above, not as a commandment but as a custom) in remembrance of the Temple. Because taking the willow branch was not done outside of the Temple (unlike the lulav which was taken outside of the Temple), it wasn’t taken every day in remembrance of the Temple but only on the last day of Sukkot when prayers were said for water for the entire year.
Five willow branches like the kind taken with the lulav are tied together. Even though these willow branches don’t have to be as high quality as the willow branch tied together with the lulav, nevertheless one should take beautiful and choice willow branches because of the principle “This is my G-d and I shall do His commandments in a beautiful way.”
After the lulav and etrog are put down at the end of the circuits in the synagogue and the piyyut Ta’ana Emunim is begun, the willow branches are taken in the hand, and the rest of the piyyutim are said until the piyyut Kol Mevaser is concluded, or in the middle of Kaddish before Titkabel as is the custom of the chassidim, or at the end of the prayers as is the custom of the Sephardim.
The five willow branches are then banged five times on the ground and afterwards put in a place where no one will step on them. We are careful not to show any disrespect to the willow branches after they were banged on the ground.
This ceremony of banging the willow branches is connected to very deep mystical ideas and spiritual rectifications. Only the greatest of our nation are familiar with the concepts involved and the average Jew doesn’t understand these esoteric matters. Nevertheless, every Jew does this custom since it goes back to the prophets and the ancient sages, and in reward for following their instructions, he will be considered by G-d as if he had all their lofty intentions in mind. This act cancels terrible judgments and arouses love between all Jews and their Father in heaven.
Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah — One Day or Two?
Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are one day in the Land of Israel but separate days in the diaspora. Outside of Israel, the first of these two days, Shmini Atzeret, is set aside for primarily praying for rain. We do a little preparation for Simchat Torah on the night of Shmini Atzeret by making circuits, but the main celebration for the Torah is held on the second day, Simchat Torah.
In Israel, where there is no second festival day, and all the festivals are only one day, they also perform all the customs of Simchat Torah on Shmini Atzeret.
Shmini Atzeret for Sukkot is like the holiday of Shavuot for Passover. On Passover the Jews became free and saw G-d’s wonders and miracles and all the great judgments which G-d carried out against Pharaoh and the Egyptians, after which they believed in G-d and His servant Moses. Fifty days later, they stood with fear of G-d in their hearts and entered with G-d in the covenant of His Torah amid thunder and lightning so they would eternally fear G-d and never sin.
On the holiday of Sukkot, the Jews merited to become free of their evil inclination, and achieve purification from their sins after Yom Kippur. They then came to G-d and entered under the “shade of faith” in the sukkah, amid joy and love. Once they were aroused to love to G-d and joy in Him, they immediately put this same joy and love into the Torah, and tied themselves to a covenant of love which they fulfill whenever they engage in Torah study which they do the entire year.
The covenant which they have made during Sukkot with the Torah was not done through thunder and lightning or with trepidation and trembling, but with joy and singing and dancing.
This is why the Jewish people celebrate Simchat Torah on Shmini Atzeret after the holiday of Sukkot. This Atzeret (remaining another day) is like the Atzeret of Shavuot. Just as the Atzeret of Shavuot involved making a covenant over the Torah, this Atzeret also involves a covenant over the Torah.
The first covenant occurred after the Jewish people achieved physical freedom and they made the covenant amid fear and awe, but the second covenant was made after the Jewish people attained spiritual freedom from their evil inclination during the High Holidays and made the covenant amid joy and love.
One’s awe of G-d cannot be perfect unless it includes love of G-d. Conversely, one’s love of G-d cannot be perfect unless it includes awe of G-d. Both must complete each other. Therefore the verse says (Psalms 2): “Rejoice with trembling” — in the place of joy there must also be trembling.
It would have been proper for the second Atzeret to also fall 50 days after the holiday of Sukkot, just as Shavuot falls 50 days after Passover, but G-d said, “It’s the winter, and they can’t leave their homes and come here. Now that they are here with me [during Sukkot], let them remain another day.”
Nevertheless, they don’t really need Shmini Atzeret to come 50 days after the holiday of Sukkot. If Shavuot had immediately followed Passover, the covenant would not have taken root properly because the Jews still hadn’t attained sufficient awe of G-d. But with Sukkot, since the covenant that they are now making with the Torah is a covenant of love and it follows the repentance of the High Holidays, it can immediately and thoroughly take root in their hearts.
The power of those who have repented is even greater than that of those who were always righteous. What it takes the righteous to do in 7 weeks (between Passover and Shavuot), it takes those who have repented only 7 days to do. During Sukkot, the entire Jewish people have repented (after Yom Kippur) and that greatly empowers them. The commandments of sukkah and the Four Species also help them.
Finishing the Torah: Moshe ordained that the Jewish people should read the Torah every Shabbat. After Moses’ time, the sages in different generations ordained different customs concerning which Torah section should be read every week, and when to begin the Torah and when to conclude it.
In our generation, the custom accepted by the entire Jewish nation is to complete the Torah in one year. The Torah sections are divided into 54 weekly portions, according to the number of Shabbats in a leap year. Every Shabbat they read one weekly portion and during a non-leap year, when there is only 50-51 Shabbats, there are a few Shabbats when they read two sections together. Sometimes even on a leap year there is a Shabbat when two weekly portions are read, depending on if some festivals fall on Shabbat in which case they read the festival Torah reading instead of the weekly Torah portion.
The first weekly portion of the Torah, Breishit, is read on the first Shabbat after the holiday of Sukkot. The Torah is completed in the Land of Israel on Shmini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, and outside of Israel — on the second festival day which is Simchat Torah. A large feast is made on that day and everyone is happy and dances and jumps and leaps and sings all kinds of songs and praises in honor of the Torah.
When King Solomon dedicated the Temple, it says (Kings II 3) “And Solomon woke up and it was a dream (holy inspiration had come upon him) and he came to Jerusalem and stood before the G-d’s Holy Ark and he brought up burnt-offerings and peace-offerings and made a feast for all his servants.” The sages said: ”We learn from here that one makes a feast and rejoices when one completes the Torah.”
“All that remains with us is this Torah”: The later sages say that there are hints to why Simchat Torah falls on Shmini Atzeret. During the seven days of Sukkot, the Jewish people rejoiced in the commandments of the holiday: sukkah, the Four Species, the water libation, and circuiting the altar with willow branches. When Shmini Atzeret arrived, the Jewish people said to G-d: Today we don’t have a sukkah, or the Four Species or water libations or willow branches. All that remains with us is this Torah that we rejoice in; its joy is greater than any other joy. It is constant and it never ceases to exist and never diminishes. Even if the Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem is desolate and Israel is subjugated among the nations, their joy in the Torah has never ceased or diminished.”
Our sages said: “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, G-d only has Torah law (the “4 measures of halacha”). Can anyone take G-d’s world away from Him?! But it means that His divine presence only rests on a place where joy in Torah exists instead of sadness or destruction. After the Temple was destroyed, the entire world is as if desolate and in ruins, because the Temple’s destruction affected everything including how the commandments are performed. They are not like they were before the destruction. But the destruction didn’t touch the Torah or Torah law. There, the joy is still complete and pure as it was before the destruction. Therefore, G-d’s divine presence dwells there and shares the Jews’ joy on Simchat Torah.
The sacrifice brought on Shmini Atzeret was one cow. The sages say (as we mentioned above) that it is a modest offering. But this is what G-d wanted. He said: “Now let us, just Me and you, sit together and no one else will join us.” This small offering hints to the Torah, as the sages say on the verse “Moses commanded us the Torah, it is a heritage for the community of Jacob” (Deut. 33); do not read morasha, (heritage), but me’ursa (engagement). The Jewish people are engaged to the Torah like a woman is engaged to her fiance and they rejoice in each other. No other nation has any portion in the Torah.
All the other nations’ ministering angels took their part in the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth when the Jewish people offered 70 cows on their behalf during the seven days of Sukkot. Now they are gone. Now Israel alone has come to rejoice on Simchat Torah with the treasure which G-d gave them and which all the nations have no part in.
“You shall be only happy”. Only you, the Jewish people, should be happy, and no others will have any portion in your rejoicing.
Customs of Simchat Torah: During the evening prayers, all the Torah scrolls are taken from the Holy Ark and the worshippers do seven circuits around the bima (calledHakafot), with everyone dancing before the Torah scroll in great joy and immense exhilaration. We ask G-d to remember us in the merit of the seven faithful shepherds (Avraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and King David), that our prayers should break through all 7 heavens and come before the Throne of Glory and be accepted with favor.
The same 7 circuits are done in the morning after the morning prayers.
The custom in many Sephardic communities is to make 7 circuits also during the afternoon prayers and in the evening prayers after Simchat Torah.
Some have the custom that when they take out the Torah scrolls from the Ark, they leave a lit candle so the Ark should not be without any light at all, and the light of the candle should be in place of the light of Torah which is always there.
The custom is to adorn the Torah scrolls with crowns and adornments in honor of the Torah. The custom in many Jewish communities on Simchat Torah is that the Torah is also read in the night, which is never done any other time in the year. There are several customs surrounding this reading: Some call up 3 people to read the weekly portion ofZot HaBrocha and some read three sections from the Torah that speak about brachot (blessings): the blessing of “Vayitein lecha”, then they scroll to “Hamalach Hagoel” and then they read the Kohanim’s Blessing in the weekly portion of Nasa or the blessings of Bilaam in the weekly portion of Balak. Between each person called up, the congregation sings in honor of the Torah.
Torah readings during the day: The Torah readings during Simchat Torah day include the Torah section of Zot HaBrocha.
Since everyone is called up to the Torah during the day, this Torah section is repeated many times until everyone has had a turn. The reading is concluded with three special honorees who are called up only on Simchat Torah. One is called up for “Kol Ha-Ne’arim” which is the last reading before the reading that concludes the Torah. One person over the age of bar mitzvah recites the beginning and concluding blessings on the Torah and all the under-age youths in the synagogue stand next to him with a canopy draped over their heads, and recite the blessings of the Torah with him. After the concluding blessings, everyone says: “Hamalach Hagoel Osi.”
The one called up for the reading to conclude the Torah is the rabbi or some other synagogue dignitary. He is called the Chatan Torah (“groom of the Torah”) after the verse “Moses commanded us the Torah, it is a heritage (morasha) / fiance (me’ursa)” — as if he was engaged to the Torah and is its groom. When the Torah reading is concluded, the entire congregation calls out loud Chazak chazak V’nischazek — ”Strengthen yourselves, strengthen yourselves and we will be strong.”
Then the Chatan Breishit (the “groom” of the Torah’s beginning section) is called up to read from a second Torah scroll. The first section of Breishit is read up to the conclusion of Creation (Gen. 2:3).
Why do we begin Breishit on Simchat Torah? To show how beloved the Torah is to us, and it is always as exciting for us as something new.
The sages propounded: “These are the things that I command you today — (today) they should be on your heart (Deut. 6).” Do not view them as worn-out precepts that are no longer relevant, but they should be new in your eyes and everyone should run towards them.
Rabbi Eizik Tirnau’s Annotations to Customs mentions: “When the Jews finish the Torah, the Satan appears before G-d to accuse them. He says: ‘Jews learn Torah but don’t finish it all.’ When they finish it, G-d tells him, “You see, they finished it.’ He says: ‘Even if they finished it — they don’t want to begin it again.’ When the Chatan Breishit begins it, G-d tells him, ‘You see they began it again.’ He is left with nothing to accuse them.”
Torah is forever like a dance in a circle, whose end right away becomes its beginning.
Another hint to this can be found in the verse “Put me like a seal (signature) on your heart” (Song of Songs 8). The last Torah portion of Zot HaBracha ends with the letterlamed, and the Torah begins Breishit with the letter beit, which together forms lev, heart. The verse is hinting that when you conclude the Torah with the letter lamed, make sure you start right away with the beit of Breishit.