By Bradley Shavit Artson, Ziegler School
This CJ Journal article originally appeared in Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 1996, pp. 26–34. The introduction follows below:
One of Judaism's oddest rituals is that of beating the aravot (willow fronds) during the services for Hoshana Rabbah, the final Hol ha-Mo’ed day of Sukkot. While there is no explicit commandment in the Torah, the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud understand the ritual of the aravah to be d’oraita.1 A ritual which was originally distinctive to the Temple, in which the aravot were laid by the sides of the altar and paraded around that altar on each day of Sukkot, its transfer and transformation to the synagogue (in which the aravah is no longer paraded, but beaten) leaves us with a series of unanswered questions: there is an ancient dispute about how it is to be performed (and where). Most perplexing of all, there is no persuasive explanation for why it is contemporary practice to beat the aravot against the floor. As anthropologist and folklorist Theodor Gaster notes: "so different a meaning is now read into it [the ritual of the willow] that its original purport can no longer be recognized."2 A similar admission of ignorance, from a more traditionally-religious source, affirms that "this custom of beating the aravah on the ground contains profound esoteric significance, and only the Great of Israel merit the knowledge of those secrets. The uninitiated should intend merely to abide by the custom of the Prophets and the Sages of all the generations. "3
Why do we beat the willow?
1 See Sukkah 43b. Rabbi Yohanan considers the Temple ritual of the aravah to be a הלכה למשה מסיני. See also Sukkah 44a and Rambam. Hilkhot Lulav 7:23.
2 Theodor H. Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year, p. 95.
3 Eliyahu Kirov, The Book of our Heritage, p. 208.