• Rav David Brofsky

Mitzvat Arava in the Beit Ha-Mikdash


            Aside from the mitzva to take the arba minim, which applies mi-de’oraita for seven days in the Beit Ha-Mikdash and for one day outside of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Talmud discusses another mitzva of Sukkot – that of the “arava.” The mishna (Sukka 42b) teaches that this mitzva is practiced for all seven days of the Festival in the Beit Ha-Mikdash.


            The Talmud (Sukka 44a) cites a debate regarding the origins of this mitzva:


According to Abba Shaul … It is written, “arvei nachal” (willows of the brook) – implying two, one referring to the [willow-branch in the] lulav and the other to [the willow-branch for use in] the Beit Ha-Mikdash… According to the Rabbis … it is an accepted tradition, since R. Assi citing R. Yochanan who heard it from R. Nechunia of the Plain of Beth Churatan, stated: The laws of the ten plants, the willow-branch, and water libation were given to Moses upon Mount Sinai.


According to Abba Shaul, the mitzva of arava in the Mikdash is of biblical origin, while according to the Rabbis, it is a Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai, an ancient tradition received at Sinai.


            The mishna (Sukka 45a) describes how the ceremony was performed on the first six days of Sukkot: 


How was the precept of the arava [carried out]? There was a place below Jerusalem called Motza. They went down there and gathered there young willow-branches and then came and fixed them at the sides of the altar so that their tops bent over the altar. They then sounded a teki'a, a teru'a and again a teki'a. Every day they went round the altar once, saying, “Ana Hashem, hoshi’a na – Ana Hashem, hatzelicha na.” R. Yehuda said: [They said], “Ani Ve-Ho, hoshi’a’ na.


After retrieving the aravot from Motza, they were stood up against the altar (“zekifa”). These aravot were quite long; the gemara describes, “They were large and long and eleven amot (cubits) high, so that they might bend over the altar one ama.” The shofar was sounded, the altar was circled once, and the pleas of “Ana Hashem” or “Ani Ve-Ho” were recited.


Although the mishna describes standing the aravot up against the altar, the Talmud (Sukka 43b) records that the Amoraim disagree regarding whether the mitzva of arava is fulfilled through “netila” (taking) or “zekifa” (standing up against the altar). Even according to those who maintain that the mitzva of arava is fulfilled through the “netila," however, the arava is still placed against the altar, either before (Rambam, Hilkhot Lulav 7:23-24) or after (Rashi, Sukka 43b, s.v. ve-vevi’um; Tosafot, Sukka 45a, s.v. zokfin) the “netila."


The gemara (Sukka 43b) relates this to another question: Was the lulav or the arava taken around the alter each day? If the mitzva of arava if fulfilled through “netila," then, the gemara assumes, it must be the arava that is taken around the altar. If, however, the mitzva of arava is fulfilled through the “zekifa," then the arba minim are most likely taken around the mizbe’ach.


The gemara concludes that the mitzva of arava includes “netila." Therefore, according to some (Rashi, Sukka 43b, s.v. ve-hevi’um; see also Or Zaru’a 315) the mizbe’ach was circled (hakafa) with the arava. Others (Rambam, Hilkhot Lulav 7:23; Ran, Sukka 22a, s.v. u-vegemara; see also Or Zaru’a 315) maintain that even if the arava is “taken," the hakafa is still performed with the lulav


            So far, we have seen that the aravot were possibly “taken" and then stood up against the altar, and the mizbe’ach was circled once each day. The Rishonim question who actually performed these rituals in the Beit Ha-Mikdash. This debate revolves in part around another question. Some Rishonim (Rashi, Sukka 43b, s.v. sheluchei; see also Tosafot, s.v. sheluchei) explain that only the kohanim fulfilled the mitzva; in general, only “unblemished” kohanim were permitted to enter the area on the Temple Mount between the UIam, the entrance hall of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, and the mizbe’ach, the altar (Keilim 1:9). Others (Or Zaru’a 2:315; see also Shita Mekubetzet, Menachot 27b; Responsa Ri Mi-Gash 43, and possibly Rambam, Hilkhot Lulav 7:22-3; see also Tosafot Yom Tov 4:5) insist that even “zarim” (non-kohanim) would encircle the altar. The Yalkut Shimoni (Tehillim 703) also states: “And how was the altar circled? All of Israel, the adults and the children, would take their lulavs in their right hands and their etrogs in their left hands and would circle [the altar] once.”


Interestingly, the Ritva (Sukkah 43b, s.v. u-farkinan; see also Ran, Sukka 21b, s.v. garsinan) explains that although only the kohanim took the aravot and stood them against the mizbe’ach, and then circled the mizbe’ach, the rest of the people would take the arava while standing in the Azara, the Temple courtyard.


Hoshanot During Sukkot Nowadays


            Although the Talmud never mentions reenacting the daily observance of the mitzva of arava after the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, sources as early as the Siddur of R. Saadia Gaon (p. 238) record that it was customary for the congregation, led by the shaliach tzibbur, to encircle the bima. This custom spread to most Diaspora communities, and R. Hai Gaon (Otzar Ha-Geonim, Sukka 43b) comments that “we have not heard of a place in which this is not the custom.” The Shibbolei Ha-Leket (Seder Chag Ha-Sukkot 469), however, records that this was apparently not the custom in Italy. It is now customary to encircle the bima, either after Hallel (Sha’are Teshuva 751:20) or after Musaf (Tur 759–760; see Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3:99), while reciting the hoshanot prayers for each specific day.


            Incidentally, the Sefer Chassidim (730) relates that R. Saadia Gaon would travel to Eretz Yisrael each year in order to encircle the Mt. of Olives (or, possibly, on the Mt. of Olives) seven times on Hoshana Rabba.


            The Shulchan Arukh (760) describes that it is customary to bring a Sefer Torah to the bima, or as the Rema records, to bring all of the Sifrei Torah to the bima, and to encircle the bima just as they would encircle the altar in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, beginning from the right side. Although we do not take the lulav on Shabbat, it is still customary to recite the hoshanot on Shabbat. The Shulchan Arukh rules that even one who does not have a lulav encircles the bima, but the Rema writes that one who does not have a lulav does not participate in the hakafot. Finally, the Rema rules that an avel, a mourner during the entire 12 months of mourning for his parent, does not circle the bima. The Mishna Berura (760:9), citing the Gra, explains that since taking the lulav around the mizbe’ach was the primary fulfillment of “And you should rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days,” a mourner, who is not happy, does not participate in this ritual. Usually, those who do not have a lulav, as well as the mourners, hold the Sifrei Torah during the hoshanot.


Hoshana Rabba in the Beit Ha-Mikdash


            The mitzva of arava in the Beit Ha-Mikdash differed on the seventh day of Sukkot, known as Hoshana Rabba, in two ways. First, on Hoshana Rabba, the altar was encircled seven times, and not just once:


But on that day [i.e., the seventh day], they went around the altar seven times. When they departed, what did they say? “Yours, o altar, is the beauty! Yours, o altar, is the beauty!” R. Eliezer said: [They said]: “To the Lord and to thee, o altar, to the Lord and to thee, o altar.” (Sukka 45a)


Some (see Abudraham, Seder Tefillat Sukkot, for example) cite the verse, “I will wash my hands in innocence; so will I compass (asovava) Your altar, O Lord, That I may make the voice of thanksgiving to be heard, and tell of all Thy wondrous works” (Tehillim 26:6-7) as a precedent for encircling the mizbe’ach as a form of praising God. Furthermore, the Yerushalmi (Sukka 4:3) suggests that taking the lulav around the mizbe'ach seven times may serve as a “remembrance” for the seven times the city of Yericho was encircled before it was captured. The Kol Bo (72) cites the Maharam of Rotenburg, who brought a textual proof for this comparison: The encircling of the altar parallels the encircling of “the city," Yericho, as the verse says (Shir Ha-shirim 3:2), “I will rise now, and I go about (asovava) the city." The commentaries offer different explanations of the relationship between encircling Yericho seven times and the encircling of the mizbe’ach.


Second, on Hoshana Rabba, the arava was taken in the Beit Ha-Mikdash even on Shabbat. This issue was of great contention between the Rabbis and the Boethusians (Baitosim). In fact, the gemara (Sukka 43b) relates:


On one occasion, the seventh day of the [ceremonial of the] willow-branch fell on a Sabbath, and they brought saplings of willows on the Sabbath eve and placed them in the courtyard of the Temple. The Boethusians, having discovered them, took and hid them under some stones. The next day, some of the ignorant Jews discovered them and removed them from under the stones, and the priests brought them in and fixed them in the sides of the altar. [The reason for hiding the willows was that] the Boethusians do not admit that the “chivut” of the willow-branch overrides the Sabbath.


The gemara further explains that we are not concerned that taking the arava may lead to the desecration of the Sabbath, as it is entrusted to the “messengers of the beit din.” Since the mitzva of taking the lulav in the Beit Ha-Mikdash can only performed on Shabbat when the first day of the Festival falls out on Shabbat, the Rabbis did not want the arava, which is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, to appear to be a more important mitzva than taking the lulav, and therefore allowed it to be taken on Shabbat only on Hoshana Rabba.


As mentioned above, the Amoraim disagree as to whether the altar was circled seven times with the lulav or with the arava (Sukka 43b). In addition to circling the altar, the gemara refers to a mysterious ritual called “chivut arava." The gemara elsewhere (Sukka 44b), describing the taking of the arava nowadays, relates that “a man brought a willow-branch… and he took it and ‘chavit chavit’ without reciting any blessing.” What was this “chivut arava” which was performed on the seventh day?


            Most Rishonim, including the Rambam (Commentary to the Mishna, Sukka 4:5 and Hilkhot Lulav 7:20-21) explain that one should beat the arava on the ground or on a vessel. Rashi (Sukka 42b, s.v. ve-hevi’um and 44b, s.v. chavit) explains that the arava was waved (na’anu’a).


            What is the significance of the “chivut arava”? Seemingly, if “chivut arava” refers to waving the arava, then the waving of the arava should be similar to the na’anu’im of the arba minim – just as the arba minim serve as an object that one uses to praise God, the “arvei nachal" serve as an instrument for petitioning God for rain. If, however, as most Rishonim understand, the “chivut arava” refers to beating the aravot on the ground or on a vessel, there must be some other significance to the practice.


            We can identify two broad approaches to chivut arava.


On the one hand, one may view the chivut arava as a prayer for rain, among the other prayers for rain recited on Hoshana Rabba, since the world’s supply of rain is decided on the Festival of Sukkot (Rosh Ha-Shana 2a). Beating the aravot on the ground may symbolize surrender or prostration. It may also demonstrate how desperately we need rain to hit and penetrate the earth.


            Why are aravot used for this purpose? The aravot, or “arvei nachal," grow on the water and depend on water for their sustenance. Furthermore, Chazal suggest that all four minim correspond to the parts of the body – the lulav parallels the spine, the etrog the heart, the hadassim the eyes, and the aravot resemble the mouth – as all parts of the body are used to praise God (see Midrash Tanchuma [Buber], Parashat Emor 28). Therefore, the aravot may be the most appropriate instrument used for our prayers for rain, as they resemble the mouth, the vessel of prayer. (See also Teshuvot Ha-Geonim, Sha’arei Teshuva 340, where R. Tzemach Gaon suggests that hitting the aravot to the ground atones for sins committed by one’s speech.)


            Interestingly, R. Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935), as cited by R. Moshe Tzvi Neria (Mo’adei Ha-Ra’aya, p. 128), offers a different explanation. The midrash (Vayikra Rabba 30:12), explains how each of the four minim correspond to a different type of Jew. The etrog, with its smell and taste, represents a Jew with “Torah and good deeds,” the hadasim and lulav represent Jews with good deeds but no Torah or no Torah but good deeds, and the arava, which has neither a nice smell nor a good taste, represents those Jews who have no Torah or good deeds. This beautiful midrash explains that when taken together, “they atone one for the other.” R. Kook, however, understood the role of the arava slightly differently. The arava represents the “am ha’aretz” – the simple Jew, who often demonstrates intuitive, healthy, and natural religious instincts (see Sukka 43b). On Hoshana Rabba, R. Kook explains, we do not “beat the aravot," but “beat WITH the aravot,” invoking that simple religious fervor in our pleas for rain. 


            On the other hand, beating the aravot may indeed symbolize “beating," in the negative sense. R. Tzemach Ga’on (Teshuvot Ha-Geonim, Sha’arei Teshuva 340), for example, in response to a query regarding the reason for this practice, cites those who explain: “During the preceding holidays [Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur], Satan incites, and the Jewish People, with all of their mitzvot, repel him. From now onwards, anyone who rises against us will not be able to control us, and will fall to the ground.” Some Kabbalistic sources speak of beating the strict attribute of justice (middat ha-din).


            Some understand this custom to refer to our relationship to other Jews. For example, R. Moshe Shternbuch (b.1926), in a somewhat shocking essay (Mo’adim U-Zemanim, vol.1, p. 179), writes:


It is well known that the arava, which has no taste and no smell, is pleasant to us only when bound together with the lulav, etrog and hadassim. This hints to the sinners of Israel, who have no taste or smell… When the arava is taken alone, we are obligated to beat it on the ground, to hint to us that those sinners who separated into their own groups, such as the Reform, Conservative, Nationalists (le-umi’im), and the like, since they come by themselves, we are obligated to “beat them” until they surrender and are lowered, and not to bring them closer at all, and certainly not to bind ourselves to them.


R. Kook’s explanation, cited above, stands in sharp contrast to these harsh words.


Hoshana Rabba outside of the Beit Ha-Mikdash


            The gemara (Sukka 44a–44b) explains that outside of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the mitzva of Arava was observed for one day – on the seventh day, Hoshana Rabba. The Amoraim disagree as to whether this practice is considered to be a “yesod nevi’im” (actual legislation of the later prophets) or a “minhag nevi’im” (a custom of the prophets):


It was stated: R. Yochanan and R. Yehoshua b. Levi differ. One holds that the rite of the willow-branch is a “yesod nevi’im,” and the other holds that the willow-branch is a “minhag nevi’im." It can be concluded that it was R. Yochanan who said that it is a “yesod nevi’im," since R. Abbahu stated in the name of R. Yochanan: The rite of the willow-branch is a “yesod nevi’im." This is conclusive.


The Rishonim (see Rashi, s.v. minhag) explain that while one may recite a blessing over a “yesod nevi’im, similar to a Rabbinic enactment, one may not say a blessing over a “minhag nevi’im." The Tur (664) cites R. Shmuel ben Chofni, who rules that outside of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, arava is a yesod nevi’im and a blessing is therefore recited. Most Rishonim (Rambam, Hilkhot Lulav 7:22; Rosh Sukka 4:1, et al.), however, as well as the Shulchan Arukh (664:2), rule that arava outside of the Beit Ha-Mikdash is a minhag nevi’im, and therefore no berakha is recited.


            Incidentally, the Rishonim disagree as to whether one may derive from this gemara that one may never recite a blessing over a custom (Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 11:16) or whether there are certain customs, such as the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (see Ta’anit 28b), upon which one may one say a berakha (Rabbenu Tam, cited by Tosafot, Sukka 44b, s.v. kan).


The Talmud further discusses whether the arava taken on Hoshana Rabba much be taken separately, or whether one can use the arava taken with the lulav:


R. Ammi ruled: The willow-branch… must be taken separately only, and no one can fulfill his obligation with the willow-branch in the lulav. But since the Master said that it must be taken separately only, is it not self-evident that no one can fulfill his obligation with the willow-branch in the lulav? I might have said that that applies only where one does not lift [the lulav] a second time, but not where one does lift it a second time; therefore he informs us that it is not so. R. Chisda citing R. Yitzchak, however, ruled: One may fulfill his obligation with the willow-branch in the lulav. (Sukka 44b)


Some Rishonim (Ra’avya 699; Rosh 4:1) rule in accordance with R. Chisda, who permits one to take the arba minim a second time in order to fulfill the mitzva of arava, but others (Rabbeinu Chananel 44b; Rambam, Hilkhot Lulav 7:20) rule that one must take the arava separately. The Shulchan Arukh (664:6) cites both opinions. The Mishna Berura (664:21) cites the Bikkurei Ya’akov, who writes that if one takes the arba minim and then unbinds them, removes the aravot, and takes them separately, he fulfills his obligation.


The gemara relates to the minimum physical characteristics of the arava:


What is its prescribed minimum? R. Nachman said: Three fresh twigs with leaves. R. Sheshet, however, said: Even one leaf and one twig. One leaf and one twig! Can such a rule be imagined? Say rather: Even one leaf on one twig.


The Tur (764) cites R. Hai Gaon, who writes that although the gemara validates an arava branch with only one leaf, it is “mekhu’ar” (repulsive) to use such a branch for the mitzva. Therefore, the Rema (764:4) writes, one should take a bundle of aravot, known as “hoshanot,” in order to fulfill the principle of “This is my God, and I beautify Him” (hiddur mitzva). The Mishna Berura (764:16) writes that one should have at least three, if not five aravot, in accordance with the custom of the Arizal. The Mishna Berura (764:17) also writes that these aravot should be tied together. 


            Rashi (Sukka 44b, s.v. ale) implies that the arava may be shorter than three tefachim, the minimum length required for aravot when taken with the arba minim. The Ran (Sukka 22a, s.v. ve-khama), however, disagrees, and argues that all agree that the arava branch must be at least three tefachim long. The Shulchan Arukh (664:4) rules in accordance with the Ran; although one may take one branch with one leaf to fulfill the mitzva of arava outside of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the branch must be at least three tefachim long.


            The Rishonim debate whether on Hoshana Rabba, one encircles the bima while holding the lulav or also the arava. The Shulchan Arukh (764:3) records that it was customary to take the arava as well. The Rema (764:7), however, writes that one should preferably not take the arava with the lulav at all. The Mishna Berura (764:26-27) cites the Arizal, who opposed taking the arava with the lulav. The Mishna Berura relates that nowadays, it is customary to take the lulav alone, put it down when one reaches the prayer “Ta’aneh Emunum,” and only afterwards to take the bundle of aravot (Mishna Berura 760:8). Some follow the practice of the Arizal and do not put down the lulav until after the full Kaddish, and then to take the aravot and beat them.


            What should one do with his “hoshanot” (bundle of aravot)? As we mentioned above, the gemara (Sukka 44b) describes a ritual called “chivut arava," which was performed both in the Beit Ha-Mikdash and, according to the story related in the gemara, after its destruction as well. The Rishonim disagree as to whether chivut refers to “beating” the arava or shaking it. The Shulchan Arukh (764:4) cites the Rambam and rules that one should beat the arava on the ground or on a vessel two or three times. The Rema, however, writes that it is customary to shake and then beat the arava. The Mishna Berura, citing the practice of the Arizal writes that one should beat the arava on the ground five times, and then beat them on a vessel in order to remove some of the leaves. The Arukh Ha-shulchan (764:2) records that he has not heard of this custom, but does recommend “shaking it a bit” before beating it (764:7).


The Significance of Hoshana Rabba


In the Talmud, Hoshana Rabba is simply known as “the seventh day of the arava” (Sukka 42b). The phrase “Hoshana” or “Hoshana Rabba” appears in the midrash (Vayikra Rabba 37, Midrash Tehillim 17:5). Although the arava ritual described above indicates that the seventh day of Sukkot is unique, its significance is not discussed by the Talmud.


The Yerushalmi (Rosh Ha-Shana 5:8) teaches, “Yet they seek Me daily (yom yom) (Yeshayahu 58:2) – this refers to the teki’a (shofar) and the arava” –  implying that Hoshana Rabba is similar to Rosh Ha-Shana, as they are both days in which objects are employed as instruments of prayer. The Zohar (vol. 3, p. 31b) adds that Hoshana Rabba is a day of judgment: “This [Hoshana Rabba] is the final day of judgment for water, source of all blessings. On the seventh day of Sukkot, the judgment of the world is finalized and the edicts (pitkin) are sent forth from the King.”


The Rishonim (Shibbolei Ha-Leket 371; Sefer Ha-Manhig, Hilkhot Etrog 38) expand on this idea, explaining that Hoshana Rabba is the final day of the period of judgment, which began on Rosh Ha-Shana. Indeed, as the Tur (664) reminds us, the world’s water supply is judged on Sukkot, and therefore we lengthen our prayers on Hoshana Rabba, like on Yom Tov.


            Based upon this view of Hoshana Rabba, many customs developed. Some are accustomed to learn the entire night of Hoshana Rabba (see Magen Abraham 664). Others read the entire book of Devarim, which emphasis the love and fear of God, on the night of Hoshana Rabba (see Arukh Ha-shulchan 664:11). In addition, the Acharonim (Arukh Ha-shulchan, ibid., for example) record that it is customary for the shaliach tzibbur to wear a kittel and to recite the long Pesukei De-Zimra of Yom Tov (except for Nishmat and Shokhen Ad). Based upon the Zohar cited above, it is customary to great one another with the salutation, “pitka tava,” wishing one a “good edict."


The Conclusion of Sukkot – Leaving the Sukka


            Towards the end of Hoshana Rabba, we begin our transition from the festival of Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret. The mishna describes:


When a man has finished his [last] meal, he may not dismantle his sukka. He may, however, remove its furniture from the afternoon onwards in honor of the last day of the festival. (Sukka 48a)


Many have the custom of eating a bit in the sukka before the end of the day, and declaring, “It should be His will that we will merit to sit in the sukka of the Levithan” (Rema 667:1).



            Next week, we will begin our study of the final day of the festival, Shemini Atzeret.