The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are finally behind us. We’ve fasted, begged God’s forgiveness for our transgressions, and hope that we’ve been inscribed for a healthy and happy new year.
And yet, the third holiest day in the Jewish calendar is about to arrive – the day when we beseech God for a healthy and prosperous New Year, yet both eat and drink, and are allowed to work. The day our fate is finally sealed for the forthcoming year. That day is Hoshanah Rabbah.
Literally, Hoshanah Rabbah means “great help.” It’s the last day of the joyous holiday of Sukkot, before the holidays of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah begin. The name refers to the Hoshanot ceremony, for which we circle the bimah seven times with our arbah minim bundles in hand, begging HaShem’s salvation. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 4:5) equates Hoshanah Rabbah with Rosh Hashanah and says it’s the day we seek out HaShem most in our prayers. The Zohar (Tzav, 31b) lists Hoshanah Rabbah as the day the angels are given the final verdict from God and are sent out to complete their assigned missions. The unique quality of Hoshanah Rabbah is listed in the Talmud, Maasechet Rosh Hashanah 16a, where we are told that this is the day the world is judged concerning rainfall and prosperity. There are many other Talmud and kabbalistic references to Hoshanah Rabbah being the last day to overturn a harsh judgment for the new year.
Hoshanah Rabbah is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, and as such has the same Halachot as all the others days of chol hamoed. One may go to work (when a financial loss may occur if one didn’t), shop for groceries for chol hamoed or the final days of yom tov, or perform any melachot (activities) that one can do the rest of chol hamoed.
There are many customs that are unique to Hoshanah Rabbah. The most prevalent custom is to spend the whole night learning Torah and reciting Tehillim (Psalms). Many chassidic rebbes held special tischen (meals) on Hoshanah Rabbah, while they wear garments that belonged to previous rebbes. The Shacharit service is nearly the same as Shabbat and yom tov (unlike the rest of chol hamoed). In Ashkenazi ritual, the chazzan wears a white kittel (robe, as on Yom Kippur), sings the niggun (tune) used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and adds several insertions in the service that proclaim the kingship of God that are reserved for the High Holidays. During the Musaf service (according to some customs, during the Shacharit service), we circle the bimah seven times with our arbah minim bundles, while reciting supplications calling on HaShem to save and redeem us, and bless us with a sweet new year. This commemorates the seven circuits made around the Beit HaMikdash on Hoshanah Rabbah (Levush 660:2). In sephardi and some chassidic synagogues, Slichot prayers are recited and the shofar is blown at the end of each circuit.
The Hoshanot service culminates in an unusual ceremony. We bang aravot (willow) bundles on the ground in order to atone for our misdeeds. There are many kabbalistic reasons for this practice, most notably to illustrate our dependence on rain, as willow trees grow along the banks of waterways.
Our final judgment for 5771 is delivered on Hoshanah Rabbah. Let us hope and pray for a healthy, happy and peaceful year, and merit the coming of Mashiach.