Counted among the days of Hol Hamoed, Hoshanah Rabbah is the name given to the seventh day of Sukkot. The name of this holiday means “the great hoshanah.” A Hoshanah is a selection of seven liturgical poems calling upon God to redeem and rescue the Jewish people—mainly by sending rain to them.
This day was viewed by the rabbis of the Talmud as a mini Yom Kippur—a day on which the Jewish community is judged by God to be worthy or not worthy of the life-giving seasonal rains. Although this day is important, it is not a day on which people are not allowed to work like Shabbat. People can go about their everyday activities, go to work or school, and drive their cars around town.
Historical Celebrations Of Hoshana Rabbah
During Temple times, observances of this day included making seven circuits, or hakkafot, around the altar with the lulav. Special willow branches were cut at Moza near Jerusalem, and they were stood around the side of the altar with all their leaves overlapping the top of it. Beroka palm trees were also beaten on the ground.
During the period of the Geonim, this day gained solemnity and religious-mystic significance. Large gatherings took place on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and the mount was circled seven times. Official announcements were made, and communities received various blessings. It was also the time when public excommunications were issued.
Over the years, the concept of Hoshana Rabbah as a judgment day has been detailed with several different customs. Some or all of these customs have come from the prayer service of the day in various rites. For example, numerous candles are kindled in the synagogue, as is done on the Day of Atonement. In some rites, selihot are recited.
The practice of staying up during the night before Hoshana Rabbah began during the 13th century, or so it is believed, as there is no mention of this requirement before that time. The practice of making a sukkah goes back further and represents the basic shelters that the Jews had to live in while they wandered the wilderness for 40 years in search of the Promised Land.
Each sukkah must have two and a half walls with a s’chach open to the sky to make a partial roof. The sukkah is then usually decorated with fruits or other items that are symbolic of a bountiful harvest.
Practices, Rituals & Customs For Hoshanah Rabbah
This holiday is known as the last of the Days of Judgment. The Zohar states that judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, but it is not truly delivered until Hoshana Rabbah—the last day of Sukkot.
During this time, God’s decree can still be altered, and a new one given for the coming year. This is reflected in the Aramaic blessing that Jews give each other on this day, Piska Tava, which is a wish that the coming verdict is a positive one.
Adults typically spend the night before this day studying and praying. Some people will stay up late to read the Torah, while others will spend the entire night reading it. It is also traditional for people to read the Book of Deuteronomy. Some Jews will recite Psalms, while Sephardic Jews will recite Selichot prayers.
It is also customary to wave the Four Species—as it is on other days of Sukkot. The lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron fruit) are picked up together and moved backward, upwards, and downwards, shaking each of them three times in every direction.
Both the whole Hallel prayer and the Hoshana prayers are recited on Hoshana Rabbah. This reflects the practice performed by Jews in ancient times where they would hold the lulav in their hands while walking circles around the altar and reciting the Hallel and Hoshana prayers. All of the Hoshana prayers that are said during the first six days of Sukkot are spoken again on this day.
On this day, there are many processions held as they had been during the rest of Sukkot. Jews walk around the bimah carrying the lulav and etrog in circles that are known as hakafot. Seven hakafot are made, and five aravot are beaten.
The aravot are then beaten against the ground until the leaves fall off them. This is a symbolic act that represents people getting rid of their sins—with the leaves representing those particular sins. Then the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark.
It is also customary for people to organize food drives or volunteer at food banks during Sukkot. That is to fulfill the requirements found in Deuteronomy that the fatherless and the widow should be included in the traditional meals. This is a day to pray for the coming year, shake off one’s transgressions, and ask for God’s blessings.