Simple Faith and Commitment: Beating the Aravot on Hoshana Rabba

One of the most intriguing and puzzling customs of the Festival of Succot is the beating of the Aravot on Hoshana Rabba, known as “chivut arava”. The Gemara (Succa 46b) refers to this mysterious ritual, and describes how outside of the Beit Hamikdash a person takes a willow-branch and “chavit chavit’” (Succa 44b). What was this “chivut arava” which was performed on the seventh day of Succot?

Most Rishonim, including the Rambam (Hilchot Lulav 7:20-21), explain that one should beat the arava on the ground or on a vessel. Rashi, however, explains that the arava was waved (na’anu’a), just as the lulav is waved (Rashi, Succa 42b, s.v. ve-hevi’um).

Why Do We Beat the Aravot?!

willow branchesWhat is the significance of this custom? Seemingly, if “chivut arava” refers to waving the arava, then the waving of the arava might be similar to the na’anu’im of the arba’a minim – just as one uses the arba’a minim as an object with which one prays to and praises God, the “arvei nachal” similarly serve a similar purpose. 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.

Some 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 Succot (Rosh Hashana 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 (Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat 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.

Others maintain that hitting the aravot on the ground may symbolize beating. R. Tzemaḥ Ga’on (Teshuvot Ha-Geonim, Sha’arei Teshuvah 340), for example, in response to a query regarding the reason for this practice, cites those who explain: “During the preceding holidays [Rosh Hashana 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 (midat hadin).

Bringing Together the Four Types of Jews

Interestingly, Rav Avraham Yitzḥak Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935), as cited by R. Moshe Tzvi Neria (Mo’adei Ha-Ra’aya, p. 128), offers a different explanation. There is a well-known midrash, which explains that 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 hadassim 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 (Vayikra Rabba 30:12).

This midrash explains that when taken together, “they atone one for the other.” Rav 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 Succa 43b). On Hoshana Rabba, Rav Kook explains, we do not “beat the aravot,” but “beat with the aravot,” invoking simple religious fervor in our pleas for rain.

As we enter the final day of the Tishrei festivals, Shemini Atzeret, and prepare to begin the new year, we affirm our belief that different types of Jews must all come together to serve God in harmony, and that pure and simple faith and commitment are the true keys to serving God.

* Excerpted from Hilkhot Mo’adim: Understanding the Laws of the Festivals (Koren, 2013)

Rav David Brofsky

Rav David Brofsky is a senior faculty member at Midreshet Lindenbaum and writes a weekly halakha shiur for the Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM). He is the author of Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer (KTAV, 2010), and the recently published Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Jewish Festivals (Koren, 2013). Rav Brofsky is a member of Beit Hillel.

 

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