Hoshana Rabbah is the seventh and last day of Sukkot. Although it is not mentioned in the bible, it gets its name because more hoshanot (Hosannas) are recited on this day than all the previous days of the holiday. On Hoshana Rabbah we perform an ancient custom which dates back to the days of the biblical prophets, the beating of the aravah, willow branch. It is considered a day of judgment, the final one in the High Holiday season, and thus the cantor wears a white kittel (robe) and extra petitionary prayers are added to the service. In the morning services of Hoshanna Rabbah, following Musaf (and some places after hallel) the hoshanot are recited as the congregation marches around the bima seven times, after which comes the beating of the aravah, willow branch. The aravahs are beaten against the floor five times.
Hoshana Rabbah literally means the Great Hoshana. This takes place on the seventh day of Sukkot. Generally it is celebrated by circling the synagogue 7 times instead of once like we usually do during each intermediate day of Sukkot, hence the title “great” as in many. At the end of the circling with the lulav and etrog (the four speciese) in hand we also beat the willow branches into the ground. On this celebratory day we take many or all of the Torah scrolls out of the ark and dance with them as we circle the synagogue.
According to Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, in his book The Jewish Holidays: Guide and Commentary, in temple times, branches were struck against the ground near the altar. This ritual probably symbolized a casting away of sins and is the reason that Hoshana Rabbah is still known as the final “day of judgment”. This was such an important custom to the rabbis of old that it was known to supersede Shabbat observance. Perhaps because it marks the very end of the High Holiday season when the gates of heaven actually close.
One custom, popularized by Kabbalists, but seems to have fallen out of practice in modernity is that of a tikkun leil hoshana rabbah, similar to the tikkun leil Shavuot, in which we also stay up all night studying. Communities would stay up all night on Hoshana Rabbah and study the book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Moses, in order to join seamlessly with the reading of beginning of Genesis (the first book of Moses) on Simhat Torah.
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