The Ritual of Beating the Willow
How did this tradition develop?
This excerpt is taken from the article entitled “Beat It! The Ritual of Havatat Aravot” Reprinted from Conservative Judaism, Summer, 1996, pages 26-33, with permission. Copyright by the Rabbinical Assembly.
One of Judaism’s oddest rituals is that of beating the aravot (willow fronds) during the services for Hoshanah Rabba, the final Hol ha-Mo’ed [intermediate]day of Sukkot. While there is no explicit commandment in the Torah, the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud understand the ritual of the aravah to be d’oraita [commanded in the Torah].
A ritual which was originally distinctive to the Temple, in which the aravot were laid by the sides of the altar and paraded around that altar of each day of Sukkot, its transfer and transformation to the synagogue (in which the aravahis no longer paraded, but beaten) leaves us with a series of unanswered questions: There is an ancient dispute about how it is to be performed (and where). Most perplexing of all, there is no persuasive explanation for why it is contemporary practice to beat the aravot against the floor.
As anthropologist and folklorist Theodor Gaster notes: “So different a meaning is now read into it [the ritual of the willow] that its original purport can no longer be recognized.” A similar admission of ignorance, from a more traditionally-religious source, affirms that “this custom of beating the aravah on the ground contains profound esoteric significance, and only the Great of Israel merit the knowledge of those secrets. The uninitiated should intend merely to abide by the custom of the Prophets and the Sages of all generations.”
The Ritual of the Willow in Antiquity
The only biblical verse that deals with the willow frond is the one that establishes the mitzvah of the arba’ah minim, the four types of plants: “On the first day you shall take the product of the hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God seven days.” Rabbinic tradition understood that verse to mandate carrying all four plants together, and specified that before YHWH—meaning the Temple—the Arba’ah Minim [four species--lulav and etrog] was to be carried for seven days, but that everywhere else, only on the first day. After the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai instituted carrying the Arba’ah Minim for all seven days in memory of the Temple.
While there is nothing explicit in the Torah suggesting any additional role for the aravot, tannaitic tradition takes such a ritual for granted, asserting that “the mitzvot of the lulav and of the willow branch are performed for six or seven days.” Only later does the Mishnah attempt to describe this ritual, first asking “How is the willow branch performed for seven days?” Only after explaining that the normal practice (in the Temple) is to perform the rite of the aravah for six days, unless the seventh day is Shabbat, does the Mishnah describe what actually happens.