The Ritual of Beating the Willow

How did this tradition develop?

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How was the mitzvah of the aravah performed? There was a place below Jerusalem, called Motza. They went down to there and gathered large branches of willow, and they came and stood them against the altar. They blew a tekiah, teruah, tekiah blast. Each day they would circle the altar once, saying, “Please YHWH, save us, Please YHWH, vindicate us.”And on that day [the seventh day] they circled the altar seven times.

Thus far, we know only that the ritual of the aravot involved fetching them from a distant place, laying them against the altar, blowing a series of blasts on horn or shofar, reciting Psalm 118:28 (part of the Hallel), and then parading around the altar once each day and seven times on the seventh day. The mishnah does not specify whether or not this perambulation was accompanied by carrying the aravot.

The next mishnah then explains that there was no difference between the aravah ritual on a weekday and that of Shabbat except that the aravot were gathered in advance and stored in golden vessels to prevent them from wilting. Immediately following, Rabbi Yohanan ben Berokah says “They brought date palm branches and beat them on the ground at the sides of the altar. That day was called the day of the beating of the palm branches.”

Surprisingly, the only explicit Mishnaic attestation to beating something refers to palm branches, not to the aravah! In fact, claims Rabbi Yohanan ben Berokah, this ritual became the defining characteristic of the seventh day, giving the day its own special name. There is no reference in the Mishnah to beating willows, only to laying them by the altar and, possibly, to parading with them.

The Aravah and Later Sources

The Mishnah’s silence about beating willows, and its ambiguity about parading with them offered an urgent invitation to later rabbis to clarify and harmonize their readings of the Mishnah and contemporaneous practice. Needing to explain the practice of taking the willow branches outside of the Temple, in the period when the Temple no longer existed, the Talmud explains that this practice was instituted by the prophets Haggai, Zacharaiah, and Malachi as either yisod nevi’im an institution of the prophets or minhag nevi’im a custom of the prophets. The sole consequence of this distinction is whether or not taking the aravot requires a berakhah. (If it is merely a minhag, even of the prophets, then it does not.) Because the mitzvah pertained only to when the Temple stood, and was now performed as a custom in memory of the Temple, the willows were used separately from the lulav and etrog only on the final day of the Festival.

Having provided satisfactory lineage for continuing the ritual use of willows outside of the context of Temple worship, the Talmud also had to address the challenge of Rabbi Yohanan, and his claim that the ritual on the Sabbath really pertained to palm fronds. Rav Huna explains his colleague’s basis as emerging from the Torah’s use of kapot temarim as implying more than one palm frond: one for use with the Arba’ah Minim, and another for use independently. The Tanna Kamma, however, does not accept that argument, pointing out that the use of the defective kapot without the “vav” indicates that only one palm branch is to be used (and that one in the Arba’ah Minim). Rabbi Levi explains Rabbi Yohanan ben Berokah’s reasoning based not on a verse of the Torah, but on s’vara: The Jewish people are compared to a date palm because just as the palm tree has only one heart (core), so too the heart of the Jewish people is directed solely to God.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.