The Ritual of Beating the Willow
How did this tradition develop?
Strikingly, the Talmud never directly mandates the mitzvah of beating the willow, instead it refers to it explicitly only in the context of asserting rabbinic hegemony over the interpretation of Torah, pointing out that the custom of beating the willows on Hoshanah Rabbah is a direct response to a group that rejected the authority of Oral Torah, “because the Boethusians do not acknowledge the mitzvah of beating the willow.”
Later authorities, confronting the disparity between the explicit mention of beating palm fronds and the contemporaneous practice of beating willows, resort to somewhat strained readings in order to be able to harmonize the two. Thus the Tiferet Yisrael says that the disagreement between Rabbi Yohanan and the Tanna Kamma in the mishnah Sukkah 5 is only about what is done when the seventh day coincides with Shabbat. In that case, rabbi Yohanan understands the prophets as requiring the use of palm fronds because they won’t wilt when gathered a day in advance. But Rabbi Yohanan and the Tanna Kamma both agree about the use of willows when Hoshanah Rabbah doesn’t coincide with Shabbat. The Tosafot and Ritva both understand Rabbi Yohanan as calling for the use of palm fronds in addition to willow branches, Even with the strenuous efforts at harmonization, later authorities insist that the halakhah doesn’t follow Rabbi Yohanan.
This was far from the last halakhic dispute surrounding what it is we are to do with the aravot. Rashi understands havatah to mean shaking while Rambam and the Shulhan Arukh understand it to mean that the aravah is “struck against the grounds or against an object.” The Rema attempts to integrate both views by insisting that one should “do both—one shakes the willows and afterwards strikes them.” While a consensus of practice has developed during the medieval period, no similar consensus has surrounded the attempt to explain this strange and uncharacteristic mitzvah.
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