Why Beat the Willow?
When tradition is silent, symbolic explanations arise.
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.
As we now practice the ritual of the aravah [willow that is beat on Hoshanah Rabbah], additional aravot [willows] are provided to the worshipers just after the seven hakafot [processions around the synagogue] with the lulav and etrog, the last time the Arba’ah Minim are used that year. As the Hazan recites, “A voice brings tidings and says,” the congregation strikes their aravot on the floor or against a solid object.
It has become customary to strike five times, assuring that some of the leaves fall from the stem. There is no berakhah to be recited for beating the willows, and no uniformity about the required number of willows or beatings necessary. The silence that surrounds this practice, the diverse ways it can be implemented all underscore how strange this ritual is. With no real context, how is this momentary violence to be explained? Why do we beat the willow?
The Mishnah, affirms a special ritual involving the willows in the Temple, one that involved decorating the altar, parading around it seven times on Hoshanah Rabbah, possibly carrying the willows while marching. The Talmud suggests that there was also a practice of beating the willows on that day, although it also affirms that this practice was not universally accepted.
What the Mishnah doesn’t provide is a reason for the practice of beating the willows. Why is this strange ritual required? Particularly because its origin is so questionable, justifying its practice is all the more intriguing. One suspects that the diverse accounts of how the practice originated and of what the practice actually entails suggests that the sages were confronting a practice whose purpose they really didn’t know.
That suspicion in only compounded by the multiplicity of justifications that are offered across the ages. Were any one reason conclusively true, the others would have become unnecessary. That no one reason commanded (or commands) broad assent suggests that the plausible explanation of this practice has not yet emerged.
A brief examination of the explanations, both medieval and modern, reveals the ingenuity and the confusion of rabbinic authorities is the face of explaining havatat aravot [beating the willows].
The Sefer ha-Toda’ah candidly concedes that there is not rational explanation for the minhag [custom] and the Minhagei Yeshurun sees it as a symbol of the ability of the Jewish people so survive persecution: No matter how hard we beat the aravot, the branch somehow persists. Hayyei Avraham suggests that the beating of the willow symbolizes the beating we deserve when we violate the mitzvot.