Why Beat the Willow?

When tradition is silent, symbolic explanations arise.

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Rabbi Abraham Millgram suggests that beating the willows “may have once been connected with rain-bringing rituals.” While there is explicit rabbinic writings connecting Hoshanah Rabbah with rain, there is nothing extant to indicate why the willow beating would symbolize rain. If this was once an apotropaic rite in which our ancestors induced rain by making it “rain” leaves, there is no ancient testimony to confirm that supposition.

Echoing the Rambam, Rabbi Millgram also affirms that “its meaning is the synagogue ritual is the remembrance of the Temple service, the awareness of the Temple’s destruction, and the hope of its restoration.” While there is Talmudic testimony that we continue the hakafot on this day in memory of the Temple, there is no suggestion that the willow beating memorializes the old Temple of reflects hope for a new one. Beating branches would be an odd way to express hope in a future rebuilding.

Arthur Waskow offers that “as the leaves fall off the willow, they can be seen today as a symbol of fading, falling lives, or as a symbol of casting off our old and dying sins.” Candidly admitting that his homiletical interpretation lacks support, Waskow’s lovely drash is a psychological reading into, worthy of reflection but not as an historical explanation of how this rite functioned originally.

Rabbi Elie Munk sees an agricultural and ecological message in the practice: “The procession is made first with the lulav and only thereafter with the special Hoshanot to symbolize our prayerful hope that the blessings of nature be extended to every species of vegetation.” As lovely as this explanation is, the absence of prayers for nature (when there are, indeed, explicit prayers for rain) limits the plausibility of reading the hakafot as originally expressing the hope of natural bounty to all species of plants. In any case, it says nothing about why we beat the aravot after the procession ends.

Basing himself of the Midrash which sees the aravot as representing “those insipid creatures of Israel who have neither savior nor perfume,” Rabbi Munk offers an explanation of the willow beating as asserting that God doesn’t desire the death of these sinners, “rather, it is God’s will that they be chastened and tried by bitter blow of fate so that they may learn to walk in the right path once again.”

The beating of the willows, then, represents what should happen to those who sin, in order to inspire them to correct their ways. Unfortunately, the prayer before and after it are messianic and eschatological in content, undermining a sermonic desire to use these branches to whip erring congregants back into line.

Less plausibly, Munk asserts that “this is a means of acting out our wish that in the future Israel may be visited no more by calamity and sorrow.” This reading is more consistent with the contemporary liturgical context for the beating of the willows, but it is hard to see how beating the willow branches can symbolize hope that Israel will yet transcend disaster.

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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.