Why Beat the Willow?
When tradition is silent, symbolic explanations arise.
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld sees the beating of the willows as a ritual which “probably symbolized a casting away of sins.” The English Rabbi Isaac Fabricant asserts that “the custom of the beating of the willow is that is symbolizes the ephemeral aspect of life, for as the leaves of the willow drop through beating, so our years in which we are buffeted by the storm and stress of life fall from the span of time allotted to us.”
What all of these lovely “explanations” share is a recourse by psychologizing the ritual (reading it as reflecting as internal human condition) or the theologizing it (as expressing some sentiment toward punishing sinners, forgiving sinners, or establishing the eschaton). None of them explain the texts as we have them, and many of them don’t really explain the specifics of what we actually do with the willow branches. While they might apply to marching with the willows as a memorial to the Temple, none address the violence of the action, or its timing. Why beat them, and why after the last hakafot on Hoshanah Rabbah.
Toward a Simpler Explanation
Rather than reading an inadequately-explained rabbinic ritual against a psychological or spiritual backdrop, invoking categories which were never explicitly delineated in rabbinic thought, a more plausible first try would be to work within the realm of existing rabbinic concern.
Such an approach mitigates against the arrogance of the living, who often impose their core beliefs and assumptions on the ancients. Such an approach also has the advantage of avoiding the seductive appeal of reducing religion to something else (psychology, anthropology, or sociology, for example). Looking at a ritual through the lenses of the ancient rabbis (as best we can), their strong concern is often with the integrity and contours of halakhah [Jewish law]. It is to that realm, then, that we had best look.
I propose that the beating of the willow is motivated by a halakhic desire, in this case to signify the end of the festival and to render its main implement pasul [ritually unfit].
For that reading, there is some suggestive support. First, in the realm of logic (in this instance, the kind of evidence that is both weakest and most suspect), it is noteworthy that the havatah [beating] takes place immediately after the willows are no longer necessary for any ritual purpose. We don’t even wait until the end of the service, but destroy them immediately. That we do so without any prayer or kavanah only strengthens the notion that this minhag [custom] serves a practical purpose, not some deeper symbolic expression.
There is some hint of this practicality in rabbinic texts as well.
The primary support comes from the Mishnah itself. After describing the ritual of the aravot, the next Mishnah informs us that “immediately the children loosened the lulavim and ate their etrogim.” While there is some dispute about the precise meaning of the verb יןשומט, there is no doubt that this practice renders the lulav and the etrog no longer fit for ritual use. Given its propinquity to the passage on the aravot, and given that the havatah is also destructive, it stands to reason that the function is the same: to disqualify the aravot from any further ritual function.
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