Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Sukkot 5761/ 14-21 October 2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Sukkot 5761/ 14-21 October 2000

Hoshanah Rabbah as a Day of Judgment

Prof. Yosef Tavori
Department of Talmud

Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of the festival of Sukkot, is considered a day of judgment. According to the Zohar, although one is judged on the Day of Atonement, that verdict is not delivered until the last day of Sukkot, and until then a person may still repent (Zohar, Va-Yehi 120a; Terumah 142a). However, according to the Zohar the day on which the verdict is delivered is actually Shemini Atzeret, the final day of the festival, and not Hoshanah Rabbah (the day before). Hesed le-Avraham explains away the contradiction as follows-- the last chance to change one's judgment is actually Hoshanah Rabbah; whoever has not yet repented by then has his verdict handed down on Shemini Atzeret.[1]

The sense of judgment on Hoshanah Rabbah was so powerful that the day accrued many customs associated with the Days of Awe. According to the author of Knesset ha-Gedolah, in the Mahzor (prayerbook) of Romania it was customary to add special High Holy Days passages, such as zokhrenu le-hayyim, "Remember us for life" to the text of the Amidah for Shemini Atzeret. Some Mahzors already lent expression to the special status of Hoshanah Rabbah in the High Holy Days prayer U-netaneh Tokef, having the following version: "On Rosh ha-Shanah judgment is made, and on Yom Kippur it is written, and on Hoshanah Rabbah it is sealed."[2]

In the works of the Sages (Mishna, Midrash, Talmud) there is no mention of Hoshanah Rabbah as a day of judgment. Sukkot after all is not part of the High Holy Days, but belongs to the three pilgrimage festivals. But the proximity of the holiday to the Days of Judgment creates the feeling that all the holidays are part of a whole. In modern Israel, beginning with the month of Elul, the Hebrew phrase "after the holidays" le-ahar ha-haggim is used to refer to the period that draws to a close after Sukkot. Returning to the ancient sources, the teachings regarding the sacrifices to be offered on the holidays hints that the Days of Judgment and Shemini Atzeret are in some way related, for their sacrificial offerings are equal.

Perhaps the closest connection drawn between the Yamim Noraim and Sukkot is found in the motif of the lulav. In antiquity, waving a branch on high was considered a sign of victory. The Sages interpreted our waving of the lulav on Sukkot as signifying the victory of the Jews over Satan on the Days of Judgment that precede the festival. They interpreted the words "delights are ever in Your right hand" (Ps. 16:11) as indicating that a person holding the Four Kinds in his right hand is showing that he emerged victorious on the Day of Judgment (Vayyiqra Rabbah 30.2). One of the earlier sources describing the special status of Hoshanah Rabbah in the synagogue uses this victory imagery:

When Hoshanah Rabbah comes they take willows, and make seven circuits around the synagogue, while the Hazzan of the synagogue stands like an angel of G-d, holding a Torah scroll in his arms as the people march around him as around the altar. For thus our Rabbis taught: every day it was customary to circle the altar reciting, "Please, O Lord, deliver us; please, O Lord, bring success," and on the seventh day they would march around seven times, as King David said explicitly, as it is written, "I wash my hands in innocence, and walk around Your altar" (Ps. 26:6). Immediately the ministering angels rejoice and proclaim, "the people of Israel are victorious." (Midrash Tehillim, Buber ed., 17.5)

The clear connection that the Sages see between the High Holy Days and the festival of Sukkot is not a continuation of the awe and trepidation in the face of judgment, but a connection of joy expressing the assurance that the judgment will be for the best.

There is another aspect of Sukkot, however, which rates it among the most austere days of judgment. The Mishnah states that Rosh ha-Shanah is the day of judgment on which all mortals pass before the Lord as numeron,[3] but the Day of Atonement is not mentioned in the Mishnah as belonging to this system. Yom Hakkippurim is mentioned in the Mishnah because of the expiation (kappara) on this day, both expiation of the Temple's impurity and expiation of the people sins; but it is not mentioned as marking a stage in the legal process. The same cannot be said of other tannaitic writings: there we find the Day of Atonement playing a role in the system of judgment, with the Sages disagreeing over this point:

Everything is judged on Rosh ha-Shanah, and the verdict is sealed on the Day of Atonement, according to Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Judah says everything is judged on Rosh ha-Shanah, and each and every verdict is sealed at its appropriate time: on Passover, the verdict for the grain crop; on Atzeret (the Feast of Weeks), the verdict for fruits; on Sukkot, the verdict for water; and the verdict for people is sealed on the Day of Atonement. (Tosefta Rosh ha-Shanah 1:13, p. 308).

Here we see the legal process divided into stages -- beginning with judgment and concluding with the verdict being delivered. According to the order in the Tosefta, R. Judah's system seems to be a development of R. Meir's approach. R. Meir did not relate to the judgment of the grain crop, or the fruit trees, or the rainfall, but his remarks imply that these things are included in the legal process that begins on Rosh ha-Shanah and culminates on Yom Kippur. Apparently Yom Kippur is considered a fitting date for finalizing the judgment of human beings because it is a day of atonement. R. Judah, however, stated that everything has its own date for finalizing its judgment, name the time close to its season: Passover is a critical season for grain crops, Shavuot for fruits, and Sukkot, the beginning of the rainy season.

Thus, the entire period between Rosh ha-Shanah and the last day of Sukkot is a period during which one can still affect the verdict on rain for the better. According to a tradition ascribed to Rabbenu Tam, those who insist on reading the haftarah of Shuvah Yisrael on the Sabbath between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur are making a mistake, since this haftarah was set for the Sabbath before Sukkot.[4] The reason is that "Shuvah (Hosea 14:2-10) is directed towards praying for rain, since we conclude [the haftara] with a passage from Joel [the reading, Joel 2:15-27, sounds like an assemblage for prayers for rain and includes the verse "For He has given you the early rain in kindness"] and on Sukkot judgment is passed for the rain, and they are proclaimed before the judges[mentioned in Joel 2:16]" (Mahzor Vitri, p. 224).

In conclusion, even though we are especially enjoined to rejoice during the festival of Sukkot, we must not forget that we are in the process of being judged concerning the rain. In view of the severe drought we suffered two years ago we ought to be in awe of judgment being passed concerning this year's rain. May it be G-d's will to bless us with a good year with plentiful rainfall.


[1] Cf. Bezalel Landau, "Hoshanah Rabbah," Mahanayim 74 (Sukkot eve, 1963), pp. 30-31. Also cf. Sha'ar Kavanot, Inyan Sukkot, interpretation 6.
[2] Mentioned by Berliner in his notes on the Siddur. Cf. R. Menahem Rekanati's commentary on the Torah, Levush Or Yekarot, Parshat Shelah. Also cf. Landau, loc. sit., p. 32.
[3] Ki-ve-numeron, sometimes written ke-vnei maron. For interpretations of this obscure expression, cf. Y. Tavori, Mo'adei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud, Jerusalem 1997, p. 217, n. 10.
[4] Note 4 missing.
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