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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

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of SCF - Shoresh Charitable Fund


Sukkot 1997-5758

The "Hoshannot" and Their Place in the Liturgy

Menasheh Elyashiv

The Jewish Studies Library

Hoshannot are liturgical poems recited each day of the Sukkot festival while bearing the Four Speciesin a procession around the synagogue. During the procession a Torah scroll is held on the lectern in the middle of the synagogue. On the seventh day of the holiday, called Hoshanna Rabbbah, seven processions are made. The following is a brief description of the source of this custom.

The first mention of the custom of Hoshannot is in the Mishnah in Sukkah (4,5):

Each day they walk around the altar once saying:

We pray, O Lord, save us, we pray, O Lord, make us prosper...

(ana hashem hoshiya na, ana hashem hatzlicha na)

and on that day they walk around the altar seven times.

The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 43a) records a dispute as to whether they first walked around the altar carrying willow branches (aravot) and afterwards stood them up around the walls of the altar, or the willows were first placed around the altar and after that they walked around the altar holding their lulavim (palm branches). The reason for walking around the altar is brought in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah, chap. 4, end of halachah 2, as a reminder of Israel encircling Jericho (Joshua 6).

Another source is found in Midrash Shocher Tov on Psalms in a comment on the verse: "Let my sentence come forth from You" (Psalms 17:2):

Now, no man knows who prevails, if Israel or the nations of the world. When the day of the first festival of Sukkot arrives, and all Israel, young and old, take their lulavim in their right hands and their etrogim (citrons) in their left hands, then immediately everyone knows that Israel will prevail. And when the day of Hoshanna Rabbah arrives they take up willow branches and walk around (the synagogue) seven times and the leader of the prayers stands like an Angel of G-d and the people walk around him in the way (they used to walk around) the altar.

Among earlier and later commentators on the Talmud (Rishonim and Achronim) other reasons were given.

Did this custom begin in the Second Temple period and continue uninterrupted until the times of the later Halachic authorities (Poskim) ? Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who lived in the days of the Second Temple, decreed that the lulav should be taken in hand for seven days to remind us of the Temple, but other commandments and customs on Sukkot, such as the commandment of Hakhel (the assembly of the people once in seven years), the custom of drawing water for the altar (nisuch hamayim) and the Simchat Beyt Hashoeva (the Festivity of the drawing of the water) were not given this status of commemorating the Temple; is Hoshannot of such ancient origin as well?

A number of scholars related to the question of the antiquity of the custom, and their arguments are based primarily on the liturgy, or prayers. In one view, the simple Hoshannot with the repeating refrain (such as "Lema'an Amitach" - "For the Sake of Your Truth" - in the Ashkenazic tradition) date back to the Temple period. Another opinion maintains that the Hoshannot are of later origin, in the period in which many liturgical poems (Piyutim) were written. Others bring proof from the fact that the Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) replaced the altar (mizbeah) as the center of the procession, that the origins of Hoshannot are from Temple times. During the period of the Gaonim (early medieval Talmudic scholars) the various academies (yeshivot) disagreed as to the number of rounds (hakafot) to be made each day: according to Rav Sherira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon there were three daily processions and this was the custom in the Yeshivah in Pumbedita, but in the Yeshivah of Sura they held only one procession. Still another custom was to walk around the synagogue only on Hoshanna Rabbah.

As to the place of the Hoshannot in the order of the prayers, several customs exist. From the Mishnah it would appear that the processions were made after the Musaf (additional) sacrifices of the day ("And when they leave what do they say?" - Sukkah 4,5). However it is possible that they were made after the Shacharit (morning) offering since that was when the libation of water (nissuch hamayim) was poured on the altar. Most of the Rishonim, including the Shulchan Aruch, decreed that we should walk around the synagogue after the reader's repetition of the Amidah prayer of Musaf, before the full Kaddish (Kaddish Titkabal) is recited. To do so, we would need to take a Sefer Torah out of the Ark without reading it, just for the Hoshannot. As this might not be proper respect for the Torah, Rav Sa'adiah Gaon advised holding the processions immediately after the reading of the Haftarah (the selection read from the Prophets), just prior to returning the Sefer Torah to its place.

With the spread of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), liturgical customs became influenced by its teachings. This was especially true of the Minhag Sepharad (Spanish or Sephardic custom), which was copied by the Nusach Hahassidim (the Chassidic custom) and by the Prushim in Jerusalem. In these rites, the Hoshannot were moved to the morning prayers because according to Kabbalistic ideas of intention (Sha'ar Hakavanot ) Hoshannot should follow upon Hallel and the mitzvot of the Four Species and their waving (na'anuim).

To avoid R. Saadia's objection, in the Sephardi rite the Sefer Torah is removed from the Ark in order to read from it, at which point Hoshannot are said prior to the reading. This custom, however, does not allow for the recitation of Kaddish Titkabal after Hoshannot. Therefore, an additional vaariation is to take out the Torah Scroll following the Hallel prayer, say Hoshannot, recite the Kaddish Titkabal, and then read the Torah (this is the prevalent custom in Israel today; the Torah is returned to the Ark after Hoshannot and taken out again for the reading).

However, on the first day of the festival, when the prayers "Shlosh Esreh Middot" and "Ribbono Shel Olam" are recited before the Holy Ark and the honors of being called up to the Torah (aliyot) are sold publicly, there would still be something of a gap in time between Hallel and Hoshanot, perhaps interfering with the continuity of those mitzvot. The custom of Aram Tzoba (the Jewish community of Aleppo, Syria) is to take the second Sefer Torah (that of the Maftir reading) for the Hoshannot processions, leave it at the lectern, and return to recite the order of taking the first Sefer Torah out of the ark immediately after the Hoshannot.

Similar variations of custom occurred with regard to the procession of Hakafot--circling the synagogue with the Torah Scrolls--on Shmini Atzeret (in the Diaspora--on Simhat Torah). In the Ashkenazi ritual, Hakafot are done before the Torah reading, in the Sepharadi, after Musaf. Once again, perhaps in order not to remove a Torah Scroll without reading from it, there is a variation on the Sepharadi rite which does Hakafot after the Torah reading, before returning the Torah Scrolls to the Ark.

Sources for further study:

A. Weissfisch, Arba'at Haminim Hashalem , Jerusalem, 1974.

D. Goldschmidt, Machzor Lesukkot, Jerusalem, 1991.

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