Almost a year ago Sukkos time, I contacted a friend of mine, by the name of Reuven Chaim Klien, the esteemed author of Loshon HaKodesh: History, Holiness & Hebrew, to ask him whether he had ever heard of a pagan origin of the Jewish custom to thrash willow branches on the ground at the end of the services on the last day of Sukkos, Hoshana Rabbbah. This is largely due to my hearing all sorts of speculation as to it’s pagan origin and receiving very little substantiating evidence. I asked Rabbi Klein because we share a mutual interest in research on ancient pagan customs and beliefs.
Rabbi Klein responded with great interest but said he knew nothing about it. Since then he has been asking me to share my findings on the matter. The most common and simplest claim I heard is that the Hoshana Rabbah services are related to “The Festival of Willows” in celebration of the goddess Ashtoreth, referenced in תנ”ך as עשתורת. This “Festival” is proclaimed to be October 22nd, right around the סוכות season, so it would be quite a promising lead, however, as we will demonstrate later, the Festival of Willows is a modern day invention. It is a conglomerate of various neo-pagan concepts and was never practiced by any actual ancient pagan culture and was probably in part inspired by Jewish practice as well. We will explore this and various other possibilities at greater length after we first explain the basics of the relevant Jewish customs and להבדיל the pagan traditions in the region. In the process, we will explore some of the possible meanings and symbolism of the Hoshana Rabbah services.
(Disclaimer: Regarding pagan studies it is especially important to make distinctions between things we know from primary sources and archaeological findings and the vast speculation out there done by “neo-pagans” and some academics. Both will be addressed in the following post.)