For those unfamiliar with the general practice of Hoshana Rabbah we will not get overly involved in the minutiae of the Jewish ritualistic law that surrounds it. Here is what you need to know:
- On all days of Sukkos all Jews circle the “bima” (place where the Torah is read from) once with the four species.
- On the last day this is done in a prolonged service – the bima is circled seven times.
- After this, a bundle of willows (generally five, but technically one is enough) is taken. A long supplication is said, then the willows are taken and beaten against the ground.
This is based on a tradition in the Temple where willows were erected by the alter during Sukkos.
The tradition of taking willows outside of the Temple was instituted by the prophets.
Many folks have noted the strangeness of the ceremony and have speculated that it likely has some pagan origin. In Celebrating The Jewish Year: The Fall Holidays, Rabbi Paul Steinberg speculates as to their pagan origin and guess that it probably had something to do with calling on the “waters below” to respond the “waters above”. Generally though, his assertion seems to come from speculation and a gut reaction to that which is odd rather than from a place of knowledge – as he says:
“Even though no one can specifically pinpoint its origins, we cannot help but see the ancient or even pagan connotations of the day.”
He then quotes the “Anthropologist” Theodor Gaster (to my knowledge, Rabbi Steinberg is the only one who conferred this title upon Dr. Gaster who was a renown semiticist and biblical scholar and is also known for his works on comparative religion, mythology and history of religion) who explains that the custom:
“…harks back to a primitive and nearly universal belief that the willow is a symbol of fertility and to the consequent custom of beating people with branches of that tree in order to induce potency and increase”
Hmm… Beating people…
The only instance I have seen of a custom that involves “beating people with branches” of a willow tree is Smigus Dyngus. Smigus Dyngus is practiced by the Czechs, Slovakians, Poles, Hungarians and Ukrainians at Easter. Basically it involves men and boys soaking women and girls with water and beating them with willow branches. This is a custom that is outright associated with fertility and probably originated with Ziva, the Slavic goddess of fertility. That said, the suggestion of commonality between the Jews in Israel and Slavic mythology is quite far-fetched.
As for the assertion of the univeral connection between willows and fertility, here I must admit my own ignorance. The best I could come up with (to suggest a connection beween willows and fertility in other faiths in the region) is that there is much speculation as to the huluppu tree in Gilgamesh being a willow tree. Of course, Inanna, the owner of the huluppu tree, was the Sumerian goddess of fertility so there would be some connection there. As of my writing this I am unfamiliar with the evidence of the universal primitive belief that the willow is a symbol of fertility. (I don’t have access to Gaster’s original work, perhaps he backs it up there, any further info on this would be appreciated.)[For the sake of comprehensiveness, the Beating of the Bounds is another “stick beating” ritual of Norman origin that has to do with marking territory and has no apparent connection to the topic at hand.]
If we were to insist upon a pagan predecessor, in my humble opinion, a far more likely cannidate would be the Egyptian Festival of Raising the Willow. This is particularly interesting because the Talmud speculates as to whether the taking of the willows or the raising of them was the main part of the Temple obligation. We shall cover this and more in our next installment – Hoshana Rabbah – Why We Thrash – Part III.