“The Festival of Sukkot Comes to a Dramatic Close”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The final day of Sukkot, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, is known as Hoshanah Rabbah. Hoshanah Rabbah, which, loosely translated, means the great Hoshanah, refers to both the many prayers for salvation (“hoshanah”) that are recited on this occasion and the numerous willow branches that are taken during the prayer ritual on this day. In fact, the branches are called hoshanot after the Hebrew word for the prayers of salvation.

In the time of the ancient Temples, on each day of the Sukkot festival, numerous willow branches were gathered from Motza, a location just outside Jerusalem, and placed along the sides of the altar. While the willows stood erect, their tops leaned over the altar. An elaborate ceremony was then conducted. The shofar was sounded, and on each day of Sukkot the people proceeded to circle the altar, crying “Hoshanah,” — L-rd save us! On the final day of Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, the altar was encircled seven times, hence the name Hoshanah Rabbah, meaning, the great salvation.

Today, on Hoshana Rabbah, in synagogues throughout the world, a Torah scroll is held at the synagogue bimah (center platform or table). It is the bimah that today serves in place of the ancient altar of atonement, since we no longer have the Temple or an altar. The congregation encircles the bimah and the Torah seven times, as prayers are chanted to the Al-mighty that He grant His people the blessings of rain and dew.

The final day of Sukkot is the last day that the mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog (the four species) is performed, as well as the last day for dwelling in the sukkah. The Talmud, in Sukkah 44a, notes, that during the Temple times the last of the prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, would take a willow branch, recite a special prayer over the branch and beat it on the ground. Thus developed the Temple custom to beat the aravah. The ritual of taking the aravah was later expanded, allowing it to be performed even outside the Temple, but without any special blessing.

According to tradition, Hoshanah Rabbah is the day on which the Al-mighty pronounces judgment on water (willows often grow near water). Consequently, not only the Jews are judged on that day for water, but all mankind is judged on that day. Our rabbis further maintain that the final sealing of the Divine judgment that began on Rosh Hashanah takes place on Hoshanah Rabbah.

According to our sages, G-d’s judgment on Hosahana Rabbah is similar to the judgment of a mortal king. A good king who finds an accused subject innocent, will immediately dismiss the charges against him and confirm his innocence. However, even if the subject is not really worthy, the merciful king may decide to suspend judgment until merit can be found for the accused. In the end, the king hands the final judgment to his messengers who are to dispense the sentence of either life or death. A decision by the king to grant mercy may not be altered. However, a royal decree of punishment may be changed if the messengers find merit for the accused.

Can mere messengers change a king’s decree? If the messengers arrive and find the accused happily and loyally fulfilling the king’s decree, they may determine that this person is obviously not evil. Upon presenting the new evidence to the king, he proceeds to tear up the previous decree and seal the accused for life.

And so it is with the world’s inhabitants. On Rosh Hashanah, they pass before G-d. The righteous are immediately inscribed for life. Others have their judgment suspended until Yom Kippur. The final sealing however takes place on Hoshanah Rabbah, which explains the increase in prayer and supplication on that day, to arouse Divine mercy. After all, even if a harsh decree had already been rendered, it may be torn up and new notes of acquittal written.

Throughout the Sukkot festival, 70 oxen are sacrificed. Each day a declining number of oxen are offered (Numbers 29). On the first day-13, on the second-12, and on each successive day the number is decreased by one. The total number of oxen offered during the festival corresponds to the 70 nations descended from Noah who were the ancestors of all the people of the world. Since the Temple in Jerusalem was considered a house of prayer for all people, the 70 oxen were sacrificed as an atonement for all the nations and served as a prayer for their well being and peace.

We see that Hoshanah Rabbah is not only a critical day for the Jewish people but for humankind as a whole.

A most intriguing observation concerning Hoshanah Rabbah was made a number of years ago by several contemporary scholars who study the codes of the Bible. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Esther, we are informed that in addition to 500 virulent enemies whom the Jews killed in self-defense in Shushan the capital, the ten sons of Haman were also killed. The text then lists in large, bold print in a single vertical column the names of Haman’s ten sons. Three of the letters in their names are diminutive, tav, shin, and zayin. The commentators provide no reason for these small letters. In verse 13, following the names, for no apparent reason, Esther asks that, even though the sons are obviously no longer alive, their bodies be hanged on a tree.

The reason for these textual anomalies have become clear only recently. The Hebrew year of October 1946 was tav, shin, zayin, 707, of the fifth millennium. After many postponements, on October 16, 1946, which coincided with Hoshanah Rabbah, ten Nazi war criminals were hanged. In fact, as Julius Streicher was being led to the gallows, he yelled out, “Purimfest, 1946.”

Hoshanah Rabbah is the day when the world is judged. On October 16, 1946, ten Nazi sons of Haman were judged and were executed. They were executed by hanging, as alluded to in verse 13 of chapter 9 in the Book of Esther.

Some will say it is all coincidence, but, you must admit, rather compelling.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Sukkot begins on Wednesday night, September 26, 2007 and continues through its conclusion on Friday, October 5th, when Simchat Torah is celebrated. Hoshanah Rabbah is observed on Tuesday night through Wednesday, October 2nd and 3rd. May you have a wonderful, happy and joyous holiday and may all our judgments be favorable. Chag Samayach.