Why Beat the Willow?

When tradition is silent, symbolic explanations arise.

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The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes]  from a tallit [prayershawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit] . Eliyahu Kitov mentions a similar contemporary practice of taking five aravot and beating them five times, after which they are stored in a place where they won’t be trampled “since it is important to cast it away as worthless even after it has been used.”

Conclusion

At stake in this discussion is more then simply uncovering the original reason of a relatively obscure ritual. In contemporary religions homily and study, there is a tendency to filter religious history through the agenda and priorities of the individual examiner. While this is unavoidable to some extent, it often results in the wholesale abdication of the search for the agenda of the original intent. Consequently, the learning that might emerge from an encounter with a different worldview or an earlier set of values is lost. While scholars of myth and ritual are quick to point out that the “true” meaning of a practice may change over time, with each new interpretation possessing its own validity for the community that reads the ritual in that way, it is nonetheless also true that a too hasty accommodation of all interpretations that tends to result in a hasty skipping over interpretations that might trouble us. In this accommodation, traditions get homogenized, harmonized, and flattened.

I would propose that a more productive way of reading ancient, continuous traditions would allow its many voices to speak out, with the hope of learning even from those perspectives. In the case of havatat aravot, many of the homiletical drashot are lovely, profound, and add a layer of warmth and depth to an otherwise bizarre practice. But in doing so, they threaten to substitute psychology, a literalist theology (do it simply because God says so), or an imperialist anthropology in place of what might have simply been a way to render the aravah no longer ritually useable.

Allowing the divergent voices to stand side by side, and searching for an encounter with an original motivation regardless of how it might dovetail with our own agenda, respects the integrity and otherness of Jewish traditions. Rather than reading our love of psychology or the guidelines of the way we conduct our spiritual search into havatat aravot, we might actually learn and grow more by a willingness to “assume” the perspectives of the texts we are reading, at least while we are engaged in the reading.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.