What Is Hoshanah Rabbah?

The last day of Sukkot has its own rituals

Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot is a semi-holiday in its own right.

Still counted among the days of Hol Hamoed (intermediate days of the festival), this day’s name means “the great hoshanah.” A hoshanah is a series of seven liturgical poems calling upon God to rescue and redeem the Jewish people, primarily by sending rain.

Hoshanah Rabbah was viewed by the rabbis of the Talmud as a mini-Yom Kippur, a day on which the entire Jewish community is judged by God to be worthy or not of the seasonal rains. All seven hoshanot prayers are recited in seven hakkafot, or processions, around the sanctuary.

At the conclusion of the seven processions, a special ritual is conducted in which the branches of the willow (the lulav) are struck upon the ground. This is a symbolic attempt to rid ourselves of any remaining sins (the leaves representing these transgressions) that might influence God’s decision to send the seasonal rains.

On the night before Hoshanah Rabbah, many Jews stay up late to study Torah — some even study Torah the entire night long. It has become traditional to read the Book of Deuteronomy, both because it can serve as a summary of the entire Torah and because it is the last book of the Torah and Jews everywhere are about to conclude the yearly cycle of reading the Torah in Simchat Torah (two days after Hoshanah Rabbah). Some also recite Psalms, and Sephardic Jews also recite Selichot prayers.

On the evening following Hoshanah Rabbah, the festival of Shemini Atzeret begins. While for many Jews, Hoshanah Rabbah is the last day one shakes the lulav and etrog and dwells in the sukkah, a number of traditional Jews continue to dwell in the sukkah through Shemini Atzeret.

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