Hoshana Rabbah merits mention in the Torah only as the seventh and last day of the Sukkot holiday (Num. 29:32-34). Even its name dates only from the Middle Ages. Yet, traditional teachings have imbued it with truly extraordinary significance.
This fundamentally arises from an exquisite exegesis of the holiday's extended exposition (Num. 29:12-34). The almost identical sacrificial order of each of its seven days is separately specified, the chief difference being in the number of bulls sacrificed. Starting with thirteen, the first day, these are reduced each day by one, to seven, on day seven. Over Sukkot, then, there were a total of seventy bulls sacrificed, corresponding to the seventy Torah-delineated distinct nations of antiquity. The daily reduction portends the gradual diminishment of reigns of immorality and irreligiousity over the course of human history.
Significantly, three extra letters appear in the Hebrew text: a 'Mem' in the Day two delineation ('niskayheM' instead of 'niskah'), a 'Yud' in Day six ('niskEhah') and a 'Mem' ('mishpataM' instead of 'mishpat') in Day seven. Taken together, these letters spell out 'Mayim' (water). Day seven's 'Mem', suffixing 'mishpat' (judgment), points additionally to Hoshana Rabbbah being a mini-Yom Kippur, a time of sealed judgment for the plentitude of water for the year just begun.
Beyond the holiday's occurrence at the start of the rainy season in the Land of Israel, water was thus seen as absolutely integral to its celebration. Throughout the year, the daily morning sacrifice of a lamb ('Tamid' ) was accompanied by a wine libation. During Sukkot, there was a water libation, as well. An extraordinarily joyous 'Celebration of the Place of Water Drawing' took place nightly, starting the evening of Day two. According to the Mishnah (V:1), "Whoever did not see the rejoicing of 'Beis HaSho'evah', never saw rejoicing in his lifetime".
Sukkot is a time particularly propitious for the prophesied ultimate redemption. The Haftarah on Day 1 is Zechariah 14:1-24. Following devastating defeat of "the nations that come upon Jerusalem, they will ascend every year to prostrate themselves before the King, Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Sukkot (verse 16)." In the wake of the defeat of Gog and Magog, the Sabbath Chol HaMoed Haftarah (Ezekiel 38:18-39:16) declares: "Thus will I be exalted and sanctified, and I will become known in the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am God (38:23)".
The holiday's two major 'mitzvot' (commandments) (Lev. 23:33-44) are the dwelling in booths ('sukkot') and the 'taking' of the Four Species: 'esrog' (citron), a date palm frond, bound together with two sprigs of myrtle and three of brook willows. Much symbolism is associated with these items. The esrog resembles a heart, the lulav, a spine, the myrtle, the eyes, and the willows, the lips. The esrog, which has taste and pleasant aroma has been taken to represent those with both knowledge and good deeds; the lulav, whose associated fruit has taste but no aroma, marks those with knowledge but deficient in good deeds; the myrtle, which has aroma but not taste, stands for those with good deeds but little knowledge; the willow, finally, represents those bereft both of knowledge and good deeds.
Biblically, such 'taking' is required only on the first day of Sukkot. Following the destruction of the Temple, it was rabbinically extended to all subsequent days, excluding the Sabbath. It involves, after recital of a blessing, holding the Four Species together and shaking them three times in each of the four compass directions: East, South, West, North, then, likewise, up and down Eastward. That, when so held, the willows adjoin the esrog, is suggestive of the need for those most endowed with good qualities to positively influence those with the least.
In Temple times, the Four Species were further held in procession ('Hoshana') in a daily single circuit around the Outer Altar. On the seventh day, large willow branches were placed around the Altar (Sukkah IV:5-6), which, evocative of the circuits around Jericho (Joshua 6:12-15), was also so circled seven times. Following that, branches were beaten on the ground. Hence the day's Mishnaic designation as 'the date of the beating of the branches'. Though not Scripturally based, this "custom of the prophets" is of great antiquity. Its performance was even considered significant enough to effect a change in the calendar, so that Hoshan Rabbah would never fall on the Sabbath.
There are three days of the week on which the first day of Rosh HaShanah can never fall: Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Were it to fall on either Wednesday or Friday, Yom Kippur would fall, respectively, on Friday or Sunday. thus either starting or ending the Sabbath in fasting. Were Rosh HaShana to start on Sunday, Hoshana Rabbah would fall on the Sabbath. How is such calendar manipulation effected? The Hebrew months normally alternate in length, either 29 or 30 days. When necessary to push back, or forward, the day of the week on which Rosh HaShanah would fall, two consecutive months, Cheshvan and Kislev, would both have either 29 or 30 days, one year and the reverse, the next.
The lengthy Hoshana Rabbah service is most unusual, combining Chol HaMoed, Holiday, even High Holyday elements. During the Additional service, the cantor typically wears a white kittel. The petitionary Psalm 130 is earlier recited, as well as, on the taking out for reading of a Torah scroll, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. In additional to interpolating the usual holiday psalms in the initial portion of the service, it also concludes as on Biblical holidays.
A daily highpoint of Sukkot services is the recitation of Hoshanos. Except on the Sabbath, a Torah scroll is taken from the Holy Ark and held at the central Torah-reading platform ('Bimah'). After recitation of four introductory verses: 'Hoshana L'Maanechah' (Please save - for Your sake ...), worshippers, holding their Lulav and Esrog, slowly circle the Bimah in procession. They respond in unison: "Hoshana (stich) Hoshana" to the Prayer Reader's recitation of individual stichs of the day's Hoshana 'piyyut' (poem), completing it at the end of one cycle. These piyyutim are in alphabetic acrostic form, 22 stichs in length. Each day, a common concluding Hoshana is then recited. On the Sabbath, only the Holy Ark is opened. A Torah scroll is not taken out, nor is the Bimah circled in procession. Instead, a special Sabbath-related Hoshana and corresponding concluding Hoshana are recited in place by congregants.
On Hoshana Rabbah, there are seven such circuits and corresponding Hoshanas. Among their themes are calls for the restoration of the Divine Presence in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, redemption from Exile, renewal of the Land of Israel, provision for it of ample rain and protection from agricultural blight, concluding with an appeal to the merit of Biblical forbears, via allusions to their associations with fire.
Another seven prayers follow, reprising many of the above themes. After each, there is growing expansion, and intensification, of the core 'Hoshana' (Please save) plea. It is called out aloud by the cantor and repeated by the congregation. All, or part, of this plea then becomes the refrain of the following prayer. This series includes yet another appeal to Biblical forbears, this time via allusions to their associations with water. Indeed, their predominant motif involves water.
Not so the last prayer, the acrostic 'The Voice of the Herald'. Rather than appealing for present needs, its verses, replete with vivid allusions to prophetic pronouncements, express messianic expectations, including ultimate resurrection of the dead. The voice of the Herald (Elijah) heralds and proclaims; "Saviors shall ascend upon Mount Zion"; "a man has sprouted ... He is David himself"; "arise, you who are covered with dust"; "grant salvations to the eternal people, to David and to his descendants, forever". The cantor then thrice calls out, repeated by the congregation: "Kol M'vasser, M'vasser V'Omer" (The voice of the herald heralds and proclaims).
With that, congregants beat their bundles of five willow sprigs five times on the floor or furniture, concluding these prayers with the petition "May God open for you His goodly treasure trove, the heavens, to give your land rain in its season and to bless all of your handiwork (Deuteronomy 28:12)".
The philosophic import of this mysterious rite remains obscure. As noted above, willow leaves resemble human lips. Some have thus suggested that beating the willows represents an act of atonement for sins committed with the lips amid resolution not to repeat those. Others have taken note of the identification of the willow as representative of the lesser members of the community.The prominence here given to the willow thus emphasizes the need to value all its members, regardless of their stature.
With Hoshana Rabbah, a day of intermingled joy and judgment, a day both part of, yet set apart, from the rest of Chol HaMoed, its hidden significance only subtly hinted at in Scripture, the quintessential 'Chag', the "time of our rejoicing", comes to an end.