On the festival of Succot, we gather the daled minim per the Torah’s command: “And you shall take for yourselves… the fruit of the splendid tree (esrog), date palm fronds (lulav), a branch of a braided tree (hadasim) and willows of the brook (Aravot)” (Lev. 23:40). Then, on Hoshana Rabbah the final day of Succot, it is customary to beat the fourth of these daled minim, i.e., the willow branches, on the ground. The details of this “willow-whacking” custom are shrouded in mystery; the Gemara records that the custom existed in the times of the Beit HaMikdash (Sukkah 44b; see Rashi ad. loc.), but precious little has been written on both the origin and meaning of this custom.
However, the text of the tefillah we recite before performing this ritual does include an instructive reference to the “custom of the prophets.” This phrase would seem to suggest that the ritual was instituted by the “prophets”—or, at least, that it is modeled after some practice or ceremony that dates to the era of the prophets. Indeed, in Nevi’im Rishonim, we do find an episode whose central elements correlate with those of the Aravot ritual. Here is the scene, from Sefer Melachim Beit:
Now, Elisha became ill with the illness he was to die of; and Joash, the king of Israel, went down to him and wept on his face, and said, “My master, my master, Israel’s chariots and riders!” And Elisha said to him, “Fetch a bow and arrows.” And he fetched him a bow and arrows… And he said, “Take the arrows.” And he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike at the ground,” and he struck three times and stopped. And the man of God was incensed against him, and he said, “You should have struck five or six times, then you would strike the Arameans until you would annihilate them completely, but now, you shall strike the Arameans but three times” (II Kings 13:14-19).
In this passage, Elisha the navi commands Yehoash, the king of Israel, to whack arrows on the ground as a symbol of the military triumph he will achieve over Aram—a nation that had been oppressing bnei Yisrael for quite some time. Might this incident provide the basis for the contemporary custom to whack willows on Hoshana Rabbah? Well, consider:
- The ritual of willow-whacking occurs on Hoshana Rabbah, during the prayers of Hoshana (Hosha Na=“Save us, please”). Tanach identifies Yehoash as the “savior” (Hebrew: the “Moshia”) that Hashem sent to rescue Israel from its oppressors (13:5).
- In describing the relief that Yehoash provided for B’nei Yisrael, the navi states: “And they went free from under Aram’s hands, and the Children of Israel dwelt in their dwelling places as yesterday and the day before” (ibid). The image of Bnei Yisrael dwelling securely certainly fits nicely with the theme of Succot, a holiday dedicated to memorializing the secure dwellings Hashem provided for bnei Yisrael during their exodus from Egypt.
- The arrow-whacking episode, and Elisha’s subsequent death, occurred “at the beginning of the year, when bands of raiders would invade Israel after the Israelites finished gathering the harvest of that season (13:20, see Rashi ad. loc.).” Succot is a harvest festival—“the feast of ingathering, at the turn of the year” (Exod. 34:22)—so our episode likely occurred on, or around, Succot.
- Although Yehoash was only able to defeat Aram in three battles, his son, Yeravam, “restored the boundary of Israel until the Sea of the Willows”—that is, Yam Ha’Aravah (II Kings 14:25).
We do not know with certainty when the willow-whacking ritual originated. Given this data, however, it seems reasonable to conjecture that whoever instituted may have done so with the story of Elisha and Yehoash in mind.
Perhaps part of the idea here is that we are completing Yehoash’s unfinished business: He whacked the arrows three times, and therefore merited only a partial salvation; we whack them each year, and beseech Hashem to provide the rest of that salvation.
Of course, we hope the whacking of the willows, like the whacking of the arrows, serves to move us in the direction of yet another “whacking,” viz.: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). On Succot—a universal holiday on which we offer 70 sacrifices in honor of the 70 nations of the world (Num. 29:18; see Sukkah 55b) that is ultimately the form of salvation that we seek.
This article originally appeared in the NJ Jewish Link.
Alex Maged is a rabbinical student at RIETS and the founder of WhatsPshat.org.