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:
A particularly strange halacha exists that requires us to eat on Erev Yom Kippur. Most laws pertaining to the actual day of Yom Kippur might be difficult to do, but at least they make almost immediate sense. We understand these laws, and we can relate to them. Knowing full well what the day of Yom Kippur is we would expect to pray, meditate, spend time doing serious introspection. We would additionally expect to fast, even, and to take out the sifrei Torah and hold them close.
To have a law, though, that specifically mandates eating before all of this begins is strange to say the least, and is seemingly quite difficult to relate to. To make things even stranger, we are told by Chazal that if we do, indeed, eat on the day preceding Yom Kippur it is as if we fasted on both that day and on Yom Kippur itself! How does this make any sense at all? It is quite literally the very opposite of the reality.
The key to understanding the themes of Rosh Hashanah is the date. The Day of Judgment for the world was not chosen arbitrarily, but is specifically on this date – not because it is the first day of the year (in fact, the Mishnah mentions four different kinds of new years), but because it is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. As we say in the Rosh Hashanah davening after each time the shofar is blown, “Hayom harat olam– Today the world was created.” This is because human beings are the reason for Creation. As the well-known Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) says, “He who saves one life is considered to have saved an entire world; and he who destroys one life is considered to have destroyed an entire world.”
We understand that Rosh Hashanah is the day Adam and Eve were created. But what is the connection between this and judgment?
To answer this, we must first take a look at what makes the human being unique. G-d created many things in the world; why is the human being considered to be “an entire world” unto himself?
Regrettably, most congregants, myself included, do not fully understand every line of the many piyyutim that appear in our liturgy. Generally speaking, the texts that we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tend to be somewhat easier to follow than many selichot, kinot, and yotzrot composed for other occasions. Nonetheless, they are not without their challenges. I present here a number of observations that should help enhance our understanding of what most of us see as the most important prayer services of the year.
- Near the beginning of chazarat ha-shatz of musaf on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we find the lines Dibberot elleh divrei ha-berit galleh be-zikhron shillush berit. The tune impels almost all chazzanim to pause after elleh. This, however, is a mistake. The lines mean, “Remove (roll away) the words elleh divrei ha-berit (the three words that follow the tokhachah (or tokhechah) in Ki Tavo and hence represent that tokhechah) through the remembrance of the threefold covenant (with the patriarchs).” Thus, the words elleh divrei ha-berit must be said as a single phrase. It is not terribly difficult to do this.
The images that the event of Akeidat Yitzchak generally conjure are Avraham’s compliance, Yitzchak’s selflessness, and their unity in order to fulfill the ultimate sacrifice for God. However, the day that is more focused on the Akeida than any other is called Yom Teruah and its climax is the sounding of the shofar; Avraham’s sacrifice of the ram steals the show. This oddity is exaggerated when looking at how the Torah records the sudden change in what is being offered. “Vayeilech Avraham vayikach et ha’ayil vaya’aleihu li’olah tachat binno- Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.״ (Genesis 22:13) The word the Torah uses for “in place of” is “tachat.” Nachama Lebowitz explains based on the Benno Jacob’s reading of Ayin tachat ayin – an eye for an eye, that from many of the places where the word tachat is used in Tanach, it is clear that it implies replacement or compensation for something lost. The argument by “ayin tachat ayin” is that even in Pshat it cannot be about revenge, but rather it has to be describing a way to replace the eye; thus, Chazzal say that the Torah is commanding monetary compensation to replace at least one function of the eye, which is helping to make a living. If this is true, then how could the Torah use the word “tachat” to describe replacing the sacrifice of Yitzchak with the sacrifice of a ram? How could sacrificing an animal begin to compare to the act of sacrificing a child such that it could be referred to with the terminology of a valid compensation?
Nechemiah’s advice to a chastened nation seems strange. “Today is holy to Hashem….Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks. Send portions to those who have nothing prepared….Do not be sad. The enjoyment of Hashem is your strength!” Nechemiah’s audience, no paragons of virtue, had good reason to cry any day of the year. They had many misdeeds that they needed to acknowledge. All the more so on Rosh Hashanah, when they accepted their guilt, and understood that they were standing before G-d Who was judging them at that moment. We would think that crying would have been both cathartic and beneficial to their repentance.
Moreover, the Ari z”l measured the sensitivity of our souls by our ability to cry. He looked down upon any person who could pass through an entire Yomim Norarim period without shedding a tear. Why would Nechemiah suppress the tears of his people, and even urge them to eat celebratory meals?
The Yerushalmi turns Nechemiah’s speech into policy for all time. “Ordinarily, a person awaiting judgment sits as if in mourning. Yisrael does not do that. They dress in finery, eat and drink, secure in the knowledge that Hashem will perform the miraculous for them.” Is not Rosh Hashanah supposed to be a time of awe, in which we see ourselves submitting to the judgment of Heaven? How can we expect a miracle, when we understand how vulnerable we are because of our sins?
In Jewish tradition we encounter two different traditions about the nature of the Mitzvah which requires us to hear the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. According to one tradition, this is a Mitzvah which is incumbent upon the individual. It is no different than the Mitzvah of taking hold of Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot or having Tzitzit upon a garment which one wears, or placing Tefillin upon one’s head or arm.
A different tradition, however, considers hearing the sound of the Shofar as a communal obligation. That obligation is related to communal prayer and is in many respects no different than other communal obligations for example, building the Temple or going to war against specified enemies.
The Rambam discusses both of these aspects. He first states: “How many Shofar blasts is a person (i.e. an individual) obligated to hear on Rosh Hashana?” and he answers, “nine blasts.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar 3:1). Later in the chapter he states, “The community is obligated to hear the sound of the Shofar blasts according to the order of the blessings.” (Ibid 3:7)