Hoshanah Rabbah observances include:
1. Tikkun – Night Learning
It is customary to remain awake on the night preceding Hoshanah Rabbah and study Torah. We recite the entire Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Psalms. In some congregations it is a custom for the Gabbai (synagogue manager) to distribute apples (signifying a “sweet year”) to the congregants.
2. Tehillim, Chapter 27
The Psalm L’David Hashem Ori, which has been added to our daily prayer since the 1st of Elul, is recited today for the last time.
3. Willow and Hoshaanot
In addition to the Four Kinds taken every day of Sukkot, it is a rabbinical mitzvah, dating back to the times of the Prophets, to take an additional aravah, or willow, on the 7th day of Sukkot.
The Rebbe explains:
– The very fact that it is not a mitzvah in the Written Torah shows that it stems from a source so high that it cannot be explicitly revealed in the Torah. And this is why it was made sure that Hosha’ana Rabbah should never fall on Shabbos, allowing us to strike the aravah.
The custom to strike the aravah emphasizes the idea that through a descent, one reaches the highest levels. The aravah is the plainest of the four kinds, for it has no smell or taste. Yet only it is called “achvinah” — because it grows “in “achvah” — “in friendship” (i.e. willows grow closely together).
Although each of the four kinds express the idea of unity, nevertheless, the qualities of the other three kinds (taste, smell or both) overshadow the aspect of unity they possess. The aravah, in contrast, has no special qualities, and therefore its unity is revealed. That is why the element of unity possessed by the other three is explained in Chassidus (the esoteric of Torah) only, whereas that of the aravah is explicitly recorded in the exoteric aspect of Torah (“achvinah”).
Furthermore, the aravah used on Hosha’ana Rabbah is not the one used in the mitzvah of the four kinds; a separate aravah must be used. For if the one used in the mitzvah of the four kinds was used, the very fact that it was used for a mitzvah gives it a special distinction — which somewhat obscures its totally plain nature. A new aravah, never used for a mitzvah, emphasizes its pure plain nature.
Now we can understand why the custom of striking the aravah emphasizes the idea of ascent following descent. Through the lowly aravah — a new one, without any redeeming qualities — we perform the unique service of Hosha’ana Rabbah, the “custom of the prophets,” which, we explained previously, is of the highest level. (From the Rebbe’s talk on Hosha’ana Rabbah, 5744)
In the Holy Temple, large, 18-foot willow branches were set around the altar. Today, when we take the Four Kinds and carry them around the reading table in the synagogue during the “Hoshaanot” prayers, we make seven circuits around the table and recite a special prayer.
4. Willow branches
At the conclusion of the Hoshaanot we strike the ground five times with a bundle of five willows, symbolizing the “tempering of the five measures of harshness.”
From the Rebbe’s explanation:
– The text of the prayer that follows the beating of the aravah says that through the striking “there shall be five ‘sweetened’ severities.” Chassidus explains that sweetening of the severities (which leads to the strengthening of kindness) — is greater than just drawing down kindness. This is the idea noted above: that specifically through a descent do we reach the highest levels.
The first severity to be sweetened is the exile, the greatest of all descents. The greater the descent, the greater the following ascent. After the great descent of exile, we reach the ultimate heights, through which the severities are sweetened. In the future, Jews will say “I give thanks to You, G‑d, that You were angry with me” — meaning that Jews will thank G‑d for the exile, for then they will see the greatness that resulted from it. (From the Rebbe’s talk on Hosha’ana Rabbah, 5744)
5. Festive Meal
A festive meal is eaten in the Sukkah. We dip the bread in honey (as we did in each festive meal since Rosh Hashanah) for the last time. Today is also the last day of this year on which we recite the special blessing for eating in the sukkah. The next holiday coming up tonight (22 Tishrey) is Shmini Atzeret / Simchat Torah.