What Did the Willows Ever Do to Deserve Such a Beating?
An Original Explanation for a Perplexing Custom
By Steven Weiner
Steven had the privilege and good fortune of learning from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l and Rav Yaakov Meidan Shlit"a at Yeshivat Har Etzion (1982-83) and prior to that from Rav Yisroel Mendel Kaplan ztz"l and other Rabbeim at the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. He is currently working on a series of essays on the theme of Shivat Tzion and its contemporary resonance.
The seventh day of Sukkot – the day we now call הושענא רבה – has no special significance in the Torah. The day has no distinctive name; no mitzvot or rules distinguish it from the rest of Sukkot; its sacrifices follow precisely the same pattern as the previous six days; and, unlike the seventh day of Pesach, the seventh day of Sukkot is not even a מקרא קדש. In other words, the seventh day of Sukkot appears in the Torah as indistinguishable from the other days of המועד חול.
Nevertheless, the Talmud describes several unique practices that were performed on הושענא רבה. One such practice is the custom we still observe today known as חיבוט ערבות (chibut aravot), beating our ערבות against the ground. What is the meaning of this strange ritual, and does it have any meaningful relationship with הושענא רבה?
In this article, we suggest an original answer grounded in a deep connection between the curious practice of beating ערבות and the teachings of the final נביאים who were active during the early days of the Second Temple, also known as the period of שיבת ציון.
A most mysterious מנהג נביאים
According to the Mishna (Sukka 4:5), on each day of Sukkot the people brought tall ערבות branches to the מקדש and stood them on the ground surrounding the מזבח, thereby adorning the מזבח with an overhanging canopy of leaves. The Gemara (Sukka 44a-44b) concludes that this practice is rooted in a הלכה למשה מסיני (an oral tradition received at Sinai). However, while the Mishna describes only a ritual performed inside the מקדש, the Gemara adds that a custom involving ערבות also developed later outside of the מקדש – but only on one day of Sukkot, הושענא רבה. The Gemara describes this custom using the verb חיבוט – understood by Rashi as waving the ערבות, and by Rambam as beating them e.g. against the floor. The familiar custom nowadays is to take a bundle of ערבות on הושענא רבה and strike it sharply, several times, against the floor or a chair.
What is the source and meaning of חיבוט ערבות outside the מקדש? The Gemara (Sukka 44b) calls this practice a מנהג נביאים (“custom of the prophets”). Rashi and other traditional commentators understand this as meaning that the custom was instituted by the trio of prophetsחגי זכרי' ומלאכי , who prophesied during the early Second Temple period and were members of אנשי כנסת הגדולה. However, barely one page earlier (44a), the Gemara indicates חיבוט ערבות is a זכר למקדש! Indeed, Rambam and numerous other subsequent authorities who discuss the practice of חיבוט ערבות echo the Gemara on both counts, dubbing the practice a זכר למקדש as well as a מנהג נביאים. But performing a זכר למקדש is an act of דרישת ציון, a response to Yirmiyahu’s cry that poor Zion lies destroyed and abandoned with none seeking her. How could a זכר למקדש in the spirit of דרישת ציון possibly make sense in the earliest days of the Second Temple, centuries before its destruction?
Furthermore, why does the Gemara ascribe this custom specifically to the prophets? The intriguing term מנהג נביאים is not used elsewhere in the Talmud. While many familiar practices are known as enactments of אנשי כנסת הגדולה (the Rabbinic authority during שיבת ציון, whose members included חגי זכריה ומלאכי as well as other leading scholars of that period), they are not labeled as מנהג נביאים. What significance is to be found in the Talmud’s attribution of חיבוט ערבות specifically to the prophets of the early Second Temple?
In addition, the peculiar way we perform this custom – beating ערבות against the ground – also cries out for explanation. What does beating branches symbolize? Moreover, if the custom is intended to remind us of the ערבות ceremony inside the מקדש, shouldn’t we instead encircle and adorn the שלחן with our ערבות, just as the מזבח was encircled and adorned with ערבות in the מקדש? After all, we commemorate the practice of הקפות in the מקדש (Mishna Sukka 4:5) by marching around the שלחן in very similar fashion. Why then do we commemorate a ceremony of adorning the מזבח by beating our ערבות against the ground?
A well-known Kabbalistic explanation views חיבוט ערבות as a rite of atonement, and interprets הושענא רבה as a day of final judgment and forgiveness. Beating the branches symbolizes, and mystically brings about, a sweetening of the Divine attribute of justice. While a mystical interpretation is certainly possible, the Talmud never mentions judgment or atonement regarding חיבוט ערבות or הושענא רבה. For those of us who might prefer a less esoteric alternative, I wish to propose an explanation for חיבוט ערבות that is grounded in Biblical sources, and which also helps to resolve the puzzle of exactly how and why a זכר למקדש was initiated as a מנהג נביאים in the early days of שיבת ציון. I am not sure that difficulty is tackled by the Kabbalistic approach.
Others have suggested that חיבוט ערבות represents a prayer for rain, the sound of beating ערבות evoking the sounds and sights of a rainstorm. This seems plausible, as the Talmud and Midrash indicate that arba minim and other practices of Sukkot are in part connected to our prayers for rain, which begin at this time of year. However, once again this explanation fails to shed light on why the custom was initiated specifically by the prophets of שיבת ציון, or how we can possibly reconcile the seemingly self-contradictory, dual status of מנהג נביאים and זכר למקדש.
Affirming a powerful prophecy by acting it out
I believe the key to unlocking the significance of חיבוט ערבות may be found by examining the visions proclaimed by the prophets of שיבת ציון.
The Second Temple was built in a climate of intensely mixed emotions. The austere structure of שיבת ציון paled against the splendid, opulent בית ראשון constructed by Solomon. Celebrating their first Sukkot shortly after rebuilding the מזבח, the people of Ezra’s time offered the obligatory holiday offerings בְּמִסְפָּר כְּמִשְׁפַּט דְּבַר־יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ – “by number, according to the obligation of each day.” In contrast, Solomon offered such bountiful sacrifices for the inauguration of בית ראשון that the capacity of the מזבח was overwhelmed and more space had to be specially consecrated! Moreover, בית ראשון was graced with a visible appearance of God’s presence, ‘ה כְּבוֹד, with clouds filling the Temple upon its dedication, just as occurred in the original משכן. No comparable revelation is reported for בית שני. Accordingly, elders who remembered the magnificent First Temple wept loudly over the Second Temple’s modest foundations, and the inaugural ceremony was accompanied by a heart-rending mixture of tears and rejoicing (Ezra 3:12-13). To make matters even worse, Persia soon suspended further rebuilding of the Temple in response to slander against the Jews by their envious, non-Jewish neighbors (see Ezra 4).
Against this painful backdrop, the prophet חגי received a stirring vision on the 21st day of Tishrei – i.e. on הושענא רבה, the same date when Solomon had concluded his spectacular חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ for the First Temple centuries earlier:
חגי פרק ב
(א) בַּשְּׁבִיעִי בְּעֶשְׂרִים וְאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הָיָה דְּבַר־יְקֹוָק בְּיַד־חַגַּי הַנָּבִיא לֵאמֹר:
In a powerful message of hope and encouragement, God first acknowledged that the Jewish people were demoralized by the humble stature of בית שני (“it is nothing in your eyes”) in comparison to the glorious Temple and kingdom of Solomon:
(ג) מִי בָכֶם הַנִּשְׁאָר אֲשֶׁר רָאָה אֶת־הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה בִּכְבוֹדוֹ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וּמָה אַתֶּם רֹאִים אֹתוֹ עַתָּה? הֲלוֹא כָמֹהוּ כְּאַיִן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם:
Nevertheless, God urged the people and their leaders to strengthen themselves and take action (continue rebuilding), mindful that He is with them. God declared that in but a moment He could shake (מַרְעִישׁ) the heavens and the earth, overturn (וְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי) powerful empires and deliver their wealth to Israel, and “fill this house with כָּבוֹד.” The כָּבוֹד of the new Temple could then exceed even the כָּבוֹד of the First Temple, in both material wealth and Divine presence:
(ד) וְעַתָּה חֲזַק זְרֻבָּבֶל נְאֻם־יְקֹוָק, וַחֲזַק יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן־יְהוֹצָדָק הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, וַחֲזַק כָּל־עַם הָאָרֶץ נְאֻם־יְקֹוָק, וַעֲשׂוּ – כִּי־אֲנִי אִתְּכֶם, נְאֻם יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת:
(ה) אֶת־הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר־כָּרַתִּי אִתְּכֶם בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם וְרוּחִי עֹמֶדֶת בְּתוֹכְכֶם אַל־תִּירָאוּ:
(ו) כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת: עוֹד אַחַת מְעַט הִיא, וַאֲנִי מַרְעִישׁ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת־הַיָּם וְאֶת־הֶחָרָבָה:
(ז) וְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי אֶת־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם וּבָאוּ חֶמְדַּת כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם וּמִלֵּאתִי אֶת־הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה כָּבוֹד אָמַר יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת:
(ט) גָּדוֹל יִהְיֶה כְּבוֹד הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה הָאַחֲרוֹן מִן־הָרִאשׁוֹן אָמַר יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת וּבַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֶתֵּן שָׁלוֹם נְאֻם יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת:
I suggest our מנהג נביאים of beating ערבות has its roots in this prophecy. When חגי received these powerful words, cutting to the heart of the difficult challenges that he and his generation faced, he responded by acting out his own prophecy – וְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי /אֲנִי מַרְעִישׁ, “God will shake the heavens and the earth” – by striking the earth sharply with a bundle of ערבות. Using ערבות poignantly evoked the similar branches that were used on that same day by the people within the מקדש to encircle and celebrate their modest, fragile מזבח.
Prophets in the Bible often acted out the imagery of their prophecies, as a way of affirming and reinforcing their visions. Ramban notes this phenomenon in his commentary to the Torah (Breisheet 12:6). One famous example is even highly reminiscent of חיבוט ערבות: Elisha instructed the King of Israel to bang arrows on the ground, in order to affirm Elisha’s prophecy that Israel would smite and defeat its enemy (Melachim II 13:16-17). It is easy to picture חגי following in Elisha’s path and striking the ground with ערבות in place of arrows, as an affirmation of his own prophecy ofוְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי /מַרְעִישׁ and as a prayer to God that it be completely and speedily fulfilled.
Thus, חיבוט ערבות was from its very inception both מנהג נביאים and זכר למקדש – a זכר למקדש ראשון!! Our puzzle is solved! חגי and his colleagues performed חיבוט ערבות in the purest spirit of דרישת ציון. Their ritual expressed a heartfelt plea for the redemptive upheaval (רעש) that they envisioned, so that the full glory of בית ראשון could be restored and exceeded. At the same time, the custom also served as a reminder of God’s command to חגי that we strengthen ourselves and act courageously in fulfillment of God’s mandate to continue rebuilding.
Although בית שני was eventually completed, the longed-for glory of Solomon’s era remained elusive. Judea was a vassal state for most of the Second Temple period. God’s presence (שכינה) was not manifest in בית שני, at least in comparison with בית ראשון. Therefore, it makes sense that חגי and his colleagues, and eventually all Jews, would annually repeat the custom of חיבוט ערבות outside the מקדש on הושענא רבה, affirming the yearned-for prophecy on its anniversary. To this day, in the prayer we recite just before חיבוט ערבות – known as (“"קול מבשר) אומץ ישעך – we plead for complete and imminent redemption by evoking “sounds” of deliverance including the earth-shaking upheaval around Jerusalem foretold by זכרי' , close colleague of חגי. Like the original prophecy of חגי, and much like אני מאמין, our custom of beating ערבות expresses both a prayer to God for redemption as well as an uplifting pledge of faith and determination.
Our novel interpretation also explains why the custom of חיבוט ערבות outside the מקדש is unique to הושענא רבה. The Gemara (Sukka 44a) explains why חיבוט ערבות is performed on only one day of Sukkot, as opposed to all seven days, but never explains the choice of which day. According to our explanation, the prophecy of חגי is naturally reenacted and reaffirmed on its anniversary. Intriguingly, Taz suggests חיבוט ערבות is performed on הושענא רבה because of its unique holiness: יותר קדושה ביום זה. Our proposal offers one way of interpreting that special holiness. הושענא רבה, the anniversary of בבית ראשון חנכת המזבח and of נבואת חגי, is a day of yearning for full redemption and the imminence of God’s presence – precisely the theme expressed by חיבוט ערבות.
Counterpoint: who dares scorn the day of small beginnings?
While beating ערבות outside of the מקדש expressed a deep longing for more completion redemption, adorning the מזבח with a beautiful canopy of ערבות sounded a complementary note inside the מקדש. I believe this latter practice acquired particular poignancy during the Second Temple period, precisely because nagging feelings of disappointment over the limited “glory” of that redemption were so palpable from the very start. As cited above from Ezra 3, tears threatened to drown out the shouts of joy heralding the inauguration of the Second Temple. Likewise, חגי in his הושענא רבה prophecy hears God say: “Who among you remembers the glory of the First Temple, and what do you think of this house now? It is nothing in your eyes!”
In the prophecy of חגי, God’s primary response to these feelings of disappointment is a promise that the future can be brighter if the people will only be strong and act with courage and faith. However, in 4:10 זכרי', we hear a somewhat different response: כִּי מִי בַז לְיוֹם קְטַנּוֹת? – Who scorns the day of small things? I sense a sharp tone of rebuke in the word “scorn”: Who dares to scorn the גאולה of שיבת ציון simply because it appears “small” and modest compared to Solomon’s empire? Shouldn’t the people be grateful for even the smallest beginnings of גאולה? Perhaps חגי 2:3 contains a hint of the same rebuke: is the nascent בית שני really nothing in your eyes?
I suggest that for the Jews of the Second Temple, adorning the מזבח with ערבות became a deeply meaningful way of expressing gratitude and appreciation for the redemption they enjoyed, imperfect as it was. The ceremony became a way of saying: we will never scorn you, oh מזבח, you are precious to us! In fact, the Mishna (Sukka 4:5) records that when the ceremonies in the מקדש were completed on הושענא רבה, the people shouted: יופי לך מזבח, יופי לך מזבח (“beauty is yours, מזבח”). The reason for this charming salute to the altar is not discussed in the Talmud, and several commentaries have commented on it. Personally, I cannot help but hear an unmistakable echo of the “cheers of ‘Beauty! Beauty!’” foretold in 4:7 זכרי':
מִי־אַתָּה הַר־הַגָּדוֹל לִפְנֵי זְרֻבָּבֶל לְמִישֹׁר וְהוֹצִיא אֶת־הָאֶבֶן הָרֹאשָׁה תְּשֻׁאוֹת חֵן חֵן לָהּ:
Whatever great mountain [obstacle] lies before Zerubavel –will be flattened! He will present the cornerstone amid cheers of “beauty, beauty!”
This vision of זכרי' is adjacent to his rebuke against those who scorn the day of small things. The prophet’s message is that when the cornerstone of the new Temple is placed, the proper response is joyous applause of “beauty, beauty!” Do not dare to be so ungrateful as to scorn the modest beginnings of our new מקדש, thunders זכרי'! I suggest that for the people of בית שני, the ערבות ceremony around the מזבח was an opportunity to align themselves with those who gratefully cheered the cornerstone, and to distance themselves from any thoughts of scorn.
Our novel interpretation of the ערבות ceremony in the מקדש is further supported by the Gemara’s citation (Sukka 45a) of Tehilim 118:27 – אִסְרוּ־חַג בַּעֲבֹתִים עַד־קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ – as a source for encircling the מזבח with a canopy of ערבות.
In this section of Tehilim, familiar to us from Hallel, just a few verses earlier (118:22) we read:
אֶבֶן מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים הָיְתָה לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה
The lowly stone once scorned by many is now the celebrated cornerstone! This echoes the message and “stone” imagery of זכרי' that we read above. As Tehilim 118 continues, we rejoice in this remarkable gift from God (23-24), we bless those who come paying respects to the מקדש (26), and we gratefully salute the מזבח by encircling it with leafy boughs (27). The Gemara’s citation of this excerpt from Tehilim as a source for adorning the מזבח makes perfect sense.
A Message for Our Own Era
We have suggested a new interpretation for the mysterious custom of חיבוט ערבות, attributed by the Gemara to the prophets of שיבת ציון. We suggest the custom arose from confrontation with the incomplete redemption of the Second Temple era. The seemingly bizarre ritual of shaking branches and striking the ground expressed profound longing for (and faith in) a more perfect גאולה, by vividly acting out the vision of חגי that one day God will bring a fully redemptive “upheaval” when His presence returns to “shake” the earth and overthrow all oppressors. This same theme is emphasized even today on הושענא רבה in our prayers accompanying חיבוט ערבות.
At the same time, we have also suggested that the related practice of adorning the מזבח with a beautiful canopy of boughs and shouting יופי לך מזבח expressed a complementary sense of gratitude. Even as the people of בית שני pined for complete redemption, they acknowledged the partial, beautiful redemption which they had merited to receive, and did not dare scorn it.
How fortunate are we in contemporary times, two thousand years after the Second Temple’s destruction, that while still yearning for שלמה גאולה, we can once again also express gratitude for an imperfect but precious redemption already granted us. Indeed today’s Jerusalem and Israel are beautiful gifts – יופי לך – as well as a work-in-progress. As we continue to beat our branches against the earth crying out for the קול מבשר heralding our ultimate redemption, and committing ourselves to the national project of rebuilding (materially and spiritually), we dare not forget to appreciate the remarkable gifts God has already bestowed upon us.
 It is evident from the Gemara’s complicated discussion on Sukka 43b-44a, and is universally accepted by all subsequent authorities, that חיבוט ערבות outside the מקדש is performed only on הושענא רבה.
 One might attempt to answer that חיבוט ערבות was originally a מנהג נביאים, but after המקדש חורבן it became instead, or in addition, a זכר למקדש. See Tosafot Yom Tov (Sukka 4:5), the only source I have seen so far who addresses this apparent contradiction between מנהג נביאים and זכר למקדש. But this answer seems problematic. Following Gemara Sukkah 44b, all of the major poskim rule that we recite no blessing on חיבוט ערבות precisely because it is a mere custom, a מנהג נביאים. But if the practice was converted after the חורבן into a זכר למקדש, then why shouldn’t it warrant a blessing, just like holding arba minim after the first day of Sukkot זכר למקדש? Evidently then, even the זכר למקדש aspect of חיבוט ערבות itself only has the authority of a מנהג נביאים, which leaves our question unanswered.
 This question is strongest according to Rambam and others who understand חיבוט as banging against a surface, as is our common practice nowadays. According to Rashi, who interprets חיבוט as a synonym for waving or shaking, the ritual would not stand out as so unusual per se.
 Zohar parshat Tzav (end of 31b); see also Ramban on Bamidbar 14:9.
 E.g. Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, in The Jewish Religion: A Companion, reprinted here.
 Compare Ezra 3:4 versus Melachim I 8:63-64 and Divrei HaYamim II 7:5, 7.
 Melachim I 8:10-11, Divrei HaYamim II 7:1-3, Exodus 40:34-35.
 Compare Melachim I 8:11 and Divrei HaYamim II 7:1-2 (כִּי־מָלֵא כְבוֹד־יְקֹוָק אֶת־בֵּית יְקֹוָק).
 The same verb רעש – upheaval, literally shaking the earth – also appears prominently in the visions of final redemption recorded by זכרי' (contemporary of חגי) and יחזקאל (slightly earlier, during the Babylonian exile), traditionally read as haftarot during Sukkot.
 There is also Midrashic precedent for the notion that shaking the branches of ארבע מינים symbolizes the overthrow of our enemies and the redemption of Israel. See ספר הרוקח, in the attached source sheets.
 Yoma 21b. See also Yoma 9b: because the Jews of that era did not return to Israel en mass “like a wall”, and instead mustered only a relatively weak return, God’s presence likewise returned only to a limited extent.
 Admittedly, the choice of הושענא רבה might be arbitrary: might as well pick the last day, if we must pick one. Compare Sukka 43a, explaining why ערבה was taken in the מקדש on הושענא רבה even on Shabbat. Essentially, the Gemara explains that הושענא רבה was selected by Chazal for this purpose not necessarily due to its inherent special character, but perhaps simply because it happens to be “the last day.” Beit Yosef and Bach (O.C. 664) both suggest explaining the assignment of חיבוט ערבות to הושענא רבה in a similar manner. However, it is more satisfying to find an underlying connection between the day and its practices, if we can.
 Taz O.C. 664 note 2; cited by Mishna Berura in note 11. Taz also connects the special holiness of הושענא רבה to the performance of seven הקפות in the מקדש; we hope and intend בעזרת ה' to explore the meaning of הקפות in a separate, companion essay.
 The precise origin of adorning the מזבח with a tall canopy of ערבות is unclear. I am not aware of any indication that it was an essential part of the original הלכה למשה מסיני of holding extra ערבות in the מקדש. However, for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter if the practice originated during the Second Temple era, or if it was initiated earlier and simply took on additional meaning later.
 See Aruch Le-Ner (Sukka 45a); Tiferet Yisrael in הלכתא גבירתא on Mishna Sukka chapter 4.