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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Hibut Arava: An imitative threshing ritual?

The beating of willow branches into the ground on Hoshana Rabba (חיבוט ערבה) is a mysterious ritual on an unusual festival-within-a-festival.  A definitive explanation of its origins and meaning has eluded scholars.  Not surprisingly, then, the custom has given rise to a wide variety of interpretations that tend to be esoteric or strained.

“Brook willows” are one of the four biblically mandated species for Sukkot, but nowhere in the Bible is there a reference to an independent ritual to be performed with a willow branch.  The Mishna and Talmud, however, speak of a separate willow ritual they assign nearly biblical status.

The rabbis describe an elaborate Temple ritual in which the priests carried tall willow branches around the altar while they blew shofars and recited verses from the Hallel prayer.  The willow bearers circled the altar once each day; seven times on the seventh day.  The branches were then leaned upright against the sides of the altar.

After the destruction of the Temple, a somewhat diminished version of the willow ceremony continued in the synagogue.  On each day of Sukkot, worshipers circle the bima (the central platform) once, Lulav and Etrog in hand, while reciting Hoshanot hymns (after the constant refrain of hosha na, or "please save us").  The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba -- the "Great Hoshana Day" -- when congregants make seven revolutions around the bima with the four species.  For the concluding hymns, they replace the Lulav and Etrog with a set of five willow branches.

In post-Temple times, without an altar, what should one do with the willow branches?  The Talmud describes a ritual it calls חיבוט -- a word whose meaning, in this context, is not entirely clear.

Rashi defines חיבוט as נענוע (shaking or waving), the same term the rabbis use to describe the ritual pointing and shaking of the four species in all directions. The analogy is thoroughly reasonable, as there is nothing explicit in the Talmud about beating the branches, either on the ground or anywhere else. But Rashi held the minority view. Maimonides and others took חיבוט to mean beating, though not necessarily on the ground.  This remains the most common practice.

The ground-beating tradition is at least as old as the Geonim. In a responsum, Rabbi Tzemah Gaon takes this type of performance for granted, and offers the following two explanations:

וששאלתם לענין ערבה שחובטין אותה בקרקע, מהו? הכי חזינן דערבה דומה לשפתים והיא באה לכפר עליהם מכאן ולהלאה "יתן בעפר פיהו אולי יש תקוה." ומשמא דקדמונאי אמרו, חביטא אמאי? משום "כל כלי יוצר עליך לא יצלח וכל לשון תקום אתך וגו'" -- משום דעד כאן ביומין אלין השטן מקטרג וישראל ביומין אלין דנפישי מצות מבטלי ליה מכאן ולהלאה כל שפה דיקום עלייהו לא יכול לשלטאה ויהא נפיל בארעא 

The midrash compares each of the four species to a part of the human body.  Willow leaves are said to resemble lips. Drawing on this simile, Rabbi Tzemah links חיבוט ערבה to atonement, in one of two ways: The willow beater symbolically “puts his mouth in the dust” (Lamentations 3:29), a sign of expiating sin, preemptively, for the coming year.  Alternatively, the willow evokes the mouth of Satan, whose slanders against the Children of Israel will be cast down to the ground and fail (see Isaiah 54:17) by virtue of the numerous mitzvot we perform in this season. (Note that R. Tzemah does not speak here of Hoshana Rabba as a day of atonement for the previous year -- in both explanations he describes a prophylactic ritual (מכאן ולהלאה). This is forward-looking atonement.)

Hoshana Rabba took on increasing significance in the medieval period. Kabbalists, especially, viewed the holiday as the culmination of the atonement cycle: It is, after all, the last day of Sukkot, on which the Mishna (Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:2) says the entire world is “judged for rainfall.” Nahmanides, Sefer Hasidim, and others refer to the day as יום החתום -- i.e., when divine reckonings are "sealed" even more permanently than on Yom Kippur.  In the Zohar, it is the day on which God delivers פתקין (written notices) to settle the judgments of Yom Kippur. 

By the sixteenth century, Lurianic Kabbalah had elevated חיבוט ערבה to a previously unknown level, describing it in dramatic theurgical terms (the idea, often related to magic, that human rituals properly performed will influence the divine realm).

The Ari's theology is based on the system of ten divine sefirot (emanations or hypostases of God). In the Lurianic exegesis of willow beating, willow branches symbolize the sefira of gevura (“might” or restraint), associated with the divine quality of strict justice. The ground represents malkhut (“kingdom”), the lowest sefira, deeply connected to the Shekhina -- the feminine, maternal form of divinity and a representation of God’s mercy. Furthermore, Lurianic Kabbalah ascribes five aspects to gevura corresponding to the five sofit letters, מנצפ״ך.

Tying all of these elements together, according to the Lurianic tradition: On the final judgment day of the year, one must take exactly five branches, beat them exactly five times, no more and no less, and only on the ground.  The idea is to unite -- or “marry” -- the sefirot of gevura and malkhut and thereby “sweeten” God’s strict justice.

The interplay here of theology and practice is striking and typical of Lurianic Kabbalah: An ancient, sacred ritual is said to exert a harmonizing influence on dynamic “intradivine” qualities (Gershom Scholem’s phrase).  A completely innovative theurgical narrative generates a set of newly defined halakhic parameters -- for an existing though loosely defined ritual practice -- precisely calibrated to achieve its desired effect. The ritual must conform in every detail to the proscribed procedure (Maimonides, in contrast, codified a relatively amorphous requirement of "one or several branches . . . which are beaten on the ground or on a vessel, two or three times . . .").

This metaphysical process is spelled out in the yehi ratzon prayer recited following חיבוט ערבה, a text that is found with minor variations in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic siddurim:

וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה תִּתֵּן בִּשְׁכִינַת עֻזֶּךָ חָמֵשׁ גְּבוּרוֹת מְמֻתָּקוֹת עַל יְדֵי חֲבִיטַת עֲרָבָה מִנְהַג נְבִיאֶיךָ הַקְּדוֹשִׁים וְתִתְעוֹרֵר הָאַהֲבָה בֵּינֵיהֶם וּתְנַשְּׁקֵנוּ מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיךָ מַמְתֶּקֶת כָּל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְכָל הַדִּינִין וְתָאִיר לִשְׁכִינַת עֻזֶּךָ בְשֵׁם (יו"ד ה"א וא"ו) שֶׁהוּא טַל אוֹרוֹת טַלֶּך 
In fact, this particular explanation combines two of the four recurring themes found in Kabbalistic explanations of the mitzvot and liturgy, as defined by Scholem (see “Tradition and New Creation in the Ritual of the Kabbalists” in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism):

1. Harmony between the rigid powers of judgment and the flowing powers of mercy.
2. The sacred marriage, or conjunctio of the masculine and feminine.
3. Redemption of the Shekhina from its entanglement in the “other side.”
4. Defense against, or mastery over, the “other side.” 

While maintaining strict adherence to tradition, Jewish thinkers have long preoccupied themselves with the pursuit of philosophically relevant meaning in the mitzvot and their related customs.  The project persists to this day, especially when the historical origins of a particular practice are murky and its meaning obscure.

In our case, modern students of Jewish ritual appear to be unsatisfied with the enduring Lurianic narrative.  Like the Ari himself, they bring innovative interpretive approaches to bear on the problem.  A survey of three recently published theories on the origins of חיבוט ערבה demonstrates the range of creative possibilities such a suggestive but cryptic ritual can inspire. 

In a detailed history of the custom, Bradley Shavit Artson weighs various interpretations but concludes that beating the leaves off willow branches ultimately has a technical halakhic purpose, “to disqualify the aravot from any further ritual function.”

Zev Farber argues that circling around the altar during Hoshanot was meant to summon God’s presence to receive our prayers for rain, just as the circuits around Jericho in the Book of Joshua summoned God to destroy the city’s walls. But invoking the divine presence entails great risk to man (see, e.g., the death of Nadav and Avihu). The beating of willows on Hoshana Rabba, he says, has an apotropaic purpose, to “protect the Jews from any negative consequences that might have come with the summoning of God to hear our prayers.”

In another recent attempt at uncovering the origins of this custom, Steven Weiner points to a prophecy of Haggai (chapter 2) addressing the returning exiles who were disappointed by the diminished new Temple in Jerusalem. This prophecy was given on the twenty-first day of Tishrei, which is the permanent date of Hoshana Rabba. Among the notable images in the prophecy is the following: “For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.” After carefully arguing his case, the author concludes that “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.”

These theories are all highly original and they may deepen the intellectual or spiritual appreciation of the practice, but I find them neither historically plausible nor religiously compelling.  Critically, and unlike the explanations of R. Tzemah Gaon and the Ari, I believe none of them sufficiently addresses the ritual as a function of at least one of the major themes of Hoshana Rabba.

My own view on the origins and meaning of חיבוט ערבה lacks conclusive evidence -- for now, it will remain conjecture. Perhaps someone will be inspired to conduct the scholarly heavy lifting that will either confirm or disprove my hypothesis. 

But this much we know: In both Jewish and Greek cultures, the willow represented water.  The Hoshanot ceremony -- in both primitive agrarian and modern societies -- is most fundamentally a supplication for rain and, as mentioned, an ancient rabbinic tradition considered Hoshana Rabba the final day of judgment for the imminent rainy season -- on Shemini Azeret, the very next day, we begin praying for rain on a daily basis. Several piyyutim for Hoshanot petition God for rain, for a fruitful harvest, and for protection from agricultural diseases and crop failure (אדון המושיע; אדם ובהמה; אדמה מארר; למען תמים; תענה אמונים).

Praying for rain at the beginning of winter is essentially equivalent to praying for a bountiful harvest in the coming summer. And, considering the overall appearance of a willow branch, not only does it evoke water, it also resembles a stalk of grain. I believe חיבוט ערבה was originally intended to augur the threshing of grain at the harvest, the final stage in the agricultural cycle. 

Supporting evidence comes from the biblical usage of חבט.  Conjugations of this root appear five times in the Bible: Four of the five instances refer to threshing grain (e.g., Judges 6:11 - וְגִדְעוֹן בְּנוֹ חֹבֵט חִטִּים בַּגַּת); the fifth to harvesting olives by striking their branches (Deut. 24:20). While the usage of חבט in rabbinic Hebrew goes well beyond its literal sense (it became a loan word for hitting something or someone), the word retained its original meaning of threshing grain by hand on the ground, especially in contrast to more efficient techniques.*  It is the primary usage of the word that was intended, I believe, by the institution and linguistic formulation of חיבוט ערבה.  This was an mimetic threshing ritual at the start of the rainy season in anticipation of collecting grain, half a year later, on the threshing floor.

We generally observe religious customs simply because they are customary.  But despite the genuine religious feelings and sense of historical continuity and fellowship that accompany participation in any religious ritual -- including a mysterious ritual -- we are often unsatisfied by a symbolic act whose symbolism is inaccessible.  (Imagine, for example, a Passover Seder without the Haggadah's explanation of the symbolic foods.  Such a Seder, stripped of its exoteric meaning, might be called mysterious rather than symbolic).  Whatever your position on rationalizing the biblical commandments, it would be difficult to make the case that beating the willow on Hoshana Rabba must be accepted as an unintelligible hok (a non-rational decree).

One might even say that for the richest religious experience, “symbols require kavvana.”


*The distinction between חובט -- manual threshing -- and דש, by means of a sledge pulled by an animal, is readily apparent in Mishna Terumot 9:3:

החובט משובח. והדש, כיצד יעשה? תולה קפיפות בצווארי בהמה, ונותן לתוכן מאותו המין; ונמצא לא זומם את הבהמה, ולא מאכיל את התרומה.

I am grateful to my son Yehuda נ״י for pointing me to this reference.