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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Hibut Arava: An imitative threshing ritual?

Beating willow branches into the ground on Hoshana Rabba (חיבוט ערבה) is a mysterious ritual on an unusual festival-within-a-festival. We should therefore not be surprised to find a wide variety of interpretations for the practice and that they tend to be esoteric or strained.

“Brook willows” are one of four biblically mandated species for Sukkot, but taking a separate willow branch on the holiday is nowhere mentioned in the Torah. However, the Mishna and Talmud speak of a separate mitzvah, with nearly biblical halakhic status, to be performed with the willow.  The rabbis describe an elaborate Temple ritual in which the priests carried tall willow branches around the altar while they blew shofars and recited prayers from Hallel. The willow bearers circled the altar once each day and seven times on the seventh day. After the destruction of the Temple, the willow ceremony is commemorated on Sukkot by circling the bima with the Lulav and Etrog and reciting Hoshanot hymns, but especially on Hoshana Rabba, when the bima is circled seven times and, at some point during the service, a separate set of willow branches is taken.

What should one do with the willows on Hoshana Rabba in post-Temple times? The Talmud uses the word חיבוט -- but it is not entirely clear what the word means in this context.

Rashi interprets חיבוט as נענוע, the same term the rabbis use to describe the waving and shaking of the four species. This is certainly reasonable, as there is nothing explicit in the Talmud to indicate that one should beat the willow on the ground. But Rashi held the minority view on this issue. Maimonides and others took חיבוט to mean beating (though not necessarily on the ground) and this is indeed the most common practice.

The ground-beating tradition is at least as old as the Geonim. In a responsum, Rabbi Tzemah Gaon takes for granted that חיבוט is on the ground and he offers the following two reasons:

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. Building on this simile, Rabbi Tzemah links חיבוט ערבה to atonement, in two possible ways: Either the willow beater symbolically “puts his mouth in the dust” (Lamentations 3:29) which is a sign of expiating sin preemptively for the coming year, or the willow evokes the mouth of Satan, whose slanders will be cast down to the ground and fail (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 uses the expression מכאן ולהלאה. The atonement ritual he describes is forward-looking.)

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 says the entire world is “judged for rainfall.” Nahmanides, Sefer Hasidim, and others refer to the day as יום החתום -- i.e., when divine judgment is finally sealed. According to the Zohar, it is the day on which God delivers פתקין (written notices) to execute the judgments he made on Yom Kippur. 

By the sixteenth century, Lurianic Kabbalah had elevated the importance of חיבוט ערבה to a previously unknown and dramatic level. It was described as a ritual that could impact divinity itself -- i.e., the ten sefirot (emanations or hypostases) of God, a system that is central to the Kabbalah of the Ari. The willow branches symbolize the sefira of gevura (“might” or restraint), which is identified with the divine quality of strict justice. The ground represents malkhut (“kingdom”), the lowest sefira and deeply connected to the Shekhina -- the feminine, maternal form of divinity, and hence a representation of God’s mercy. In Lurianic Kabbalah, gevura includes five aspects corresponding to the five sofit letters, מנצפ״ך. Therefore, according to the halakhic tradition of the Ari, on the final judgment day one must beat exactly five branches five times, no more and no less, and only on the ground, in order to combine -- really to “marry” -- gevura and malkhut and thereby “sweeten” God’s strict justice. This process is spelled out in the yehi ratzon prayer recited following חיבוט ערבה, a text that is found in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic siddurim with minor variations:

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 

This new theurgical interpretation of an ancient practice is typical of Lurianic Kabbalah, in which sacred ritual is said to exert a harmonizing influence on dynamic “intradivine” qualities (Gershom Scholem’s phrase). In fact, this particular explanation combines two of the four recurring themes in Kabbalistic explanations for 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” (the remaining two themes are redemption of the Shekhina from the “other side” and defense against the “other side”). 

Despite the endurance of the Lurianic interpretation, modern students of Jewish ritual appear to be less than fully satisfied. The search for contemporary meaning in the mitzvot has long preoccupied Jewish thinkers, and there remains an active effort to discover new meaning -- ostensibly, the original meaning -- of this ancient practice. A survey of three recently published theories regarding the origins of חיבוט ערבה demonstrates the range of creative possibilities that 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 summoning God’s presence entails great risk to man (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) addressed to the returning exiles who were disappointed by a diminished new Temple. The 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 add religious meaning to the willow beating ritual. But I personally do not find them historically plausible or religiously compelling. And, unlike the explanations of R. Tzemah Gaon and the Ari, I do not believe they sufficiently address willow beating as a function of the major themes of Hoshana Rabba.

I would like to offer my own view on the origins and meaning of חיבוט ערבה. I admit that I lack conclusive evidence -- for now, this will remain a 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: The willow represents water.  And the Hoshanot ceremony, in an ancient agrarian society and even today, is most fundamentally a supplication for rain. As mentioned, there was an ancient rabbinic tradition that 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, a fruitful harvest, and 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. The willow branch not only evokes water -- in some ways it also resembles a stalk of grain. I believe that חיבוט ערבה was originally meant to imitate the threshing of grain, as a sign of -- and a prayer for -- a successful harvest, the final stage in the agricultural cycle. 

A potential piece of supporting evidence may come from the Bible’s usage of the root חבט.  Conjugations of this root appear five times. Four of the five instances refer to threshing grain (e.g., Judges 6:11 - וְגִדְעוֹן בְּנוֹ חֹבֵט חִטִּים בַּגַּת) and the fifth has to do with hitting the branches of an olive tree at the harvest so the olives fall to the ground (Deut. 24:20). The usage of חבט in rabbinic Hebrew does indeed go well beyond the literal sense of threshing. Still, I believe it is the primary usage of the word that was intended in חיבוט ערבה. I do not mean to say, of course, that the original purpose of beating the willow was to strip off its leaves, as though beating the grains out of a stalk of wheat. Rather, that this was an imitative threshing ritual at the start of the rainy season in anticipation of harvesting grain on the threshing floor half a year later.*

We generally observe religious customs simply because they are customary. But despite the genuine religious feelings and the sense of historical continuity and communal fellowship that accompany participation in any religious ritual -- including a mysterious ritual -- it seems to me that we are often left unsatisfied by performing a symbolic act whose symbolism is an inaccessible mystery.  (Imagine, for example, a Passover Seder without the Haggadah's explanation of the symbolic foods -- such a Seder, stripped of its exoteric meaning, would be mysterious rather than symbolic). Whatever your position on rationalizing the biblical commandments, it is difficult to argue 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 mishna.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Really enjoyed learning about something I had never explored - Natan