Communal Customs


In this section we trace some of the interesting aspects of festivities held on Sukkot both in Israel and the Diaspora. In addition we shall search out the message of the final days of Shmini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly) and Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law). Some of the customs are referred to in detail in sections and will, of course, not be repeated here.

Ecclesiastes: The Book of the Festival

This controversial Biblical book was selected for reading on the intermediate Sabbath of the Festival of Sukkot.

Ecclesiastes is neither the passionate plea for faith nor the stormy disavowal of belief and resignation. It is a mixture of faith and denial, of hope and despair, of darkness and light, of joy and sadness and of life and death.

Ecclesiastes was written by an author who desired to play the part of an instructor. He has his fellow-men before him, and feels that he has a lesson to convey to them.

He is not a mere debater establishing opinions only to demolish them; here is the practical philosophy of a man who realises that there are two sides or two contrasting facets of life -- the existence of good and evil, the materialism and the spiritual grandeur of human life, the alternating moods of man himself -- his inclination to follow the vanities and the follies for the pleasure they may bring and the other mood of choosing the moral and noble pursuits of life.

We detect the swing of the pendulum in the writer himself in his conflicting moods -- the optimist and then the pessimist, the moralist and the bon viveur. The book reflects the constant friction between the two inclinations, the good and the bad in their battleground which is man himself. Although the mood varies, his verdict or judgment is stable. He attempts to inculcate a spirit of equanimity and to show that there is good even in things evil and, on the other hand, the drawbacks incident to those things which men covet most.

The Festival of Sukkot is surely the most appropriate period of the Calendar for the reading of a book of such extreme contradictions. It is the Festival which occurs at a time of material abundance, and at the same time is the Festival of deep spiritual experience. The Jew sees around him plenty and might imagine himself self-sufficient, when he is summoned to the Sukkah and peering through the scant covering above him, gazes at the heavens and contemplates his dependence upon God.

The Hoshanot

In the traditional service for Sukkot today, we include the reenactment of an ancient ceremony. The congregation, holding the four species in hand, move around the central platform and chant prayers called Hoshanot.

This custom dates back to Temple times when a similar procession took place around the altar and prayers of praise (Hallel) were sung by the people in addition to the Hoshanot which chiefly refer to the redemption of Israel.


At the end of every seven years the people of Israel were called together

"that they may hear and that they may learn"

during the Festival of Sukkot. This occasion, which was exploited to read the book of Deuteronomy, must have been a people's Festival in all its aspects.

In later days, the task of reading the law in public devolved upon the king. He would read it with great solemnity to the trumpet call of the priests in the presence of the great leaders of the State.

Maimonides suggests that this festival took place on the second day of Sukkot. The ceremony, like several others we have noted, was tied specifically to the Land of Israel. It could only be observed, the Mishna tells us, when Israel dwelt securely in its Land. During the exile, therefore, it was discontinued but in recent times with the re-birth of the Jewish State, it was decided to re-introduce the Hakhel celebration.

The celebrations are held on Sukkot after the conclusion of the Sabbatical Year, the Shmittah, when land has lain fallow, and the first took place in modern Israel in 1952. As 5754 is also a Shmittah year, there will be a Hakhel ceremony led by the President of Israel this Sukkot (5755). The custom is to hold it in the esplanade in front of the KOTEL (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Hoshanah Rabbah - " The Day of the Willow Branch"

This is the name of the seventh day of the festival, so-called because of the special Hoshana prayers which are recited (also see our discussion on the willows in the article on the Four Species).

During the traditional religious ceremonies attached to the day, seven circuits of the congregation around the central platform in the synagogue are followed by striking of willow leaves.

This custom follows similar ceremonies of ancient times: the hoshanah prayers that accompany the circuits recall the praises of Jerusalem and the redemption of Israel.

The custom of beating the willow leaves, a later instigation, symbolised faith in the continuing nature-cycle of rebirth after the year's produce was brought in.

For some, the striking of the leaves echoes the solemn nature that has also been invested in Hoshanah Rabbah:

the broken willow leaves are symbolic of man's sins that are cast off on what was considered to be the last and final day of judgment when the decision on high, sealed on the Day of Atonement, was confirmed.

The willow twigs, the hoshanot, are bound up with an important chapter of the Jewish past.

Thanks to them one of the most beautiful pages in our history has been written. In the Babylonian captivity, after the destruction of the First Temple, when we had been driven out of our land and were forced to a life of homeless wanderers in Galut (Exile), along the riverbanks of our oppressors, the Babylonians, we hung our harps upon the willows while our hearts mutely wept for the loss of our homeland, Zion.

Not upon flower plants did we hang our instruments of joy; not upon tall trees did we place our hopes, but upon these poor, humble willows:

"Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps."

(Psalms 137.2)

These plain willows that grow on the river's edge at the foot of the hills; these willows that are so mercilessly trampled upon, bring to the aching soul of the Jew more comfort than do the tall oaks that rear their haughty heads . . . .

And so, when our fathers had to raise money, they would take an armful of willow twigs and make their house-to-house rounds.

The hoshanot made it possible to render aid on Hoshana Rabbah.


The materials in this file have been adapted from the "SUCCOT" folder written and produced by the former Publications Division of the Youth and Hechalutz Department, WZO



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08 Jun 2005 / 1 Sivan 5765 0