Beating the Willows
During Sukkot, there is a mitzvah to wave the four species (lulav, hadassim, aravot and etrog - palm, myrtle, willow and citron) every day except on Shabbat. In addition to this mitzvah, the four species are grasped together while special prayers are recited as congregants march around the Bimah (central platform) of the synagogue during the daily Sukkot Hoshanot service and during Hallel (with the exception of Shabbat). On the seventh and final day of Sukkot, the day known as Hoshana Rabbah, there is an additional ceremony performed known as the Beating of the Willows.
The history of this mitzvah is less clear than the other mitzvot of Sukkot, but its performance is described in the Talmud (Tractate Sukkot 44a). Actually, it is written therein that “the [beating of] the willow branch and the water libation [ceremony] were given to Moses at Mount Sinai.” The fact that the ceremony continued after the destruction of the Temple and outside the land of Israel is considered to be of Prophetic origin.
The performance of the seven hakafot (circles around the bimah) and the beating of the willows is universal, whether one is Ashkenazi or Sephardi – although there are different customs as to when in the service they are performed. Following the hakafot of the hoshanot, a bundle (although a single branch may be used) of willow branches* is taken and beaten five times on the floor.
Because the origins of this ceremony are so cryptic, the meaning of beating the willow branches is the source of great conjecture, ranging from a connection to the Sukkot prayers for rain to an association with humility.
*The bunch of willow branches is also referred to as hoshanot.
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