Afinkle221's Blog

Sukkot (Feat of Tabernacles): Shofar

Posted in Uncategorized by afinkle221 on October 13, 2011

Arthur L. Finkle

In reading the tractate Succah, both Palestinian and Babylonian, we come across some fascinating social history regarding the role of the shofar in the ceremonies of the Holy Temple.
We learn that part of the Succot ceremony is celebrated today insofar as dwelling in the sukkah and handling the lulav (palm branch), etrog (related to the lemon and indigenous to Israel), myrtle branch and water willow branch (Arava).
Two important ceremonies, however, were not carried over from the rites of the Holy Temple on Succot: the Aravot Ceremony and the Water Libation Ceremony.
In this article, we will discuss the Water Willow Dance, performed on the seventh day of Succos. This ceremony eventually was transformed by the Rabbi’s into Hoshana Rabba on the same day of Succos.
Water Libation Ceremony
The Water Libation Ceremony was performed each day of Succos. The rationale teaches the Jewish people to bring water before Him on Succot, petitioning for adequate rains, paramount to the success of an agricultural society. (Succah Bavli 37; and RH 16a). Another interpretation from the Midrash (book of ethical stories and interpretations) is that the lower waters were sad when God separated the waters to upper and lower. Their distress was noted by God that the lower waters would be elevated during this season. (Rabbaynu Bachya to Lev 1:13)

The Water Libation ceremony was an elaborate ritual emitting great joy, in fulfilling of Is. 12:3: ”You shall draw water with joy from the wellsprings of salvation.”

The Rabbi’s in Yerush. Succah 31b (Palestinian) give a social history of the role of the shofar in the Holy Temple, with particular emphasis on Succot. Further, the Rabbis agreed that the Water Libation Ceremony is Scriptural) See Bavli Zevachim 110b)

Aravot (Wiollow Branches) Ceremony

The Mishnah (Sukkah 4:5) indicates that the custom was to circle the altar one time on each day of Succos and seven times on the seventh day (similar to Joshua’s circling of Jericho). So too we circle the Bimah one Hoshana each day of Succos and seven Hosannas on the Seventh day.
Jonatan Adler discusses this ceremony as he describes ancient coins which depicted this ceremony. The depiction shows the golden flasgon used to gather the water from the well of Sheloah; a willow branch

“What was the rite of the willow-branch? There was a place below Jerusalem called Motza. The Talmud indicates that Baavli Talmud cites that city to be Kalonia. Because it was tax-exept, the trees were ownerless; thus, there was no taint of theft involved. See Meiri Bavli 45a.

They went down to there, and collected young willow branches, and then came and set them upright along the sides of the altar, with their tops bent over the top of the altar, after which the trumpets made a long blast, a quavering note, and a prolonged blast”. These trumpets were sounded by Kohanim (Priests) See Num. 10:8,9 and Mishnah Succos 5:6.
With reference to what we have learnt, ”’Every day they walked round the altar once, and on that day they went round seven times”‘, your father, citing R. Eleazar, stated: “[This was done] with the lulav (BT Sukkah 43b Soncino translation). This statement was challenged by contemporary sages, who held that the altar was encircled while holding willow-branches, and not the “four species” (ibid.); See also 1. L. Rubenstein:The History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods, Atlanta, 1995, p. 109, who writes: “Most likely the circumambulations were performed with willows – the description says nothing of the lulav but we should not advance solid historical claims where the traditions are silent”. M Sukkah 4: 5, The statement by R. Johanan b. Baroka (M Sukkah 4: 6) regarding the beating of palm fronds should be seen as complementing this tradition (Rubenstein, above, n. 7, p. liS). Jonatan Adler, ,The Temple Willow-Branch Ritual Depicted on Bar Kokhba Denarii, Israel Numismatic Journal, 16 (2007–2008), pp. 129–133

Afred Ederssheom also concurs with the ritual s of this ceremony. Alfred Edersheim,

The Mishnah indicates that, to prepare for the Sabbath restriction of carrying, they gathered the branches the day before and placed on the altar.
The Yerul. Gemara 23b stated Motza was free from taxes. (The, itself, means exempt from taxes.) These branches were 11 amos high (c. 400 ft.) and placed near the altar. The altar was 9-amos.
The Yersul. Talmud, in Succah 24a describes the ritual. The priests, even those with blemishes, performed the Arava ceremony in the Temple, which required them to circle the altar one time for the first six days of Succos and 7-times on the 7-nth day of Succos, in remembrance of the Joshua’s encirclement of Jericho. (Only priests were allowed into the ante-chamber area.)

Because the priests had to enter the Antechamber adjacent to the altar area, the Rabbi’s ruled that for the Arava ceremony, R. Yehuda indicated that priests with blemishes were allowed because such a regulation was Rabbinic in nature and could be changed by the Rabbi’s.

An interesting note is that the Pharisee maintained that priests could enter the Temple cited in the Tractates, Parah, Kipuurim and Succos. The Sadducees opposed this holding. Yersul. Succah 27a.
It should be also noted that, although most trees in ancient Egypt were not considered holy, the willow tree was the primordial tree on which the sun rested in the shape of a bird at the beginning of the world. The Metternich Stela makes a connection between the tr-tree, apparently the willow, and the benu bird.

It was sacred to Osiris and gave shade to his coffin while his soul rested on it in the guise of the phoenix. In some versions of the myth it was the willow which grew around the coffin protecting it, in others it was the persea.

Trees were possibly less important in the Egyptian religion than in others. But some trees had divine connections, being home, birthplace or resting place of some deities. In the temple at Denderah one inscription proclaims: The names of the sacred trees are jS.t, kbs, tr.


The Bavli Succah (45a) discusses the mitzvah of “Arava” (willow branches). It states that during the time of the Beit HaMikdash the priests would go down on Succot to a place called Motza that was below Yerushalayim and there they would cut large willow branches. They would then bring the branches to the Beit HaMikdash and lean them against the side of the altar, with the top part leaning over the top of the altar. They would then blow the shofar in the standard fashion, with one broken sound (teru’ah) preceded and followed by a solid sound (teki’ah).
Although the Rabbi’s disagreed over the exact time this ritual began, they concurred that the Prophets instituted this custom. Thus, it was not likely occurring in the Frist Temple but was in the Second Temple.
The Rabbi’s taught that willows of the brook mean of special type of willow as opposed to the zafzafah which grows in the mountains. (Bavli Talmud, Sukkah 34a)

Accordingly, the Rabbi’s decreed the seventh day of Succos as Hoshana Rabba, the day of many Hosannas (petitions for salvation); the time that the Book of Life and Death are finally sealed.

Although trees in Egyptian culture did not have extraordinary significance, it should be noted that the Willow tree in Egypt, a primordial tree on which the sun rested in the shape of a bird at the beginning of the world. The Metternich Stela makes a connection between the tr-tree, apparently the willow, and the benu bird:
It was sacred to Osiris and gave shade to his coffin while his soul rested on it in the guise of the phoenix . In some versions of the myth it was the willow which grew around the coffin protecting it.

It should also be note that Bavli Succos, 54b, 55a provides that the shofar is sounded 48 times each day.

Water: Special Significance
Why was a special offering of the water willows brought on the last day of Succos?
The Talmud (Bavli, Rosh Hashana 16a) writes that as the world is judged for water on Succot, we bring a water offering so that the rains for the coming year should be blessed. Water was the lifeblood of the Israeli agricultural society. Petitioning adequate water was a prayer to further one’s livelihood.
Another reason is that the holiday of the harvest moon (on which Succot begins) occurs five days after Yom Kippur in the harvest season. During the harvest season, a person may become haughty and forget God. The Rabbi’s reflect that haughtiness affects not only farmers, of course. The wise may take credit for their knowledge and those of fine character may take credit for their graces. The bottom line is that all we get, whether it be money, wisdom, or respect, comes from God

The Succos 4:5 indicates that the shofar blew three times (tekiah, teruah and tekiah) right before the priests circled the altar. Again the shofar was featured to draw attention to an important festival.
The Rishonim Sages from the 11th through 16th centuries) explain that the reason that this is specifically done on the seventh day of Succos is as follows: Succos is the Day of Judgment for water. This means rain and, in a broader sense, all livelihood. We therefore add special prayers to ask for a good year. The Gemara records a dispute as to whether this is a prophetically ordained custom or not, but we do know that it traces back to the Holy Temple.
Transition of Water Willow Dance to Hoshana Rabba
The name for this holiday probably comes from Psalm 118:25. Hoshana means to save. This is the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles. It comes one day before Shimini Atzeret. It is usually observed on the 21st day of the Hebrew month Tishri. It is also called “the great Hosanna.”
• This practice in the Temple serves as the basis for our modern custom of Hosannas. As reported by The TUR (14th century German-Spanish Legalist, in Orech Chaim 660), we circle the bema once a day with a Torah being taken to the bema (a practice based on the Yalkut Tehillim) and thus serving as the focal point and in place of the altar. We also bring a Torah to the middle since during the time of the Holy Temple the marchers would recite the name of God while walking, and we have a tradition that the entire Torah is made up of various names of God. According to the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud), our current practice reflects not only what was done during the time of the Temple, but also is meant to mimic the siege and conquering of Jericho in the time of Joshua, when they circled the city once a day for six days and seven times on the final day, causing the walls to come tumbling down (Joshua 6).

R. Joseph Caro (compiler of the Code of Jewish Law, 1565) notes that on Hoshana Rabba (seventh day of Succos), even a person who does not have the four species (palm branch, myrtle, water willow and etrog) should take part in the seven laps around the Torah. His rationale is that since there is a special remembrance of what was done in the Temple – see Succah 41a for more on this concept). The common practice is that a person who does not have the four species never takes part in the walking around the bima.

Rav Feinstein (mid-20th century) also notes that there is a custom to recite the Hosannas after Additional Service where in the Temple there was an additional sacrifice on special days, including the festivals. He gives a simple reason for this order – since one is obligated to read from the Torah and say the additional service, but the Hosannas are simply a custom, it is logical that obligations should precede customs.

The Bach (1586-1657 ) offers a second reason. The Mishnah concludes that after the Hosannas on Hoshana Rabba everyone would leave for home while praising the altar. The implication is that the Hosannas were the last thing done in the Holy Temple before people departed, and thus we also make them the end of our services every day before departing for home.

The Order of the Hoshana Rabba Service

The Night

The Mogen Avrohom records that the custom was to stay awake on the night of Hoshana Rabba. Commentators indicate that we read the eno9re Torah, Deuteronomy (as a review of the other 4-books) and the Psalms. (The Avudraham; R. Isaac Luria, (Arizal)

The Morning

The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) cites a custom brings a Mintage to loosen the bindings of the Lulav so that the water willow is freed.
The congregants circle the Bimah seven times instead of the usual one. In some congregations they blow the Shofar after each circuit.
Hoshana Rabba is the Hebrew name given to the last and greatest day of Hag HaSuccos, the Feast of Tabernacles. Due to the mechanics of the calendar, …

Hoshana Rabba became recognized as an official judgment day in modern Judaism when the Zohar (13th century Kabala) declared it. During the worship service it is common to see congregations march around their worship room seven times (similar to Joshua marching around Jericho). Psalm 118 is chanted and when verse 25 is sung, and after the seventh cycle around the room, the worshipers take the willow branches that they have been carrying and strike the ground with them until the leaves fall off. This is symbolic of the worshiper beating their sins away. Sometimes these palm branches are saved and used to build a fire to burn bread just before Passover.

Conclusory Observations

We have found the rhythm of the Jewish Fall holidays from Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succos as series of vitally important holidays to the pulse of the Israelite in the days of the Holy Temple. Rosh Hashana began the religious year. Yom Kippur was the Day of Atonement not only for individual but also communal sins. Succos was the fall festival of paramount importance in the agricultural society.
We also observed the importance of the shofar. Rosh hashana is the festival of the shofar. Yom Kippur sounds the shofar at the end of the service, originally to announce the Jubilee Year. Succos, to petition God for abundant rains and consequent harvest, the shofar was utilized, particularly for the Water Libation Ceremony and the Water Willow Dance.
We also observed the role the synagogue has replaced the Holy Temple as mean for worship. No longer do we make animal and meal sacrifices. We have kept the intent of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And we have spiritualized the festival of Succos to one of petition for our agricultural needs, to one of remembrance and thanksgiving. Further, Hoshana Rabba celebrates the closing of the book of accounting.