On the festival of Sukkot, we gather “four species” as per the Torah’s command: “And you shall take for yourselves… the fruit of the splendid tree (=etrog) date palm fronds (=lulav), a branch of a braided tree (=hadasim), and willows of the brook (=aravot)” (Lev. 23:40). Then, on Hoshana Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot, it is customary to beat the fourth of these species, i.e., the willow branches, on the ground. The details of this “willow-whacking” custom are shrouded in mystery: the Talmud records that the custom existed in Temple times (Sukkah 44b; see Rashi ad. loc.), but precious little has been written on both the origin and meaning of this custom.
However, the text of the prayer that introduces this ritual does include an instructive reference to the “custom of the prophets.” This phrase would seem to suggest that the ritual was instituted by the “prophets”—or at least, that it is modeled after some practice or ceremony that dates to the era of the prophets. Indeed, in the section of Tanakh known as נביאים ראשונים—“the early prophets”—we do find an episode whose central elements correlate with those of the aravot ritual. Here is the scene, from II Kings 13:
Now Elisha became ill with the illness he was to die of; and Joash the king of Israel went down to him and wept on his face, and said, “My master, my master, Israel’s chariots and riders!” And Elisha said to him, “Fetch a bow and arrows.” And he fetched him a bow and arrows… And he said, “Take the arrows.” And he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike at the ground,” and he struck three times and stopped. And the man of God was incensed against him, and he said, “You should have struck five or six times, then you would strike the Arameans until you would annihilate them completely, but now, you shall strike the Arameans but three times” (II Kings 13:14-19).
In this passage, Elisha the prophet commands Yehoash king of Israel to whack arrows on the ground, as a symbol of the military triumph he will achieve over Aram—a nation that had been oppressing Israel for quite some time. Might this incident provide the basis for the contemporary custom to whack willows on Hoshana Rabbah? Well, consider:
- The ritual of willow-whacking occurs on Hoshana Rabbah, during the prayers of Hoshana (הושע נא=”Save us, please”). The Tanakh identifies Yehoash as the “savior,” מושיע, that Hashem sent to rescue Israel from its oppressors (13:5).
- In describing the relief that Yehoash provided for Israel, the text states: “and they went free from under Aram’s hands, and the children of Israel dwelt in their dwelling places as yesterday and the day before” (ibid). The image of Israel dwelling securely certainly fits nicely with the theme of Sukkot, a holiday dedicated to memorializing the secure dwellings Hashem provided for Israel during their exodus from Egypt.
- The arrow-whacking episode, and Elisha’s subsequent death, occurred “at the beginning of the year,” when bands of raiders would invade Israel after the Israelites finished gathering the harvest of that season (13:20, see Rashi ad. loc.). Sukkot is a harvest festival—“the feast of ingathering, at the turn of the year” (Exod. 34:22)—so our episode likely occurred on, or around, Sukkot.
- Although Yehoash was only able to defeat Aram in three battles, his son, Yeravam, “restored the boundary of Israel until the Sea of the Willows”—that is, ים הערבה (II Kings 14:25).
We do not know with certainty when the willow-whacking ritual originated. Given this data, however, it seems reasonable to conjecture that whoever instituted it did so with the narrative of Elisha and Yehoash in mind.
Perhaps part of the idea here is that we are completing Yehoash’s unfinished business: he whacked the arrows three times, and therefore merited only a partial salvation; we whack them each year, and beseech Hashem to provide the rest of that salvation.
Of course, we hope, the whacking of the willows, like the whacking of the arrows, serves to move us in the direction of yet another “whacking,” viz.: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). On Sukkot—a universal holiday, on which we offer seventy sacrifices, in honor of the seventy nations of the world (Num. 29:18 and Rashi ad. loc.)—that is ultimately the form of salvation that we seek.