Hoshanah Rabba marks the end of the Days of Awe, being the last of the 21 consecutive days when a person can obtain forgiveness for all his sins. Our Sages have said that this day is like Yom Kippur, and it is fitting that we reflect upon how best to use it.
It is now the evening of Hoshanah Rabba, the day when the judgment has definitely been sealed. The author of Kad HaKemach calls it the goal of the holiday of Sukkot. In the midrashim we find G-d telling Abraham, “I am unique and you are unique. I will give your children a unique day to atone for their sins. If they are not redeemed on Rosh Hashanah, they can be redeemed on Yom Kippur, and if not then, it will be on Hoshanah Rabba.” From here we deduce that Hoshanah Rabba is a day that is as important as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are also familiar with another saying of the Sages, namely: “Hoshanah Rabba is a day when decrees are relayed, for it is the day when the judgment comes to an end.” From here we have the custom of wishing people to be “inscribed for a good year.”
Commenting on tractate Berachot, the Maharsha writes: “The 21 days that separate Rosh Hashanah from Hoshanah Rabba, the time when we obtain forgiveness for our sins, corresponds to the 21 days of mourning that separate Tammuz 17 from Av 9, during which time our sins are also forgiven. This is because misfortune and suffering erase sin, as it is written: Exile brings atonement.”
There are many people who stay awake throughout the night of Hoshanah Rabba, their goal being to listen to Torah discourses, recite Psalms, or study Torah. Thank G-d, this custom was resumed many years ago in our own Beit Midrash.
I think that there are actually two kinds of suffering that a person can experience, and by which his sins are forgiven: Physical suffering, such as a lack of food or water, and spiritual suffering. In line with this, on Yom Kippur we make our bodies suffer by a lack of food and water, and by not wearing leather shoes. Likewise on Hoshanah Rabba, a day that is equal to Yom Kippur, our bodies suffer from a lack of sleep, and despite this fatigue we stay awake. This suffering is even greater than that of Yom Kippur, for a lack of sleep not only weakens a person’s body, but also his spirit. In this way every trace of sin can be eliminated.
Sukkot: The First Day for the Accounting of Sins
To understand the special significance of Hoshanah Rabba, we will first examine the meaning of the holiday of Sukkot, and the mitzvot that pertain specifically to it.
Concerning the verse, “You shall take for yourselves on the first day” (Leviticus 23:40 – this issue being brought by the Tur in the laws of Rosh Hashanah), Midrash Tanhuma states: “How can it be called the first, since it falls on the fifteenth day of the month? It is the first day for the accounting of sins. It is like a city that owes tribute to a certain king, but has been remiss in paying it. The king therefore goes out with his army to retrieve it. As he begins his advance, the leaders of the city go out to meet him, saying that they do not have enough money to pay the entire tribute. The king therefore reduces it by a third. When he advances closer, the residents of the city go out to meet him. He therefore lowers the amount by a second third. As he advances still closer, every person in the city goes out to meet him, and therefore he completely eliminates the tribute that they must pay. Thus the king is G-d and the townspeople are the Children of Israel, who sin during the entire year. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the greatest among them fast and a third of their sins are erased. During the ten days of teshuvah, the average people fast and another third of their sins are erased, and finally on Yom Kippur everyone fasts and all their sins are erased. At the end of Yom Kippur, people concern themselves with the mitzvah of sukkah and lulav. At that point there is no sin, which is why Sukkot is called the first day for the accounting of sins.”
The days of Sukkot are the first in which a person is free of sin, although he is kept busy with building his sukkah and choosing his four species.
With regards to the significance of these first days, I would like to underline the fact that they are the first days in which we have the opportunity to prove ourselves. During Yom Kippur, we ask for forgiveness and weep over our sins. We promise to improve our deeds, to be careful with our mouths and eyes, and to fix what needs to be fixed, each person according to his own particular situation. Yet when Yom Kippur ends and the days pass, followed by the arrival of Sukkot – the first day for the accounting of sins – have we respected our commitments? Are we spending more time learning Torah? Are we gossiping less?
“You Shall Take for Yourselves” – The Mitzvah of the Four Species
During the holidays, I thought about the significance of the four species, asking myself why this mitzvah occurs precisely during Sukkot.
I thought that I would explain it by saying that we have an extraordinary allusion in the four species: The myrtle leaves correspond to the eyes, the willow branches to the lips, the fruit of the citron to the heart, and the palm branch to the spine.
Following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the time when we are sanctified and spiritually uplifted, and when G-d agrees to forgive our sins), the holiday of Sukkot arrives and we sit in a sukkah, which the Sages have called “the shadow of faith.” In other words, we become G-d’s “neighbors.” Furthermore, we have the merit of inviting into our sukkah the seven Ushpizin: The three Patriarchs, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Hence we are not only asked to respect our new commitments, since in order for us to continuing improving – while safeguarding in our hearts what we have had the merit of experiencing up to now – the Creator wants us to constantly recall the allusions contained in the four species and the commitments they represent, as well as our own personal commitments. It is for this reason that we have the mitzvah of taking the four species together.
To remember our commitment regarding our eyes, we must keep them from gazing at whatever is forbidden to see, and also to be careful about how we view others. Are we looking at them in a favorable light, or harshly on account of their success?
Regarding the lips, we must be careful about what emerges from them. Is what we are saying devoid of every trace of gossip and falsehood? Are we certain that we are not shaming others or harming them by what we say? We should also be careful with what goes into our mouths. That is, we must pay attention to what we eat, as every Jew who wants to observe mitzvot should.
Regarding the heart, we must have a good heart, which is the cornerstone of every man. We must truly care about others, not deceive them or act as hypocrites and the like.
More than all the rest, the lulav (palm branch), which alludes to the spine, represents the greatest commitment that we can make. It means that we must take to the right path, the path of the Torah. Hence we have the special mitzvah to take these four species and wave them close to the heart. This serves as a reminder that the quality of our return to G-d depends on whether the commitments that we made on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were truly sincere. Were they sincere, or were they uttered in vain?
Simchat Beit HaShoeva
We must infuse ourselves with the feeling that people had on Simchat Beit HaShoeva. We usually gather in synagogue to recite Psalms and draw water in order to remind ourselves of what was done in the Temple, as the Mishnah in Sukkah 51 states:
“He who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life. … There was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illumined by the light of the place of the water-drawing. Men of piety and good deeds used to dance before them with lighted torches in their hands and sing songs and praises, and Levites without number [would sing] with harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets, and other musical instruments.”
This was a great time for rejoicing during the era of the Temple. Everyone, all the great men of the era, would come to witness and participate in it. Our Sages say that we learn this from the verse, “With joy shall you draw water from the wellsprings of deliverance” (Isaiah 12:3), meaning that we draw sanctity on this day, for the Shechinah resides on one who is joyous.
Why does the verse specify water? The literal explanation is that during the holiday of Sukkot, the Jewish people are judged on water. However there is another reason. On the second day of Creation, Hashem said: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters” (Genesis 1:6). He separated between different kinds of waters, one in Heaven – the place of His abode, alluded to in the word shamayim (“heavens”), the word being composed of sham and mayim (literally, “water is there”) – and the other on earth, where it is surrounded by a barrier represented by sand. “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear” (v.9). Our Sages call them “the waters that weep,” for they wept when they were not placed in Heaven, close to G-d. When G-d saw their tears, He consoled them with the promise that one day the Children of Israel would come and build the Temple, and that on the holiday of Sukkot they would joyfully draw water, the wellsprings of deliverance, and use them before Him.
We have a great deal to learn from these waters, which wept over a lost opportunity to draw closer to G-d and serve Him. In fact the only thing that could console them was the promise that they would serve in the Temple as part of the Divine service!
Now that we have explained the importance of the holiday of Sukkot, along with everything it contains, let us return to our initial idea. According to what we have said, we see that coming closer to G-d is the main principle behind the holiday of Sukkot, be it by drawing water, dwelling in a sukkah (the shadow of faith), or by the mitzvah of the four species.