Hoshana Raba is clearly one of the most important days of the Jewish calendar, rivaled only by Yom Kippur. For those of you saying, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’, allow me to explain. When Hillel II established the beginnings of our set calendar in the middle of the fourth century, his Sanhedrin established a system in which certain holidays couldn’t fall out on certain days of the week. The only two days they were concerned with were: Yom Kippur and Hoshana Raba. Why Hoshana Raba? Well, that’s my topic for this piece.
Yom Kippur can’t fall on Friday or Sunday for the very practical reason that our Sages didn’t ever want two days consecutively when cooking was prohibited. Remember, this was before refrigerators. The other concern? Hoshana Raba must never fall out on Shabbat! Why? Because we don’t say Hoshanot on Shabbat (we just say a poem in the style of Hoshanot on Shabbat, but no marching with Lulav). People wouldn’t stand for skipping the massive Hoshanot of Hoshana Raba. Again, why?
For this all you have to do is look at the extended Hoshanot for Hoshana Raba. They discuss rain, bugs, fire, sheep, and water, a lot of water. These are concerns for farmers and shepherds living in Eretz Yisrael. They wanted to beseech God for a good agricultural year. These were very meaningful prayers to the Jews of the Byzantine Period. To us? Not so much. So, our very clever Rabbis over the centuries changed the focus.
Some time in the sixteenth century our ancestors began inviting these distinguished guests into our Sukkot. These Ushpizin are first mentioned in the Zohar. I will not get involved in the issue of authorship of the Zohar, but people only became aware of its contents towards the end of the 13th century. The Zohar mentions that these giants of Jewish history visit our Sukkot and two centuries later we start making a ceremony out of it. Why? Reb Chaim Vital suggests: May the poor be among those who eat at your table, because the portion for the Ushpizin must be given to the poor.
Cool! But does this have to do with Hoshana Raba? Patience, please.
Who are the Ushpizin? Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Yosef, Moshe Aharon and King David. The custom of the mystical master, the Ari Z”L, was to move Yosef to the penultimate place, right before David. Why? Because the Mashiach from the House of David will be preceded by a Mashiach from the House of Yosef (this idea actually appears in the Talmud; Yerushalmi Berachot 2:4, Bavli Sukkah 52a and Sanhedrin 98b). So, let’s connect the two long awaited Anointed Ones.
This brings us to the critical question: Why did the descendants of Yehuda (Boaz, King David,Kind Shlomo etc.) beat out the descendants of Yosef (kings of the Northern Kingdom) for ultimate leadership of the Jewish nation? The decision was Ya’akov Avinu’s. In his blessing he makes it clear that ultimately Yehuda’s DNA will prevail (Breishit 49:8-10). But why?
Here’s the short version: Yosef is known as Yosef HaZadik, because he withstood temptation, primarily in the wife of Potiphar story. Yehuda is known as the Ba’al Teshuva, because when he gave in to temptation in the story of Tamar, he repented and declared, ‘She is more righteous than I’ (Breishit 38:26). And we know that story sort of gets repeated with King David and Bat Sheva and, again, the descendant immediately declares, ‘I stand guilty before God!’ (Shmuel II 12:13). When we put those factors together with the famous dictum, ‘Even complete ZADIKIM can’t stand in the space occupied by a BA’AL TESHUVA’ (Berachot 34b). The penitent trumps the ZADIK; Yehuda surpasses Yosef.
Finally, we arrive at what has become the critical idea: Hoshana Raba is about TESHUVA! This idea is pushed vigorously by Kabbalists, but I think that the earliest one to push this agenda strenuously was the Levush (Rav Mordechar Yoffe, 1530-1612). This important commentary and mystic pointed out that Hoshana Raba completes the work of Yom Kippur, because a solar year is approximately 11 days longer than our lunar year (that’s why we have leap months 7 out of 19 years). So, Hoshana Raba is the solar year anniversary of the events of Yom Kippur (God forgiving the Jews for Golden Calf), because it’s 11 days later.
That’s why so much of the modern (post sixteenth century) Hoshana Raba liturgy so follows Yom Kippur custom. The CHAZAN wears a KITTEL, we use High Holiday tunes, and we greet each other with the wishes for a GUT KVITTEL, (a good note from God excusing your sins). Everybody wants a note to get them out of trouble.
So, this is the final event in the Teshuva cycle which began on Rosh Chodesh Elul. At least that’s true nowadays. However, I must point out that some mystics claim that one’s judgment can be kept in limbo all the way until Hanukkah, but that’s a topic for another time.
Since we declare this special day to be the final call for expiating last year’s sins, who better to invite to our Sukkah as our honored guest than King David, the greatest BA’AL TESHUVA of them all. If you don’t believe me, read Psalm 51 and Shmuel II 24:10 & 14.
So, Hoshana Raba is extremely important and meaningful. It’s just that the focus has changed. Our ancestors prayed for good agricultural conditions; we pray for absolution. So, remember this when welcoming David HaMELECH HaMASHIACH into your Sukkah, and when smashing your ARAVOT to smithereens. And may we all receive the PETEK (note) which excuses all our sins and certifies us as BA’ALEI TESHUVA. Chag Sameach!!