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Why Do We Beat the Aravot?

An investigation into a long-time Hoshanna Rabbah Tradition

As perfect Jewish teenagers, I’m sure that every single AJA student wakes up early on Hoshana Rabbah to attend Shacharit. At one point during the service, congregants will notice that it is customary to violently beat the arava, or willow branch, on the ground as if trying to take its lunch money. While I’ve been aware of this practice for quite some time, I’ve always wondered why we do it. Let’s take a look…

This Halacha is given to us in Shulchan Aroch:

Shulchan Aroch, Orach Chayim 664

חובט בה על הקרקע או על הכלי פעמים או שלש

We beat [the willow branch] on the ground or on a vessel twice or three times.

Vayikra Rabbah famously teaches how the arba minim, the four species, represent different types of Jews. Here’s what it has to say about our good friend, the willow:

Vayikra Rabbah 30:12

וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל, אֵלּוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל, מָה עֲרָבָה זוֹ אֵין בָּהּ טַעַם וְאֵין בָּהּ רֵיחַ, כָּךְ הֵם יִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשׁ בָּהֶם בְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁאֵין בָּהֶם לֹא תּוֹרָה וְלֹא מַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים

This willow has no smell and has no taste, so too are the people that have no Torah and have no good deeds.

Wait a second — we shouldn’t figuratively beat someone on the ground just because they don’t learn Torah or do many mitzvot! What’s going on here? Well, Rav Kook brings in another approach:

“[Those Jews who are represented by the willow have] a healthy power that is part of the arsenal of the Jewish people. We do not strike the willow. We strike with the willow” (Moadei HaRa’ayah).

Rav Kook explains that we are not beating the willow, but we are using the willow as an instrument to beat the floor. This is representative of the fact that even though these people do not learn much Torah and do not do many mitzvot, they still are strong forces who possess natural instincts to be kind to others, help their communities, and ultimately live in the essence of Torah values. We don’t beat them down for not learning Torah or doing mitzvot, but we join with them to become strong Jewish forces. 

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