Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
Hoshanna Rabbah is the 7th day of Sukkot. The name means “The Great ‘Save Us!'” On this day, tradition calls us to circle seven times around our sanctuary with our lulavim (the bundles of branches which we’ve been shaking in the sukkah every day) and our Torah scrolls, while reciting prayers called Hoshanot which ask God to bring healing and salvation. (Here’s a bit of explanation about the Hoshanot.) Traditionally we would recite one Hoshana prayer each day of Sukkot, and today — the 7th day — we would recite all seven of them.
There’s also a very old custom of taking willow branches (either from our lulavim, or other willow branches we happen to have on hand) and beating them against the ground; the falling willow leaves are an embodied prayer for rain. (For more on that: The Ritual of Beating the Willow.)
Even if you’re not dancing or processing around a sanctuary with branches and Torah scrolls, reading some hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. If you’re looking for a creative, modern interpretation, try the ones written by my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, which are online here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Rabbi Arthur Waskow below the hoshanot themselves.) Or, for something more traditional, here’s a supplement for Sukkot which features the classical Hoshanot in Hebrew and in English, from the Conservative movement: Or Hadash Hoshanot [pdf]
After Hoshanna Rabbah comes Shemini Atzeret, “the pause of the 8th day.” (That begins tonight and flows into tomorrow; we’ll celebrate it with Yizkor services and beautiful prayers for rain tomorrow morning.) And then comes Simchat Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah,” which we’ll celebrate tomorrow night at 7:30pm at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center.
Happy Hoshannah Rabbah to all!