These rituals of Hoshana Rabbah go back to the times of the Holy Temple.
In reading the tractate Succah, both Palestinian and Babylonian, we come across some fascinating social history regarding the role of the shofar in the ceremonies of the Holy Temple.
We learn that part of the Succot ceremony is celebrated today insofar as dwelling in the sukkah and handling the lulav (palm branch), etrog (related to the lemon, indigenous to Israel), myrtle branch and water willow branch (Arava).
Many ritual services omit two other important rites of the Holy Temple on Succot: the Aravot Ceremony and the Water Libation Ceremony.
The Rabbi’s transformed the Water Willow Dance, performed on the seventh day of Succot, into Hoshana Rabba on the seventh day of Succot.
Water Libation Ceremony
The Water Libation Ceremony rationale taught the Jewish people to bring water before Him on Succot, petitioning for adequate rains, paramount to the success of their agricultural commerce and society. (Succah Bavli 37; and Rosh Hashana 16a).
The Midrash (book of ethical stories and interpretations) interprets the water ceremony as the sadness when God separated the waters to upper and lower (to form the firmament). God noted their distress; thus, elevated the lower waters during this rite. (Rabbaynu Bachya to Lev 1:13)
The Water Libation ceremony was an elaborate ritual emitting great joy, in fulfilling of Isaiah 12:3:”You shall draw water with joy from the wellsprings of salvation.”
The Rabbi’s in Yerushalmi Succah 31b (Palestinian) give a social history of the role of the shofar in the Holy Temple, with particular emphasis on Succot. Further, the Rabbis agreed that the Water Libation Ceremony is Scriptural) See Bavli Zevachim 110b.
The seven times around the Temple is replicated in Rabbinical ordained holiday, (Simhat Torah). Each circling with Torahs in hand, the congregation circles the prayer house at the signal of a shofar blast.
Jonatan Adler discusses this ceremony as he describes ancient coins which depicted this ceremony. The depiction shows the golden flasgon used to gather the water from the well of Sheloah; a willow branch
"What was the rite of the willow-branch? There was a place below Jerusalem called Motza. The Talmud indicates that Bavli Talmud cites that city to be Kalonia. Because it was tax-exempt, the trees were ownerless; thus, there was no taint of theft involved. See Meiri Bavli 45a.
Priests collected young willow branches, and then came and set them upright along the sides of the altar, with their tops bent over the top of the altar, after which the trumpets made a long blast, a quavering note, and a prolonged blast". These trumpets were sounded by Kohanim (Priests) See Num. 10:8, 9 and Mishnah Succot 5:6.
In Tractate Zevahim 110a-b, the Rabbi’s discuss the water libation service is described in detail in Tractate Sukkah (p. 48) . The Priest bought water from the Shiloah spring (underneath the Temple) to the Temple with great fanfare. The Priest took the jug of water, walked up the ramp to the altar and turned left, where there were two bowls that drained into the foundation of the Temple. The bowls were for the the water libation on Sukkot and for the wine libation that accompanied many of the sacrifices.
While many of the commentaries object to this distinction, arguing that both are considered biblical, it appears that Maimonides follows the approach of the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 11:4) that distinguishes between them, and understands that Jewish Law from the oral tradition of Moses is similar to the oral tradition of the Rabbi’s.
An interesting note is that the Pharisees opposed this holding. Yersul. Succah 27a.
It should be also noted that, although most trees in ancient Egypt were not considered holy, the willow tree was the primordial tree on which the sun rested in the shape of a bird at the beginning of the world. It was sacred to Osiris and gave shade to his coffin while his soul rested on it.
Trees were possibly less important in the Egyptian religion than in others. But some trees had divine connections, being home, birthplace or resting place of some deities. In the temple at Denderah one inscription proclaims: The names of the sacred trees are jS.t, kbs, tr. http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/botany/willow.htm
They would then blow the shofar in the standard fashion, with one broken sound (teru'ah) preceded and followed by a solid sound (teki'ah).
Although the Rabbi’s disagreed over the exact time this ritual began, they concurred that the Prophets instituted this custom. Thus, it was not likely occurring in the Frist Temple but was in the Second Temple.
The Rabbi’s taught that willows of the brook mean of special type of willow as opposed to another species of willow (zafzafah) which grows in the mountains. (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 34a)
Accordingly, the Rabbi’s decreed the seventh day of Succot as Hoshana Rabba, the day of many petitions for salvation ( the time that the Book of Life and Death are finally sealed).
- This practice in the Temple serves as the basis for our modern custom of Hosannas. As reported by The TUR (14th century German-Spanish Legalist, in Orech Chaim 660), we circle the bema once a day with a Torah being taken to the bema (a practice based on the Yalkut Tehillim) and thus serving as the focal point and in place of the altar. We also bring a Torah to the middle since during the time of the Holy Temple the marchers would recite the name of God while walking, and we have a tradition that the entire Torah is made up of various names of God. According to the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud), our current practice reflects not only what was done during the time of the Temple, but also is meant to mimic the siege and conquering of Jericho in the time of Joshua, when they circled the city once a day for six days and seven times on the final day, causing the walls to come tumbling down (Joshua 6).