Hoshana Rabbah, observed on the seventh day of the festival Sukkot (Aramaic הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא from the Hebrew – which we recognize from the Hallel – הוֹשִֽׁיעָה נָּא), is sometimes referred to as the “Great Supplication,” also sometimes called a “mini-Yom Kippur.” It is described in Psalms 118:25.
The name means, in Aramaic, “Great Hoshana,” or “Save us now big time!,” a hoshana coming to refer to a bit of poetic liturgy asking God to rescue and redeem the Jewish people. It asks specifically for rain.
The preparation for the practice in the Temple is described in the Mishnah (Sukkah 4.5):
“There was a place below Jerusalem called Moza. They went down there and gathered tall branches of aravot and then they came and stood them up at the sides of the altar, and their tops were bent over the altar. They then sounded a teki’ah [long blast], a teru’ah [staccato blast] and again a teki’ah. Every day they went round the altar once, saying, ‘O Lord, save us, O Lord, make us prosper.’”
The observance is deemed similar to Yom Kippur in that God will be judging our merit. There are seven prayers (the Hoshanot) in this liturgical refrain, and they are recited during seven processions (hakkafot) with lulavim and etrogim, as on all the days of Sukkot, with the addition of beating separate willow branches upon the floor and circling seven times rather than once. The beating is a symbolic representation of stamping out our transgressions such that God will find merit in us.
(Our Christian friends may recognize the “Hosanna” with willow branches. The term has come into English meaning “an exclamation of praise, acclamation, or adoration.” This may have occurred, scholars opine, because upon translating the New Testament into Greek, the word was left as “hosanna” – untranslated, and Greek has no “sh” sound – and the service was taking place, and the crowds shook their lulavim and etrogim, as Jesus appeared. Mark 11:9. Also found in song in the musical J. C. Superstar.)
The day comes two days before Simhat Torah, when we finish and begin the cycle of reading the Torah. Many Jews stay up late erev Hoshana Rabbah to study, often focusing on Devarim, Deuteronomy, the last book, currently being completed that week. Others turn to studying Psalms. Sephardic Jews often include Selihot prayers in their observance.
At Beth Shalom we have traditionally used willow branches cut from a tree at our cemetery.