Sunday, October 23, 2005


When it comes to Whomping Willows, Harry Potter don’t know Jack-Shit.

We Jews have been whomping ’em for thousands of years.

The last day of the seven-day festival of Sukkot (AKA Succos, Succot, Sukot, Succoth, Sukes, The Feast of Tabernacles, etc., etc.) is known as Hoshana Rabah - in English, the Great Hosanna. It’s traditionally considered to be the last opportunity for people to be written into the Book of Life for the coming year: while the decree is written on Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and sealed on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), on Hoshana Rabah the book is opened once again for any last-minute emendations. The Almighty, I suppose, values that final Wordsmithing / Proofreading Session - and which of us Weblog-Writers does not, as well?

Hosanna - now, there’s a word for you. Churchy people will be familiar with this word, which in Hebrew is rendered hosha-na - please save. An appropriate request for this, the final day of the Penitential Season. [Not to be confused with ha-shanah, which means “the year” - as in Rosh Hashanah, literally “head of the year.”]

During Sukkot, as part of each day’s morning service, congregants parade around the sanctuary, each holding a lulav (a bound bundle of palm, myrtle, and willow branches) and an etrog (a citron, a fruit that resembles a Giant Economy-Sized Lemon with cellulite), chanting a liturgical poem that includes the plea, “Hosha-na.” Each day, a different poem is recited - but on Hoshana Rabah, we go through all seven of them, after which we take up handfuls of willow branches and beat them on the ground. The idea is to whomp those willows hard enough so that the leaves separate from the branches - symbolizing the idea that sins can be separated from people.

Sure, it’s nutty - those whacky Jews! - but find me a religion that doesn’t engage in practices that appear nutty to non-adherents yet have deep meaning for its own devotees. Putting bowls of milk in front of statues of Ganesha? Eating and drinking God’s flesh and blood (in easy-to-digest cracker and wine form) on Sunday? Walking in circles around a building that houses a stone? Damn, we humans are weird.

Tomorrow, as I whomp my own fist fulla willows, I will smile as I acknowledge the ridiculousness of what I do, as I simultaneously acknowledge its symbolic value - and that fact that, in performing this peculiar ritual, I continue the traditions of a people that has been walking this planet for thousands of years.

Am Yisrael Chai - the people of Israel lives! Take that, Harry Potter.

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