The seventh day of Sukkot, widely known as Hoshana Rabba, has no distinctive rites or identity in the Torah, but it acquired a very special status in the talmudic oral tradition. Its primary association is with a ceremony of circling the Temple altar with willow branches, however later generations found numerous additional ways to celebrate the day.
Documents from the tenth and eleventh centuries speak of a remarkable new ceremony that came to be attached to Hoshana Rabba—a resplendent gathering that was convened under the auspices of the central talmudic academy of the land of Israel, attracting local residents and pilgrims. Allusions to pilgrimages to the Mount of Olives may be found as early as the eighth century in works by the liturgical poet Rabbi Pinḥas of Kafra.
The itinerary included a walk around the gates of the Temple Mount and the recitation of special prayers and orations that were led by the heads of the academy who were clad in their ceremonial finery. They would assemble at a site called the “Gate of the Priest” (likely to be identified with the “double gate” of the Hulda Gate complex) to the south of the Temple Mount and then march in a long procession up to the Mount of Olives—escorted by security guards who were sometime required to protect the participants from harassment.
The principal focus of the pilgrimage was a large stone rectangle whose dimensions were ten by two cubits. The participants circled this this stone seven times after the manner of the Hosanna litanies of old. According to the prevailing tradition, this stone was the same platform to which the Shekhinah, the divine presence, was exiled for three and a half years after the destruction of the Temple and from which it rose up to heaven after it despaired of Israel’s repentance. It was also the site to which the Shekhinah was expected to return in the (imminent, it was hoped) messianic future. At the conclusion of the ceremony, it was also customary to heap cash donations upon that stone slab for the benefit of the yeshiva.
In addition to its spiritual and liturgical associations, some of which were modeled after the celebrations that were held on Sukkot during the days of the Temple, the Hoshana Rabba ceremony gained importance as an occasion to publicly assert the authority of the Israeli rabbinic leadership at a time when it was being challenged by rivals, both from the anti-rabbinic Karaites and from among the rabbis of Babylonia.
In the spirit of a corporate annual general meeting, the head of the yeshiva would issue proclamations regarding new appointments, filled vacancies or promotions in the central yeshiva and in the yeshivas of communities that were subject to his authority. Flamboyant honorary titles were bestowed upon generous benefactors in the diaspora. In one of his letters, the tenth-century Gaon of Israel Aaron ben Meir mentioned such a ceremony in which blessings were offered on behalf of Jewish communities and their leaders. Ever zealous to uphold the holy land’s prerogative over the determining of the sacred time cycles, the head of the yeshiva chose this public occasion in Jerusalem to make the official pronouncement of the coming year’s calendar—a ceremony that had hitherto taken place at the yeshiva of Tiberias.
Solemn declarations of excommunication were also issued against those who would defy the court’s authority, such as the Karaites or renegades who chose to take their legal disputes to Muslim courts.
It is likely that this public Hoshana Rabba ceremony was first introduced during the early Muslim era, since it is hardly imaginable that the Byzantine Christian rulers would have tolerated such a proud expression of Jewish autonomy. We may suppose that the practice was instituted around the time when the academy was transferred to Jerusalem from its prior location in the provincial capital, Ramle. Contemporary sources speak of the Jews’ "purchasing" the Mount of Olives—presumably referring only to the right to hold their celebrations there—from the Arab rulers.
The Mount of Olives pilgrimage formed the background for a remarkable tale that was related by Rabbi Judah the Pious of Regensburg in his Sefer Ḥasidim. Rabbi Judah described in detail the various components of the assembly, including the sevenfold circling of the mountain, the recitation of psalms and hymns and the elaborate robes worn by the priests. In his version, Rabbi Abiathar HaKohen the Israeli rabbinic leader, shared his dominant role in the annual assemblies with his Babylonian counterpart Hai Gaon.
Rav Hai wandered off in order to conduct a private conversation with the prophet Elijah, whom he pressed for a statement about when the Messiah would be arriving. Elijah informed him that this would happen when the Mount of Olives were completely encircled by priests. Unfortunately, Rav Hai was was also advised that none of the individuals who were then marching so proudly in their priestly attire was actually a kosher descendent of the priestly dynasty—with the exception of a sole disabled straggler dressed in rags, scorned by others and humble in demeanour, who was a true son of Aaron by lineage and moral character. Rav Hai was moved to smile at the irony of this situation.
Though it is unlikely that the historical Hai Ga’on ever attended the Hoshana Rabba pilgrimage, he did take sides in a vicious power struggle involving some priestly families over the leadership of the rabbinate of the land of Israel. This episode likely provides the factual background to the legendary tale in Sefer Ḥasidim.
On one occasion, according to Sefer Ḥasidim, a confessed murderer approached the participating rabbis seeking atonement for his crime, and they gave an order to have him flogged on the Mount of Olives until his blood flowed. The penitent begged to be scourged harder lest he be subjected to a more horrible punishment before the heavenly court. After beating him within an inch of his life, the authorities allowed him three weeks to recuperate, upon which they buried him in sand leaving just a small hole through which to breathe, and then continued to torment him. After three such sessions, they decided that he had been been punished enough to assure his forgiveness—but the sinner insisted that he deserved still more punishment.
The values expressed in this tale—such as the concerns for priestly purity, moral humility and a quasi-masochistic obsession with acts of penance—are reflective of Rabbi Judah the Pious’s austere pietism, but seem inconsistent with the celebratory mood of the assembly.
What with the ascent of the Shekhinah, the solemn pronouncements by the talmudic academies, chats with Elijah, punishments for wrongdoers—and so much more that was going on—we can only begin to appreciate how deep and variegated was that convergence of sacred time and space that distinguished those Sukkot gatherings on the Mount of Olives.
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