We are still within the “intermediate days of Sukkot” (Feast of Tabernacles), and it’s probably a good time to clarify this expression: what does it actually mean when we say, Chol Hamoed (“intermediate days of Sukkot”)?
In Leviticus 23, we read about Moadei Adonai – the Biblical Feasts, the special times of the Lord meeting with His people. There are only two Festivals in this list that have some days between the first and the last day of the holiday. We read that on the first and on the seventh day of the Passover shall be “a holy convocation” and Shabbat-rest with no work; and on the first and the eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles shall be “a holy convocation” and Shabbat-rest with no work. The days in between these first and last days are called “intermediate days” of the festival: Chol Hamoed. On these days, we greet one another with the words: Moadim leSimcha (literally: “Times for Joy”, but I suppose, just a regular “Happy Holiday!” would be a more proper translation), and many people still work, although the atmosphere is very festive and the little booths – sukkot – are everywhere. It is customary, and considered a great blessing, to have guests in your sukkah. In my last post, I told about this custom, and to those who haven’t yet seen a wonderful Israel movie, Ushpizin, I highly recommend watching it.
Today we are going to speak about a very special intermediate day, the seventh day of Sukkot, which occurs just before the end of the holiday. It is called Hoshana Rabbah and is considered the final day of divine “judgment”—the day when Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana decrees are finalized. This is a day of prayer and repentance, and some Jewish texts describe it as a Judgment Day akin to Yom Kippur itself.
The synagogue service on this day differs from all the other days of Sukkot. During the Hoshana Rabbah morning service, the congregation makes seven circuits around the bimah (Torah reading table) while holding the Four Species, instead of one circuit as on all the other days of the Feast. Why seven? In Jewish texts, we can find several explanations. Some say that the seven circuits correspond to the seven Hebrew words in the verse, “I wash my hands in purity and circle around Your altar, O Lord”. Obviously, these seven circuits correspond to seven encirclements of Jericho by Joshua and his army; therefore some comments say that the purpose of these circuits is to tear down the wall that separates us from our Heavenly Father, as the wall of Jericho fell down.
The prayers recited by worshippers during these circuits are called Hoshanot prayers, because of their constant refrain:הושענא , (Hoshana) – please save! In some places, the hoshanot are accompanied by the liturgical verses praying for the coming of the Messiah. At the conclusion of the service, worshippers strike the ground with willow branches, thus symbolizing the elimination of sin.
Why willow? Hoshana Rabbah is also a climax of water-judgment. On Sukkot, we are judged regarding how much rain will fall in the upcoming year, and the decision regarding water is not finalized until the end of the Feast. This is the reason why the willow, the plant “of the brook,” occupies a central place in Hoshana Rabbah liturgy – and in addition to the Four Species taken every day of Sukkot, there is a tradition of taking additional willow twigs on this special seventh day of the Festival.
The rivers… in Jerusalem!
It has to be noted that the modern rituals of Hoshana Rabbah are reminiscent of the practices of the Temple in Jerusalem. Actually, we find a description of the same rituals in Mishnah. All this becomes especially interesting if we remember that it was on this very day, “on the last and great day” of the Feast of Tabernacles, when Jesus cried out His famous words: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” This is what Hoshana Rabbah is all about: salvation and water – and now we begin to understand why Jesus would use words connected to water images while speaking of salvation.
The Water Libation Ceremony in the Temple was the height of Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and, as I mentioned previously, God’s decision of how much rain will fall in the upcoming year is made and finalized by the end of the Feast. The libation of water was performed to invoke God’s blessing on the year’s rains. During the Ceremony, a large procession carrying water would go through Jerusalem and circle the Temple, and then the water would be poured onto the altar. The description of this ceremony can be found in the Mishna. The joy accompanying it was so great that it became a proverb: “He that has not seen Simchat-bet-ha-Sho’ebah, the joy of the drawing (and the pouring) of the water has not seen joy in his life.” It is in the context of this celebration, while the procession with water was walking through Jerusalem, that Jesus speaks His famous words about “rivers of living water”.
It’s important to understand that “though the Rabbis attached symbolic significance to the ceremonial in connection with the dispensation of the rain… the main reference, according to themselves, … was to the future blessings to be bestowed on them in Messiah’s time, and especially pointed to the pouring out of the Spirit, as can be seen from the distinct statement in the Talmud, “Why is it called Bet-ha-Sho’eba? . . . Because of the pouring of the Holy Spirit, according to what is said: ‘With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.’”
Once we understand this context – once we understand that, although not part of the original Mosaic appointment, the Water Libation ceremonial service also pointed to and emphasized the symbolic and prophetic significance of Sukkot – the words of Jesus from John 7 acquire an even more profound and rich meaning. Hoshana Rabbah is all about salvation and water – and it is in the context of Hoshana Rabbah that Jesus speaks of two things: of salvation and water! He promised “rivers of living water” – and, like the Talmud later, he also “spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive”.
 John 7:38
 David Baron, Types, Psalms and Prophecies, Israel,2000, p.64
 John 7:39