Hoshanot (derived from the words hosha na—“bring us salvation, please”) 1: the special prayers recited each day of Sukkot while holding the lulav and etrog. 2: the willow branches customarily used to beat the ground on the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.

How did these unique customs develop?

In Temple times, in addition to the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah and taking the Four Kinds each day of Sukkot, the priests would “place willow branches alongside the altar, with the heads of the willow branches bent over the altar” to add joy to the holiday.1 The priests would then sound the shofar, circle the altar once, and say, Ana Hashem hoshiah na. Anah Hashem hatzlichah na (“Please, G‑d, bring us salvation. Please, G‑d, bring us success”).2 On the last day of Sukkot, known as Hoshana Rabbah, “the Great Hoshana,” the priests would circle the altar seven times.3

The practice of this ceremony in the actual Temple is part of the oral law that was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai.4

The later prophets instituted that the Hoshanot ceremony should be observed elsewhere as well, and this is done until this very day.5 Instead of circling the altar, Jews in synagogues around the world circle a Torah scroll held near the bimah (Torah reading table),6 for after the destruction of the Temple, the Torah brings atonement as the altar once did.7

Since each stanza of the prayer is accompanied by the word hoshana, these prayers are referred to as Hoshanot.

How to Do Hoshanot

When: We do Hoshanot every day of Sukkot as part of the morning services (see below for Shabbat). Many, including Chabad, do the Hoshanot right after the Hallel prayers; others do it either after the reading of the Torah or after the Musaf prayer.

What: First, a Torah scroll is taken from the ark, which remains open during the Hoshanot prayers. The Torah scroll is brought to the bimah so that the chazan (cantor) and the congregation can make a circuit around the bimah and the Torah while carrying the Four Kinds.

We hold the lulav and etrog together and press them against our heart. (If you don’t have a set of your own, the best thing to do is to borrow from someone who has already circled the bimah, since there is a difference of opinion whether you may circle without a lulav and etrog in hand.8 But regardless of whether or not you circle around the bimah, make sure to at least borrow a set of Four Kinds to recite the blessing over them.)

The chazan says the following four lines out loud, and the congregation repeats after him:

Please save, for Your sake, our G‑d, please save!
Please save, for Your sake, our Creator, please save!
Please save, for Your sake, our Redeemer, please save!
Please save, for Your sake, our Attender, please save!

We then circle the bimah counterclockwise9 and recite the specific Hoshanot liturgy for the respective day of the festival, found in the siddur.

The Hoshanot prayers were composed by the great liturgical poet Rabbi Elazar Hakalir, who some say lived during the time of the Mishnah.10 The verses, for the most part, are arranged according to the aleph-bet. There are varying custom with regards to when exactly one should start circling the bimah; the Chabad custom is for the chazan to start praying aloud, and the congregation to start circling, when reciting verses for the letter samech or ayin.11

After circling the bimah, we return to our place and finish reading the rest of the Hoshanot prayers. We continue holding the Four Kinds until right before the chazan starts kaddish (others have the custom to hold them until after kaddish).

(Within the year of a parent’s passing, a mourner does not circle the bimah for Hoshanot.12)

Shabbat: On Shabbat, we do not circle the bimah with the Four Kinds. Some have the custom to open the ark and recite Hoshanot without circling or holding the Four Kinds. Others skip that day’s Hoshanot altogether. The Chabad custom is to not recite Hoshanot on Shabbat. Instead, on the next day, we first read the Hoshanot for Shabbat quietly, and then afterward we circle the bimah for that day’s Hoshanot.13

Hoshana Rabbah: The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshana Rabbah, literally “the Great Hoshana,” thus named because there is a greater number of Hoshanot prayers that are recited on this day. It is considered the day on which the new year’s judgment, which was reached on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is finalized. It is also the day when G‑d judges how much rain we’ll receive in the coming year.14

On Hoshana Rabbah, we take out all of the Torah scrolls.15 We then circle the bimah seven times, as our ancestors did in the Temple on this day.16 During the first six circuits, we repeat the Hoshanot prayers from the previous six days. During the final circuit, we say the additional stanza for Hoshana Rabbah.17

Hoshanot: After the Hoshanot are completely finished on Hoshana Rabbah, and the Torah scrolls are returned to the ark, the chazan recites kaddish. Afterward, there is an ancient custom instituted by the prophets Chaggai, Zechariah and Malachi to take aravot (willow branches) together, recite a special prayer, and then beat them on the ground. According to Kabbalistic tradition, we take a bundle of five aravot18 in order to sweeten the supernal “five severities.” These branches are known as hoshanot.

For additional customs and information about Hoshanah Rabbah, see this article.