The mishna in Succah (45a) discusses the mitzva of "arava" (willow branches). It states that during the time of the Beit HaMikdash the priests would go down on Succot to a place called Motza that was below Yerushalayim and there they would cut large willow branches. They would then bring the branches to the Beit HaMikdash and lean them against the side of the altar, with the top part leaning over the top of the altar. They would then blow the shofar in the standard fashion, with one broken sound (teru'ah) preceded and followed by a solid sound (teki'ah).

The mishna then continues to say that every day they would circle the altar and would say "ana Hashem hoshi'a na, ana Hashem hatzlicha na" or "ani v'ho hoshi'a na" - please Hashem grant us salvation (Rashi works out how "ani v'ho" is equivalent to "ana Hashem"). Finally, on the seventh day they would circle the altar seven times and when leaving it for the last time they would praise the altar.

This practice in the Beit HaMikdash serves as the basis for our modern custom of Hoshanot. As reported by the Tur (O.C. 660), we circle the bima once a day with a Torah being taken to the bima (a practice based on the Yalkut Tehillim) and thus serving as the focal point and in place of the altar. We also bring a Torah to the middle since during the time of the Beit HaMikdash the marchers would recite the name of Hashem while walking, and we have a tradition that the entire Torah is made up of various names of Hashem. According to the Yerushalmi, our current practice reflects not only what was done during the time of the Beit HaMikdash, but also is meant to mimic the siege and conquering of Yericho (Jericho) in the time of Yehoshua, when they circled the city once a day for six days and seven times on the final day, causing the walls to come tumbling down (Yehoshua 6).

There are several issues to explore concerning the practice of Hoshanot. First, only those people who have a set of the four species participate in the actual parade around the Torah. This is based on statements of Rashi, the Hagahot Ashri, and the Or Zarua. The Tur notes that the proof for this idea is that on Shabbat, when we do not take the four species, we also do not walk around the Torah, and thus he infers that being part of the march is intrinsically connected to doing so with the four species. However, the Beit Yoseif notes that on Hoshana Rabba (day seven), even a person who does not have the four species should take part in the seven laps around the Torah. His rationale is that since there is a special "zeicher l'Mikdash" (remembrance of what was done in the Beit HaMikdash - see Succah 41a for more on this concept) for Hoshana Rabba in particular, then the fact that a person cannot do the mitzva of the four species should not mean that he should also be excluded for the mitzva of circling the bima. However, the Darchei Moshe opposes this view, and the common practice is that a person who does not have the four species never takes part in the walking around the bima.

In terms of Shabbat, the Tur cites Rav Sherira Gaon, who claims that Hoshanot should not even be said on Shabbat, since the children will get confused and assume that since we say Hoshanot on Shabbat, we must also be allowed to use the four species (which are muktzeh on Shabbat lest one come to carry them in a public domain). However, the Ba'al HaIttur and the Bach both rule that even though there is no walking around the bima on Shabbat, we nevertheless do say one of the hoshana-piyyutim (liturgical poems) on Shabbat.

The other main exception to Hoshanot is a person who is a mourner. The Kol-Bo writes that the custom in Narbonne was that a mourner did not take part in the Hoshanot, although the Beit Yoseif does not understand why he should lose out on this mitzva as a result of his status. The Bach offers two possible explanations of the custom for a mourner to not take part in the Hoshanot. The first possibility is that during the time of the Beit HaMikdash, those priests who were in any way blemished (ba'alei mumin) or whose hair was uncut (peru'ei rosh) would not take part in the march around the altar. Nowadays, since our Hoshanot are done as a remembrance of the practices in the Beit HaMikdash, we exclude mourners, who may not cut their hair. Even though we do not exclude other people who may have been excluded in the Beit HaMikdash (such as anyone who is not a priest - see Taz), the Bach reasons that while other people may have some disqualifying feature that is unknown to most people, the uncut hair of a mourner is public knowledge and thus the exclusion is feasible without causing too much commotion. The Bach's second rationale is far smoother. He claims that a mourner should sit out the Hoshanot since they are a fulfillment of the commandment to be happy before Hashem on Succot (Vayikra 23:40 and Tosafot Succah 45a), and a mourner does not participate in things specifically oriented towards happiness. The general practice in Ashkenazic circles today is for mourners to not take part in the Hoshanot (although they are thus often used to hold the Torah), while Sephardim follow the Beit Yoseif and allow mourners into the circle. The Taz offers a third view, stating that just as we do not ask mourners to serve as the chazzan on days when Tachanun is not said (i.e. happy days on the calendar), so too do they not take part in the Hoshanot, which he deems to be comparable.

There is also a question as to when during the prayers Hoshanot should be said. Rav Sa'adiah Gaon rules that they should be said after the reading of the haftarah, since the Torah is still out and thus there will be no need to remove it a second time (when it will not even be read from). Bach also claims that Rav Sa'adiah Gaon may feel that just as the blessing on the four species should be done earlier in the day, so too should the Hoshanot with the four species be done earlier in the day. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe O.C. 3:99) claims that there is a practice to do the Hoshanot after Hallel, before the Torah reading, since one is already holding the four species and thus if he puts them down before completing all of the things that he has to do with them it will look as if he is "passing over the mitzvot," (ma'avirin al ha-mitzvot) which is expressly forbidden by the gemara in Pesachim 64b.

[We should point out that the concept of "ein ma'avirin al ha-mitzvot" is one that finds its roots in laws relating to sacrifices. See previous years' Chaburot on Succot for more on the inherent connection between the four species and the worship in the Beit HaMikdash.]

Rav Feinstein also notes that there is a custom to recite the Hoshanot after Musaf. He gives a simple reason for this order - since one is obligated to read from the Torah and say Musaf, but the Hoshanot are simply a custom, it is logical that obligations should precede customs. Bach offers a second reason, based on the mishna in Succah cited above. The Mishna concludes that after the Hoshanot on Hoshana Rabba everyone would leave for home while praising the altar. The implication is that the Hoshanot were the last thing done in the Beit HaMikdash before people departed, and thus we also make them the end of our services every day before departing for home.

Finally, we should note the reasoning behind the various orders of the piyyutim recited. Depending on the day on which Succot begins, the various Hoshana-piyyutim are recited in different orders. The reason, as given by the Levushei S'rad and recorded by the Machatzit HaShekel and others, is that there are four factors which influence which piyyutim are said on which days. The piyyut "l'ma'an amitach" is about the glory of Hashem and that piyyut of "even sh'tiyah" is about the Beit HaMikdash. As such, we try to say them on the first two days of Succot (as long as neither day is Shabbat), since we want these themes to come at the beginning of the holiday, to emphasize two of the main themes of the entire festival. The piyyut "e'eroch shu'i" refers to the fast day on which our since are revealed, meaning Yom HaKippurim, and thus it is said as early as possible after the other two, so that it can be close to Yom HaKippurim. The third factor is that "adon ha-moshi'a" is always said on the day before Hoshana Rabba since it speaks about rain, and rain on Succot itself is not considered to be a blessing (see Succah 28b). Finally, the piyyut of "om netzora" is about Shabbat, and thus is always said on that day.

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