The Mishna in Sukkah 4:5 describes the Second Temple practice of taking the arava branches and circling the mizbeach once every day of Sukkot, and seven times on the seventh day, while reciting hoshanot. Today we continue and remember this practice by circling the bima with our arba minim every day of Sukkot, and seven times on Hoshana Rabba “zecher l’mikdash.” By the 16th century, the Rema cites the custom to circle the bima with song on Simchat Torah (OC 669:3). What is the significance of these circuits and why particularly circle on Sukkot?
Rav Acha (Yerushalmi, Sukkah ch.4) states that we circled the altar “zecher l’Yericho,” as a remembrance of the circling of the walls of Jericho for seven days, followed by the walls miraculously collapsing. Rav Eleazar of Worms (Sefer haRokeach, Laws of Sukkot, 221), explains that there is a parallel between the seven circuits around Yericho and the seven expressions of precipitation in the Torah, which we pray for on Sukkot. Just as we circled the walls for seven days with shofarot, and seven times on the seventh day when the walls came down, so too we circle the bima (pseudo-altar) for seven days with prayers and praises to Hashem for rain, and on the seventh day we circle seven times with request for salvation for Hashem to provide rainfall.
The circling of the walls of Yericho is also explained by commentaries (Rabbeinu Bachya, Alei Tamar) as a means of ridding us of sin while having judgment fall upon our enemies. Similarly, we take our arba minim and circle the altar as a petition to Hashem to cleanse us of sin and save us from our adversaries.
Rabbi Dosa the Greek in 1430 cites the custom of three (and later seven) circuits of a groom around his bride. Though we don’t know its fundamental origin, the most common proof text cited is Yirmiyahu 31:21, “for Hashem has created a new thing in the earth, a woman shall compass a man.” In the context of the prophet’s allegory, the woman symbolizes the people of Israel, who will initiate the reconciliation with her beloved, the Almighty, by circling.
These seven circuits also remind us of the seven circles around Yericho which parallels the shofar-blowing ceremony around Yericho and the revelation of Sinai. The seven circuits re-establish our covenantal-marriage ceremony every Sukkot!
On Sukkot we have an opportunity to break down walls—walls that separate us from Hashem, from our spouses, community members. It is a time to symbolically break down these walls as we circle the bima for seven days with hoshanot, and on the eighth day with hakafot of song and dance. These are circles of prayer for rain and prosperity, of praise for miracles, of salvation in the Land of Israel, of atonement and of marriage.
Masechet Ta’anit (31a) concludes with a description of the happiest days of the year (Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur) wherein the daughters of Israel would dance in a circle in anticipation of marriage. Ulla of Bira’a assures us that in the future, Hashem will arrange a circle-dance for all the righteous “and He will be sitting among them in the Garden of Eden, and each and every one of the righteous will point to God with his finger, as it is stated: “And it shall be said on that day: Behold, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us. This is the Lord; for whom we waited. We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Yishayahu 25:9). Once the walls are broken down through petition and prayer on Sukkot, we anticipate the happiness of Simchat Torah to provide a glimpse of the future circle of solidarity, salvation and ultimate redemption!
Rabbanit Shani Taragin is educational director of World Mizrachi and teaches at Matan and other educational institutions in Israel. She is a member of Mizrachi’s Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).