The night of Hoshana Rabbah as a time of special rituals is less well known than the first night of Shavuot.1 This night has two aspects: study in the synagogue, and the ritual of casting a shadow in the moonlight to see if one will live or die in the coming year. Though they become intertwined at a later point, they originated at different times and for different reasons, and therefore will be discussed separately.
The custom of studying on the night of Hoshana Rabbah is first mentioned in the fourteenth-century Sefer Abudarham,2 where the author writes that some people had the custom of reading the whole Torah from beginning to end on this night, just to be sure that they had completed the annual cycle of reading the Torah before the cycle was completed on Simḥat Torah.3 This refers to someone who did not complete the talmudically mandated tradition of reading the Torah portion every week twice in Hebrew and once with the Targum.4 There is no mention of staying up all night or of reciting penitential prayers.
The Zohar adds another layer to the traditional understanding of Yom Kippur as the time that one’s fate is sealed for the coming year. It mentions the concept of a second chance at repentance in the period between Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabbah. According to the Zohar, God sits on the divine throne on Hoshana Rabbah and distributes the decrees that were issued on Yom Kippur to the divine messengers who will carry them out. Before distributing the decrees, however, God checks one last time to see if the person has repented of his or her sins in the interim. If the person has repented, the decree is annulled. If not, there is no way to retract the decree. Thus, Hoshana Rabbah is the last possible moment to repent of [End Page 92] one’s sins.5 This text is also the source of the East European custom of greeting friends on Hoshana Rabbah with the expression, “you should receive a good kvitel.”6
Rabbi Menaḥem Recanati, the fourteenth-century kabbalist, tells the story of a sage who saw that his head was missing when he cast a shadow in the moonlight on Hoshana Rabbah. He immediately prayed and repented of his sins, whereupon his shadow was restored.7 However, the first references to this idea being put into practice as a public ritual are only found among the Safed kabbalists in the sixteenth century.8 The Safed kabbalists developed the concept of a tikkun for Hoshana Rabbah that was similar in many ways to the tikkun for the first night of Shavuot. One of the earliest descriptions of this ritual is found in Rabbi Moshe ibn Makhir’s Seder Hayom, first published in 1590. He writes:
This day is very awesome since on it all the books are sealed and all the rulings are given into the hands of the prosecutors and accusers. Therefore it is necessary to increase charity, prayer, and supplication, to awaken the divine mercies so that they will be merciful to us and inscribe us in the book of the righteous for redemption and salvation. It is customary to increase the number of candles in the synagogue and some wear white, as on Yom Kippur. There are those who stay up all night and read the whole Book of Psalms.9
Later, in the sixteenth century, an order of prayers and study texts, virtually identical to the texts studied on the night of Shavuot, was assembled and published. The popularity of this tradition and its vulgarization is evidenced by complaints found in Sefer Ḥemdat Yamim, the early eighteenth-century compendium of kabbalistic customs and traditions. The anonymous author complains about ignorant people who gather and spend the night eating and drinking as they would during any holiday. They have no clue about the solemnity of the night and they compound their sins by their boorish behavior. He is more charitable about those who come and try to stay awake but doze off nevertheless: they mean well, but are not sufficiently...