At sundown on Oct. 23, 2016, the Jewish people will celebrate Hoshana Rabba, and at sundown the next day will begin Simhat Torah. This concludes a series of Holy Days that began on Oct. 2 with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

While earlier Holy Days focused on contemplation of the past year, confession of sins and prayers for the Lord’s atonement, these last Holy Days are much more optimistic and joyous.

"Hoshana Rabba" is Hebrew for "The Great Supplication," from the Hebrew "Hoshi’a na," which means "save, I pray," and "rabba," or "great."

Christians will recognize this as the word "Hosanna" in their prayers.

It is the last day of the festival of Sukkot, enshrined in American tradition as the fall holiday of Thanksgiving.

For Jews, it is the last of the Days of Atonement.

The Lord’s Book of Life

The Days of Atonement began with Yom Kippur, the day when the Lord inscribes His Book of Life, determining the fate of everyone for the upcoming year — but leaving open a period of possible reprieve if prayers are sincere. In Jewish tradition, the Lord does not close the Book until Hoshana Rabbah.

Ceremonies this day include singing Hashonot, or poetic prayers of supplication. This is done while circling the synagogue seven times. The seven circuits honor Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.

Many of the poems speak of water, connecting the holiday to hope for plentiful rain for the next year’s harvest.

Celebrating the books of Moses

The Book of Psalms is featured on this day. Orthodox and more traditional Jews also devote time to study of the Book of Deuteronomy. This prepares them for better understanding the Torah reading for the next day, Simhat Torah. That reading is the last paragraphs of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, or Five Books of Moses.

Simhat Torah literally means "rejoicing in the Torah." It is a joyous conclusion to the series of Holy Days that began with Rosh Hashanah. 

Two Torah scrolls are paraded around the synagogue, and children are encouraged to join the procession.

One scroll would suffice, but on this day there are two readings from the Torah. The first is the final portion of Deuteronomy, which concludes the annual cycle of reading through the entire Torah.

Children are called up to the stage for this reading. The congregation blesses them with a special benediction, modeled on the one that Jacob made for Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph.

One of the scrolls is rolled to the final part of Deuteronomy, and the rabbi concludes the reading by chanting "hazak, hazak, hazak," which means "strength, strength, strength," as that is what the Torah provides the Jewish people.

The next scroll is rolled to the very beginning of the Torah, the book of Genesis. Part of that book is read to begin the annual cycle of reading the entire Torah once again. This signifies that there is never an end to the Torah in Jewish life.

Blessing the children

The reading from the Prophets on this day is the first chapter of the book of Joshua. Although Moses led the Jewish people for 40 years in the wilderness as they moved toward the Promised Land, he was not destined to enter that land himself. Joshua was chosen for this task.

This reading reminds us that the children blessed by the congregation during the Torah reading are the ones who will carry on the 4,000 years of Jewish tradition.

Daniel E. Spector is a member of Temple Beth El in Anniston. He has a doctorate in history, focusing on Jewish history and the Middle East.