Hoshanot: The Meaning of “Ani Vahu”

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One of the high points of the prayer service for Sukot is Hoshanot (traditionally pronounced “Hoishanas”), which literally is the plural form of the liturgical chorus “Hoshana,” meaning, “Grant salvation.” With slight variations between different customs, every day (excluding Shabbat) of Sukot, immediately after reciting the Halel, we encircle the synagogue’s bimah, the central table on which the Torah is read, while holding our four species and reciting a different set of prayers each day. Our Hoshanot echo the rite of the aravah (the willow branches) that was performed on each day of Sukot in the Holy Temple.[1]

When saying Hoshanot one is constantly struck by the recurring motif of God granting salvation, not just for the sake of that which is being saved, but for His own sake. One of the most cryptic parts of Hoshanot is the chorus “Ani Vahu Hoshee’ah Na.” What does this phrase mean? It sounds like we are asking God to save “me and him.” But, the word “him” (וָהוּ) is not written in its usual Hebrew form (וָהוּא). It may be known to some people that there are some Kabbalistic intentions openly inserted into our liturgy for this day. As we shall see, this phrase is one of the earliest purely Kabbalistic wordings appearing in our liturgy, dating from at least the time of the Temple. Over the years, this phrase has also been understood by the greatest sages to allude to Biblical and philosophical concepts as well. We will look at the phrase’s origin and its meaning. We will then proceed to offer six different explanations offered by the commentaries and another one that is not explicitly mentioned. We will see how these different explanations correspond to the sefirot from loving-kindness to kingdom, together weaving a tapestry of meaning.

The rite of the willow branches

In the tractate of Sukah, we find a description of the rite of the aravah:

What is the rite of aravah? There was a place, lower than Jerusalem, called Motza. They would descend there and gather Moravi’ot [willows], and they would tie them around the altar with there top extending beyond the top of the altar and bent over it. They would sound a prolonged blast [with the Temple horns], a quavering note, and a prolonged blast. Each day they walked in procession once around the altar and recited אָנָּא יְ ־הֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא. אָנָּא יְ ־הֹוָה הַצְלִיחָה נָּא, “Please God, save us. Please God, grant us success.” [But,] Rabbi Yehudah says [that they recited]: אֲנִי וָהוּ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא, “Ani Vahu, save, please.”

The first opinion of the mishnah and Rabbi Yehudah dispute what was said while encircling the altar. According to the first opinion it was the verse from the Halel: אָנָּא יְ ־הֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא אָנָּא יְ ־הֹוָה הַצְלִיחָה נָּא. But, according to Rabbi Yehudah it was a seemingly similar, but still cryptic statement: אֲנִי וָהוּ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא. Incidentally, there are two opinions about what those encircling the altar would be carrying. One opinion holds that the altar was encircled while people carried only the aravot, willow branches, while there is another opinion that they would encircle the altar with all four species, as we do.

In fact, we rule according to Rabbi Yehudah, as we say אֲנִי וָהוּ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא during Hoshanot. But, there is something very deep here that needs to be understood. Rabbi Yehudah’s version is very mysterious. It includes a word that is not a word: וָהוּ. This word is very similar to the word וַהוּא, which means “and him,” but it is missing the alef at the end. Why do we prefer a cryptic statement to the explicit verse brought by the first opinion?

Kingdom: gematria

The first explanation is offered by Rav Ovadyah Bartenurah (and is quoted by many other commentaries, including Rashi). He observes that the two words that form the variation between the two phrases, אָנָּא יְ ־הֹוָה and אֲנִי וָהוּ are numerically equivalent; let us add that they both equal 78, which is also the numerical value of the word (in Aramaic form, the form most commonly used for this word in Kabbalah) מַזלא, meaning “[good] fortune.”[2]

According to Ma’ayan Hachochmah, an ancient text traditionally attributed to Moshe Rabbeinu himself, all numerical analysis occurs in the context of the sefirah of kingdom (especially for those people who do not require any further explanations beyond a mathematical one).

Loving-kindness: two of the 72 Names of God

But, most of the commentaries do not consider the numerical equivalency between the two phrases to be enough to justify Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion. In other words, Rabbi Yehudah’s cryptic words are not based on merely a mathematical manipulation. Moreover, the numerical equivalency does not explain why we prefer Rabbi Yehudah’s version.

Therefore, Rashi and the Bartenurah and other commentaries reveal a deeper secret here. They explain that these two words, אֲנִי and וָהוּ are two of the 72 names of the Almighty that are constructed from the three verses ויסע ויבא ויט found just before the Song of the Sea. Each of these three consecutive verses has exactly the same number of letters (72)—something which we find only in one more place in the entire Torah.[3]

72 is the numerical value of חסד, “loving-kindness.” Although a complex subject, let us mention that there is a Kabbalistic Name of the Almighty that corresponds to each of the ten sefirot. The Name that corresponds to loving-kindness is all 72 (three-letter) Names (constructed from the three above verses) together.

The essence of the festival of Sukot is loving-kindness. Sukot follows the Days of Awe, ימים נוראים, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur. The awe, trembling, and fear that are an integral part of these holidays that begin the year are meant to push away our feeling of self-importance and self-involvement and clear the path to the higher selfless Divine soul that we each possess to appear.

The sages teach that the left hand should be used to push away, but only when balanced by the right hand embracing and bringing closer. This is how the Alter Rebbe explains the beautiful verse: “His left [arm] under my head and his right arm shall embrace me.” After our egos (the feeling of the ego and the self normally reside in our consciousness, i.e., in our heads) have been pushed away, as it were, by the Almighty’s left arm during the Days of Awe, His right arm, as it were, embraces us during Sukot. This is not merely a half-embrace, holding our side. The Almighty embraces us completely and totally, metaphorically holding our back-side which represents all our imperfections. God accepts us in our totality. Normally, we have to follow the Zohar’s advice that to allow ourselves to burn with the fire of holiness, we have to chop ourselves into little pieces. But, during Sukot, God embraces us completely, with our shortcomings and problems.

After we had many days with a lot of holy tension, Sukot is the time to let a little bit loose from this tension. During the Days of Awe, we are required to cut ourselves into pieces. But during Sukot, we are as we are, and as we are we feel the joy of the “time of our joy.”

The Name of 72 is actually mystically built into every sukah built for Sukot. Halachically, it is best that a sukah take the shape of a cube, or any other six sided volume; a round sukah is questionable. With six sides (four walls, a roof made of schach, and a floor), a sukah has twelve diagonal borders (יב גבולי אלכסון). Each of the beams that form the cube of the sukah is considered a “diagonal border.” There are altogether 12 of them. They are called “diagonal” because if you are standing in the middle of the sukah you have to look off to the diagonal in order to see any of the 12 beams. Now, each of the beams itself has 6 sides to it (4 around and 2 on each end). So altogether, between them, the beams have 72 sides. These are referred to as the “dimensions” with which the Almighty constantly forms and reforms the world through the working of the chariot (מעשה מרכבה), and each of these dimensions corresponds to one of the 72 Names of God.

The 72 Names of God are constructed by taking the first letter of the first verse (ויסע), the last letter of the second verse (ויבא), and the first letter of the third verse (ויט). The first Name that comes out of this construction is והו, which is also equal to 17 = טוב, or good. The 37th, Name that is formed is אני.

What is special about the 37th Name that it would go together with the first? The Tosafot Yom Tov writes, that if you divide the 72 Names in half, each half will have 36 Names. [36 = 62, which means that 72 = 2 · 62 is a double-square number.] Thus, והו is the first Name of the first half, and אני is the first Name of the second half.

In the language of the Zohar, the 72 Names are called the 72 Bridges of Loving-kindness. Specifically, the loving-kindness that the Zohar is referring to is the aspects of loving-kindness of knowledge (חסדים דדעת). Let us contemplate the image of a bridge for a moment. To build bridges, especially bridges between minds, between different ways of seeing the world, is like arbitration. In order for a person to be a good arbitrator, which is a very sought after occupation today, he has to know the secret of these 72 Names that are bridges. In addition the word “bridge” in Hebrew, גשר, is phonetically equivalent to the word for “connection,” or “bond” קשר. It is the role of the tzadik to connect the souls of the Jewish people. The first such tzadik-arbitrator was Aaron the High Priest, who would go around making peace between husband and wife and settling disputes, etc.

It is known that in every generation there are 36 revealed tzadikim. But there are also 36 concealed tzadikim. These two sets of tzadikim correspond one-to-one to each of the two sets of 36 Names in the 72 Names. The first of the revealed tzadikim is called אני, and the first, who is the consummate concealed tzadik is called והו.

So now that we have corresponded these two Names to the two types of the consummate tzadik, we see that indeed Sukot is the holiday for connecting to tzadikim, which is a beautiful explanation for our hosting the usphezin, the holy guests in our sukah.

What is the difference between a revealed and a concealed tzadik? A revealed tzadik is known for his Halachic prowess; his understanding of the law and his ability to rule on it. But, by attaching ourselves and binding our hearts and minds with the concealed tzadik, we receive love, awe, and faith. The Alter Rebbe writes in the Tanya that after the concealed tzadik passes away, it actually becomes easier to connect with him and receive new love, awe, and faith. He becomes revealed at a higher and higher level, which is completely different than the level one could perceive during his lifetime.

Until the revelation of Chassidut, one was either a revealed or a concealed tzadik. But, from the Ba’al Shem Tov and on, there could be a tzadik who was both אֲנִי וָהוּ.

Clearly, this explanation for the meaning of אֲנִי וָהוּ corresponds to the sefirah of loving-kindness.

Might: I awaken Him

There is an explanation based on the Zohar,[4] that when we do the will of the Almighty we add “strength” to the Almighty. This is hinted to in the verse: “Give might to God.”[5] How is this possible? One of the ways to understand this concept is the sages’ likening of God’s relationship with us to that of a cow to her nursing calf. More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse. Likewise, God only wants to give, and when he sees that His will is done, His yearning to give increases even more. Thus, our taking, i.e., performing His will, increases His might, i.e., His yearning to give.

But, the opposite is also true. To understand how this is possible we need to understand that the Almighty is like a father. The only will that the Almighty has is to benefit creation, just as a father only wants the best for His children. But, when He sees that His children do not follow His direction, then, like a father, He is weakened as it were. When we do not do God’s will, the Torah says: “You have weakened the Rock [the Almighty] who has fathered you.”[6]

Based on this explanation, theאֲנִי  is simply us and וָהוּ is the Almighty and the reasoning is that by saving us, hence helping us perform His will, the Almighty is actually saving Himself, as it were; He is adding strength in Himself. In Chassidic terminology, this concept is known as “From awakening below comes awakening above.”[7] This concept is associated with the sefirah of might. The sefirah of might is the strength, as it were, that we are giving the Almighty.

We can add to this something from a famous discourse of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s.[8] It is well known that the 40 days from the first of Elul until Yom Kipur are hinted to in the verse: “I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me,” because in Hebrew the final letters of these words equal 40 (אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי). This verse is clearly an example of “From awakening below” (“I am to my beloved”), “comes awakening above” (“…and my beloved is to me.”) But, Sukot is obviously not part of these 40 days, so perhaps it does not exhibit this relationship. Where can we find this reciprocating relationship in Sukot? The Lubavitcher Rebbe replies that it can be found in the verse: “In Sukot you shall dwell for seven days.”[9] From this verse, he shows how the obligation of Sukot is dependent on our building and dwelling in a sukah. It is the sukah itself which creates the holiness that necessitates the performance of the mitzvot associated with Sukot. This, unlike Passover, when the holiness and the halachic requirement to eat matzah (and not eat leaven dough) come entirely from Hashem. Thus, even on Sukot (not just the 40 days ending with Yom Kipur) it is our awakening below to build the sukah that awakens God above to command us with taking Four Species, etc. This is a beautiful addendum to the concept that our actions below awaken the will and the holiness of the Almighty, which then dwells upon us.

Beauty: Two Aspects of God

Maimonides in his commentary to the Mishnah, indeed acknowledges the commentaries that say that these are two Names of God. But, he argues that these two words refer to the verse: “See now that I myself am He! [There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand]” (רְאוּ עַתָּה כִּי אֲנִי אֲנִי הוּא).[10] Maimonides’ explanation immediately offers a simple explanation for why אֲנִי comes before וָהוּא, as this is their order in the verse.[11]

Maimonides’ explanation sees Rabbi Yehudah’s phrase as an invitation to “look at the splendor of the King.” The verse that Maimonides cites discusses two aspects of God, noting that both are One. In Kabbalistic terminology these two aspects of God are called:

  • the light that fills all worlds, which is revealed, is imminent, and experienced even by subjective beings and therefore is referred to by the first person article “I” (אֲנִי), and
  • the light that encircles all worlds, which is concealed and transcendent and therefore referred to by the third person article “He” (וָהוּא).

We are calling out and admitting (much like at the end of the Yom Kipur service) that these two aspects of God are one and the same. They are not separate. God is both the filling, experienced light, and also the concealed, encircling light. To see the splendor of the Almighty this way, is akin to looking at the sefirah of beauty.

Victory: God is with you in times of trouble

Next there are two very similar explanations. Both are based the concept that our cry for salvation from God must rely on the notion that God Himself needs the salvation. There are two slightly different versions of this explanation, a fact that immediately tells us that they are probably related to victory and acknowledgment, which are always considered to halves of one body. These are also the deepest of all the explanations and originate from the Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud) and the midrash.

In the Yerushalmi we find that Rabbi Yehudah says that we recite: אֲנִי וָהוּא הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא. This is a very slight variation, but it transforms the cryptic word וָהוּ into the common וָהוּא, which means “and he.” The sages of the Jerusalem Talmud explain that Rabbi Yehudah means to involve God in our salvation. They quote the verse, “Your nation which You have redeemed for Yourself from Egypt….”[12] What do the words “for Yourself” mean? It is as if God redeemed himself.

The Ritva, one of the Rishonim (medieval sages), notes that the Yerushalmi’s concept is expressed in the verse “I am with him in times of trouble.”[13] Thus, the words אֲנִי וָהוּא refer to the Jewish people and the Almighty, that both should be saved together. And, He is always with us in our state of exile. And because He is exiled with us, as it were, then He is destined to finally redeem us, because He will redeem Himself. This is the state described as “God cries in His inner chambers.”[14] This is also the meaning of the verse: “It is a time of trouble for Jacob and because of it he will be redeemed.”[15]

The Ritva’s rendering of the Yerushalmi corresponds to the sefirah of victory, because it is the “Eternal of Israel”[16] that is always with us, even in our times of trouble. And it is to Him that we pray that He should redeem both us and, as it were, Himself.

Acknowledgment: I am you in times of trouble

The next explanation is found quoted in the Tosafot in Sukah.[17] It is very similar to the Ritva’s explanation, but is even bolder and more extreme. The Tosafot, who write their commentary on the version of אֲנִי וָהוּ (without an alef at the end) found in the Babylonian Talmud, begin by noting that these are indeed two of the 72 Names of God. But, they remain dissatisfied with this explanation by itself. They question why were these two specific Names were chosen. There answer is based on the Midrash Aichah Rabbati where it is explained that there are two verses that specifically allude to the idea of God being with us in times of trouble and therefore that He too, as it were, requires salvation. These two verses are:

  • “And I am in the exile,”[18] (וַאֲנִי בְתוֹךְ הַגּוֹלָה), and
  • “He is bound in chains,”[19] (וְהוּא אָסוּר בָּאזִקִּים).

The first describes the context of Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Divine chariot. Ezekiel was standing “in the exile,” when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God.[20] The “I” in the verse literally refers to Ezekiel. It was he who was in the exile. The “he” in the second verse refers to Jeremiah who was bound in chains. But the Tosafot explain that according to the Midrash, both verses are actually talking about the Almighty. It was the Almighty, who as it were, was in the exile. And, it was God himself, as it were, that was bound in chains.

According to the Ritva’s explanation, it is we who are in jeopardy, but God is continually with us in order it seems to be able to comfort us and to lift us out of harms way. But here, the image is much bolder. The literal meaning of these two verses is that two prophets are in jeopardy, two human beings, mortal beings are in danger. But, the Midrash explains that the words “I” (in “I am in exile”) and “He” (in “And he is bound in chains”) are referring to God himself.

This is a wonderful source for the Chassidic concept of “the self and essence of the Almighty dwelling in a physical body.”[21] What this explanation does is it takes the previous one and multiplies its impact many times over. Not only is it that God is with us, but it is God Himself who is in peril. Why is this related to acknowledgment? We know that acknowledgment is the most transmutable of all the sefirot. On the one hand, it designates charisma and strength of character, on the other hand it can be the source of all maladies, as in the verse: “My acknowledgment has turned on me to destroy me.”[22] The concept of “the self and essence of the Almighty dwelling in a physical body” is such a concept, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself said, that one who wants to accept this idea, may he be blessed, but he does not want to argue with someone who does not.[23]

In order to understand how the idea of crying out for God to save us because His essence is within us, let us picture Jeremiah the prophet being led out of the jail in chains. Do we imagine that as he is being led out he is in high spirits, jovially saying “Shalom Aleichem” to all of his students? Probably not! He was experiencing tremendous suffering. And yet, what we are being told is that the Almighty’s dwelling within Jeremiah during his suffering was even more apparent than was His dwelling within Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai during the festivals, a time of joy and good spirits.[24] How is this possible? We know that two of the 10 extremes mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah are “extreme height and extreme low.”[25] The extreme height corresponds, in the Arizal’s terminology, to the lower seven sefirot of the higher partzuf of the crown, Atik, while the extreme low corresponds to the three higher sefirot of the same partzuf. Thus, the extreme low is more revealing than is the extreme height.

What the Tosafot are teaching us is that Sukot is the time to enter the inner chambers of the Almighty, which is where Hashem allows Himself, as it were, to cry. And that is why we cry out אֲנִי וָהוּ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא, we are calling out for Hashem to bring the Mashiach to redeem Himself. But the key that unlocks the door to God’s inner chamber is the joy of Sukot, which is the essential time of our joy.

Foundation: Rabbi Yehudah, the tzadik of Sukot

What we have left is to review a seventh explanation which is not brought explicitly. Let us recall that the mishnah we are learning appears in the tractate of Sukah. We have taught many times before that every tractate in the Talmud has a hero. There is no question that the hero of the tractate of Sukah is Rabbi Yehudah. Rabbi Yehudah is called “the first speaker.”[26] As will be explained in a separate article, Rabbi Yehudah’s soul root is capable of rectifying all those Rabbis whose true loyalty lies with those who appointed them and not with the Almighty and His Torah.[27] As will be discussed in that forthcoming article, like Moshe Rabbeinu whom the Zohar says has to return in every generation in order to rectify the negative impact of the foreign multitudes that he took out of Egypt at his own discretion, Rabbi Yehudah’s soul has the power in every generation to rectify these “Rabbis by appointment” who say what they say only in order to appease those who pay their salaries.

Rabbi Yehudah literally takes control of the tractate of Sukah. So this seventh explanation that we are now offering suggests that אֲנִי וָהוּ refers to Rabbi Yehudah:

  • אֲנִי alludes to the verse “I am the first and I am the last.” Rabbi Yehudah is the first sage mentioned in the tractate of Sukah and the last one mentioned. And,
  • וָהוּ, which numerically equals 17 alludes to the 17 times that Rabbi Yehudah is mentioned in the tractate.


Let us summarize all seven explanations in our tapestry of meaning by presenting them in the traditional Kabbalistic form of the sefirot:




I awaken Him and give Him might



Two of the 72 Names of God



Imminence and Transcendence of God



He is you in times of trouble



He is with you in times of trouble



Rabbi Yehudah the hero of tractate Sukah



Gematria: אני והו = אנא י־הוה


It is indeed proper that during Hoshanot, when reciting the chorus “Ani Vahu Hoshee’ah Na,” we meditate on this full spectrum of meanings.

[1]. Smag (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol), positive commandment 44.

[2]. Indeed, in chapter 116, two chapters earlier in Psalms, the word אנא, meaning “please” is written, אנה, but here it is written with an alef at the end, providing the numerical equivalency. אנא (with an alef) = בן, “son.”

[3]. For more on the Name of 72 letters, see What You Need to Know About Kabbalah and Body, Mind, and Soul.

[4]. Zohar II, 32b.

[5]. Psalms 68:35.

[6]. Deuteronomy 32:18. See Rashi ad. loc.

[7]. באתערותא דלתתא אתערותא דלעילא. Tanya ch. 14. Orach Chayim to Exodus 19:3. See Zohar III, 92b.

[8]. Likutei Sichot (Yiddish), v. 22, p. 122ff.

[9]. Leviticus 23:42.

[10]. Deuteronomy 32:39.

[11]. Even though Maimonides does not say so explicitly, it seems that he upholds the reading of this mishnah found in the Jerusalem Talmud, which we shall see shortly.

[12]. II Samuel 4:23.

[13]. Psalms 92:15.

[14]. Chagigah 5b, based on Jeremiah 13:17.

[15]. Jeremiah 30:7. See in length in our Hebrew volume titled וממנה יושע (From it he will be redeemed).

[16]. I Samuel 15:29.

[17]. Sukah 45a s.v. Ani vehu. See Tur Orach Chaim, 660.

[18]. Ezekiel 1:1.

[19]. Jeremiah 40:1.

[20]. In order for the heavens to open for us to see visions of the Almighty, we too must first be in the exile.

[21]. עצמות ומהות בגוף. See Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Torat Menachem vol. 1, p. 25.

[22]. Daniel 10:8.

[23]. Torat Menachem, ibid.

[24]. See Zohar II, 38a.

[25]. Sefer Yetzirah 1:4.

[26]. See Shabbat 33b.

[27]. In Hebrew these are called Rabanim mita’am (רבנים מטעם).

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