As I prepare to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot I have been exploring the various customs, and I’ve become intrigued by the ritual of Ushpizin, the inviting of supernal beings as guests to the sukkah. From what I have read it sounds like quite the magical mystery tour. Where did this idea come from and what is its significance? Is this a must? Is there an explicit text to this ritual? Is there a specific way to invite them? I am hoping there is a “big idea” here, otherwise it seems a bit off the rational path, maybe even bordering on the — dare I say it — spooky. Please enlighten me!
Though many of us are deep in the menu planning and the lists of actual guests, I applaud your diverting our attention to the other kinds of guests, the Ushpizin. To a certain degree, they offer less of a challenge to the host; no food allergies, no fussy tastes — they tend to be mostly punctual and never overstay their welcome. Given that, however, we have much to explore here.
First, a word about the word Ushpizin: Not originally a Hebrew word, it is one of those rare four-letter roots, perhaps meaning either to be a guest and to host. Interestingly, it shares the same origin as the Latin hospes, as in hospitality and hospital. In Hebrew, these seven guests are called Ushpizin, which besides the name of a well-known Israeli film, means, in a version of the root as well, l’ashpez, to be hospitalized.
The practice of Ushpizin, inviting heavenly beings, is well-known and accepted. The text for the practice is found in many holiday prayer books, though some people’s practice avoids this custom, eschewing its mystical nature. Those who do embrace the custom ritually invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moshe, Aaron, Joseph and David each time they eat a meal in the sukkah. This practice is first found in the Zohar. There we learn that when we sit in the sukkah, the Divine Presence spreads itself over us and Abraham, along with the other righteous guests who arrive to sit with us. This is indicative of our elevated connection to God as we sit in the sukkah.
This ritual of dwelling in the sukkah represents a tangible demonstration of our faith in the Almighty. Ironically, we feel secure and confident during the year in our safe, protected homes. Not to get everyone paranoid here, but this is an illusion — a huge pitfall and false sense of confidence we easily succumb to. Indeed, our material goods and comforts lead us to become haughty and forget that in truth by the Grace of God go we.
This genuine, perhaps latent and unexpressed concern should cause us constant distress during the year — if we would pause to reflect. On Sukkot we are suddenly catapulted into being unshielded by the walls of our sheltering abodes and therefore have the joy of dwelling within the pure state of trust and joy in our Maker; we cannot help but feel the precariousness of our being. There is no false sense of security in those shaky sukkah walls. This is true dwelling in the gentle protective shadow of faith.
According to the Zohar, our holy guests, which accompany the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is even hinted at in the scriptural verse “You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall dwell in booths” — this is not at all evident in the English translation. In the Hebrew the verb “you should dwell” in the second phrase differs from the way it appears in the second phrase. The first is teshvu — in second person, while the latter is “yeshvu” — in the third person, indicating there are two who dwell; the first, the mystical guests and the second, all of Israel in the here and now.
Rabbi Hamnuna the Elder, as the Zohar continues to detail, would stand at the door of his sukkah and actually verbally invite in these lofty visitors. Here are the words from the Zohar describing rabbi Hamnuna’s practice:
Let us invite the guests and prepare a table and he used to stand up and greet them, saying, “In booths we shall dwell,” sit most exalted guests, sit, sit guests of faith, sit. Happy is our portion and only then would he sit.
This greeting of the guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moshe, Aaron, Joseph and David, must include the specific names, fully articulated with great joy and delight, adjures the Zohar. This is because each new day brings a new guest. Though the guests each appear each night together, they each take turns leading the others as the week progresses and each deserves to be greeted with tremendous joy!
On the first night, Abraham is the lead guest, on the second night Isaac, on the third night, Jacob takes the lead, and so on. However, the subsequent guests are the subject of a small dispute: There is a discussion about the order of the guests after Jacob. One opinion holds that the order of the guests is determined by age, in that at a meal we honor the oldest and most venerated guest with the seat of most honor.
We know that Abraham is oldest, followed Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moshe, Aaron, and David. However, another opinion holds that the order is determined by wisdom — this seating is less about sharing a meal and more about a counsel of sorts, thereby resulting in placing Moshe and Aaron before Joseph and then finishing with David. That order would then be Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moshe, Aaron, Joseph and David. A Sephardic practice even goes so far as to provide a symbolic, fully decorated chair in honor of the guests, not unlike the chair of Elijah at a brit milah. There are those who light seven candles in honor of the guests as well.
Now for the “big ideas” of Ushpizin: One notion central to the holiday of Sukkot is the responsibility to feed the hungry, either as guests in our homes or with foods provided before the holiday that are sent on to the homes of the needy. In the same passage where the Zohar describes our pious guests from the beyond, it instructs us to also gladden the poor, “for the portion of these seven guests must be given to the poor.”
Truly, it is easy enough to stand at the entrance of the sukkah and to invite each of these holy guests by name and to even prepare a decorated chair in the sukkah to symbolize their presence, but as always, our tradition is consistent in its expectations of all us to never forget those that do not have food for their table. Perhaps we might institute a yearly “Ushpizin” campaign to feed the hungry.
Big idea number two: Each of the Ushpizin guests personify character traits to which we must all aspire. Abraham represents loving kindness; Isaac, strength; Jacob, glory; Joseph, holiness; Moshe, eternity; Aaron, splendor; and David, royalty. It’s not all easy to grasp but something to ponder about on each evening. What would it look like to embody the trait of that day? Who else are examples of these values? In what way might we nurture these values in ourselves and others?
Finally, perhaps the biggest idea of all: What does it mean to create a family, a home, a sukkah to which our holy forefathers would be feasible guests? Now there’s a challenge for each of us!