Eating with supernal strangers

Eating with supernal strangers

Who are the ushpizin and how they came to be

They’re the ideal high-energy, low-maintenance guests.

In a tradition going back at least 700 years, on each of the seven days of Sukkot a different Biblical hero is invited into the sukkah.

They’re known as ushpizin, from the Aramaic term for guests. (Linguistically, ushpizin is related to the English words hospice and hospitality.)

The idea first appears in the Zohar, the best known and most important text of Jewish mysticism. For the Zohar, the magic of the guests is symbolic: seven days of the holiday correspond to seven Biblical characters.

“When a man sits in the shadow of faith the Shekhinah spreads Her wings on him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones of God (and David with them) make their abode with him… A man should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests,” writes the Zohar.

The Sefardim invited the guests in the order of their kabbalistic symbolism: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David.

The Ashkenazic halachic authorities edited the list into chronological order. They invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.

In recent years, there has been a desire to invite female Biblical archetypes as well. Enumerating these ushpizot, however, is a matter of dispute.

One ritual draws on the Talmud (Megillah 14a-b), which lists seven prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther. By the 13th century, the prophetesses already were linked to the seven sephirot.

A poster with these figures — along with Biblical verses, and the Hebrew invitational phrase — is available at

But this list is rejected by Rabbi David Seidenberg of the web site, who writes, “ This order doesn’t feel to me like the one we should base ushpizin on, however.”

He notes that “only one of the matriarchs is represented, and the three very strong correspondences between the sefirot with Leah, Rachel, and Tamar are left out.”

Instead, he invites Ruth, Sarah, Rivkah, Miriam, Devorah, Tamar, and Rachel.

Ruth represents chesed, he writes, “pure kindness and trust, devoting herself entirely to being God’s instrument and Naomi’s support, the one who chooses to be Jewish (to speak anachronistically) without any advantage or self-interest, motivated strictly from within herself, like Abraham.”

The full explanation of his reasoning, along with Hebrew and English liturgy, can be found at

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly took a historical rather than a kabbalistic approach in its selection of seven women. It chose Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Devorah, and Ruth. A full ushpizin ritual with commentary, from the Conservative prayer book Or Hadash, can be downloaded from

Chabad-Lubavitch has a related tradition of celebrating each day of Sukkot with a mention of one of the rabbis in its chasidic dynasty, beginning with the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of chasidism.

“Their souls come and enjoy the sukkah with us, together with regular ushpizin,” said Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck.

“Each one of the rebbes in Chabad has taught a tremendous amount of Torah. They serve as our inspiration,” he said.

Rather than ritually inviting each day’s rebbe, a d’var Torah is dedicated to him — either a story about him or a piece of Torah taught by him.

Similarly, Rabbi Simon said, the seven original patriarchs are marked with a d’var Torah.

“The key to opening up the spiritual doors is all through Torah,” he said.

The Zohar is clear, however, that the sukkah table is not only for spiritual guests. The host “must help the poor to rejoice. Why? Because the portion of the celestial guests whom he has invited belongs to the poor,” writes the Zohar.

It continues: “But let him not say ‘I shall eat and be satisfied and take my fill first, and then give to the poor what is left over.’ The guests should come first. And if he makes them rejoice and satisfies [the poor], the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices with him.”

Rabbi Alan Brill, a professor at the graduate department of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University, notes the similarity of this piece of the Zohar with earlier teaching of Maimonides: “When one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other unfortunate paupers. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and eats and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered soul — this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but the joy of his belly (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals 6:18).”

Rabbi Brill said the Zohar is following one of its basic principles, “that which occurs on earth has a parallel above. You’re inviting supernal guests assuming you’re going to invite below,” he said.

In other words, while you’re serving the needy at your table, you’re also serving heavenly beings.

Over time, though, the ritual shifted from being about the poor to being about the ushpizin, even as the meaning of sefirot increasingly took on connotations of personal character traits, he said.

“If you’re inviting the downtrodden and lonely on each day of Sukkot, it’s not about your personal feelings. The meaning has shifted to symbolism and identifying with archetypes.

“I think people like the Zohar more than they like the poor, unfortunately,” Rabbi Brill said, adding that it’s not just the poor who should be invited, but “the lonely, the downtrodden, the embittered. Those we certainly have in suburbia.”

Larry Yudelson is the associate editor of the Jewish Standard

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