Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ushpizin at Sukkot: Time to Gather the Spirits

"Humans are not proud of their ancestors, and rarely invite them round to dinner." - Douglas Adams

One of the recurrent experiences I have found in delving into Jewish lore is how often the most startling esoteric practices are hiding in plain sight. Take for example the Ushpizin (Aramaic, “Guests”). Granted, until the release of the 2005 award-winning comedy of the same name, many Jews had never even heard the word. But those of us who observe the festival of Sukkot every fall certainly have. We’ve just failed to think through the true nature of this ‘quaint’ tradition.

Sukkot, of course, is the Biblical festival that follows almost immediately after Yom Kippur. Christians who know it at all know it by the charmingly archaic "Feast of Tabernacles." It celebrates the fall harvest (and is sometimes called the "Festival of Ingathering"), heralds the rainy season, and commemorates the generation our ancestors spent wandering and living in the wilderness before we were allowed to enter the Land of Israel. The centerpiece of the holiday is constructing and living in sukkot, “huts,” for seven (or eight) days. A beautiful theo-psycho-drama, during Sukkot we relive the experience of our ancestors while we reconnect with the earth and its life-giving power. The Gerer Rebbe compares the Sukkah to a chuppah, that through our desert experiences, we became "wed" to God.

Any wedding requires guests, and ushpizin are guests we invite to join us in our sukkah. It is considered a great tikkun, a great act of healing and rectification to have living souls share our hospitality in our temporary shelters. But ushpizin do not have to be alive. In fact, Jewish mystical tradition actually encourages us to summon the spirits of our ancestral dead to visit us also. Most modern commentators, when describing this ritual, stick the word “symbolically,” "metaphorically" or "poetically" in front of the word “invite.” But if you read the traditional explanations of this ritual, there is no sense that this is merely a symbolic act. Rather, the tradition is “dead” serious that spirits gather with us at this time of year: "When a person sits in his Sukkah the Shekhinah spreads its wings over it from above and then Avraham together with the other five Tzadikim and King David dwell together with him” (Zohar, Emor).

How is this possible? Mystics believe it is because the Sukkah serves as a kind of liminal zone between the physical and spiritual realms. The sukkah occupies material and supernal space simultaneously. As one contemporary Chasidic master put it, Di suke iz iber undzere kep vi di Shkhine shvebt iber undz, vi a mame iber di kinderlekh...“The sukkah is over our heads as the Shekhinah hovers over us like a mother over her dear children...”[1]. Even more striking, according to Isaac Luria the sukkah is a potential ‘frame’ for the Shekhinah, the feminine dimension of God. When we properly perform the commandments within its space, we unite the feminine Shekhinah with the masculine divine principle of Tiferet. In doing so we transform the sukkah into a spiritual womb which draws together Jewish souls, both living and dead (Sefer Sha’ar ha-Kavanot, drash 5).

In order to draw in these spirits, we recite this prayer of summoning:

"May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, to send Your presence to dwell in our midst and to spread over us the sukkah of Your peace, to encircle us with the majesty of Your pure and holy radiance. Give sufficient bread and water to all who are hungry and thirsty. Give us many days to grow old upon the earth, the holy earth, that we may serve You and revere You. Blessed by the Lord forever - amen, amen. I invite to my meal the exalted guests — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David."[2]

As you can see, there are seven spirits, one for each day of the Biblical observance. You may also notice that they are all men. This is the norm in many traditional Jewish communities, but some mystics have not neglected to draw upon the spiritual power of our matriarchs also. 16th Century Italian mystic Menahem Azariah of Fano also associated the seven “lower” sefirot with the seven prophetesses the Talmud enumerates: Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther. So in some traditions, these spirits are also called forth to bless their descendants on Sukkot.

So on Sukkot we gather souls as well as produce. Fact is, Judaism as always been comfortable with the idea that there is some interaction possible between living Jews and their righteous ancestors. They visit us in our dreams, they are present with us at critical moments. In time, as the Bible puts it, we will all be “gathered to our kin” (Deut. 32:50-51). But at Sukkot, at least, they can gather to us.

To learn more, see the entries Ancestors, Ghosts, Sukkot, Prophecy, Usphizin in the EJMMM.


Illustration: The Ushpizin prayer plaque is displayed at www.jhom.com/calendar/tishrei/

[1] R’ Shlomo Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, 1999, cited at http://telshemesh.org/fire/the_jewish_goddesses_justin_lewis.html

[2] Translation taken from Jewish Heritage Online Magazine


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had the Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism class last semester and really enjoyed the whole experience. I look forward to the EJMM and future posts on this blog.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also was a student of the esteemed Rabbi Geoff in the Spring semester. I learned much from him then and learn more as I read this new blog.

I was grateful to see that the prayer for Sukkoth can also include the matriarchs of the tradition. Given that the sukkah is considered a spiritual womb where the Shekinah and Tiferet aspects of G-d come together, praying for the presence of both patriarchs and matriarchs in the faith seems entirely appropriate to me.

9:15 PM  

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