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Ushpizin

            I know, it sounds like I just sneezed on you, but Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means “guests.” It refers to a Jewish custom, during the holiday of Sukkot (which we are in now), where we are supposed to not just build a temporary hut/booth outdoors and invite real guests to eat with us, but also invite our ancestors. I knew about the idea of inviting friends to eat in the sukkah, and about our patriarch Abraham’s penchant for inviting dusty strangers into his tent, but I didn’t know about the Ushpizin ceremony until recently.

“Did you say Pee?”

            According to tradition, each night a different exalted guest enters the sukkah, and each of the ushpizin has a unique lesson to teach us based on the Sefirot. The Sefirot, translated as attributes, emanations, or illuminations of God’s infinite light, are seen as the channels through which the Divine creative life force is revealed to humankind (according to Kabbalah). The traditional Ushpizin are meant to represent the “seven shepherds of Israel”: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. Some streams of Judaism also recognize a set of seven female shepherds of Israel, called Ushpizot (using the Modern Hebrew feminine pluralization), or Ushpizata (in reconstructed Aramaic).

            The custom of Ushpizin was established by the Kabbalists in the sixteenth century, and while there’s something a little bit woo-woo about the inviting-dead-people-to-eat-with-you thing, there’s also something comforting about it. It reminds me of how the past Jedi masters returned to support new Jedis in the Star Wars movies, and how Harry Potter got to see his parents, and Dumbledore, when he really needed their support, even though they were gone.

            Especially now, when we can’t really invite our friends and neighbors to eat with us, there’s something magical about being able to invite our ancestors to sit with us instead. But, of course, I would prefer to come up with my own list of guests, instead of being stuck with the biblical characters each night.

            For Day One the divine characteristic is Chesed, usually translated as loving kindness, but generally meaning generosity, compassion, and maybe something like the unconditional love of grandparents. The examples in the Reconstructionist prayer book are Abraham and Sarah, but I would choose my grandfather, for his humor and his good conversation, and most of all for how clearly he loved us. I’d invite him every night, if he would come.

“Can I come too?”

            For Day two, the quality is Gevurah, meaning strength, discipline, and adherence to the law. The examples given are Isaac and Rebecca for some reason, but I think I’d invite Ruth Bader Ginsburg for day two.

            For day three the divine quality is Tiferet, or beauty, harmony, and the ability to see the whole picture. The examples given are Jacob and Leah, which makes no sense to me. Neither of them was known for their beauty, as far as I remember. And Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, while Leah stole her sister’s husband, so, not especially harmonious either. I’d like to pick an artist for day three, but I don’t know which one to choose.

“Oooh! Pick me! Pick me!”

For day fourthe characteristic isNetzach, meaning patience, endurance, persistence, and the willingness to demand justice, even from God. The examples given are Moses and Chanah, and though we all know about Moses persisting in his fight to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage, Chanah, or Hannah, is more obscure. She is one of the many women in the bible who struggles with infertility (which was a serious affliction in a society where women were only seen as valuable if they could provide children), and she prays to God to give her a son, promising to dedicate his life to the service of God. She ends up becoming the mother of the prophet Samuel (in the first book of Samuel), and when she hands him over to the high priest she is rewarded with the ability to give birth to five more children. So both Moses and Chanah are good examples of persistence, and worthy of attention, but really, I’d rather have a second visit with Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Netzach, to give me some insight into what it took to fight for women’s rights to be considered valuable whether they were wives and mothers or not. Really, someday, I’d like to be someone else’s idea of Netzach myself.  

For day five the characteristic to celebrate is Hod, or holiness with humility, someone who is powerful but not always announcing her strength. The examples given are Aaron and Miriam, and I think I would like to spend some time with Miriam, if only to get to know her better. She doesn’t get much air time in the Torah.

For day six the divine quality is Tzedek, meaning righteousness and self-sacrifice, and the examples given are Joseph and Esther, though each of them actually received quite a lot of earthly riches for their sacrifices. An alternative for day six is Yesod, meaning “foundation,” with a focus on investing in the foundations of our world and creating connections between people. And that sounds like a parent to me. Like my Mom.

Cricket’s home base – Grandma’s lap.

For day seven, the final divine characteristic is Malchut: sovereignty, leadership and sensitivity to the needs of others. The examples are David and Rachel, and David actually makes sense for kingship, though his sensitivity to the needs of others is questionable. I’d like to meet a leader, or a president, who could lead with sensitivity and compassion for her people. Someone who could give me hope for the future.

There is a lovely idea in the Talmud that all Jews should sit in one sukkah together, living together under a shelter of peace, even if we live across the world from each other, or have different beliefs and different life circumstances. I’d like to think we can expand this concept to all of humanity; that we should act as if we all live under the same roof, because, really, we do.

            There’s a line in the Ushpizin ceremony in the Reconstructionist prayer book that really works for me: May this sukkah, vulnerable to sun and wind and rain, teach us that real peace comes not from an external structure, but from the strength of the community that gathers within.

            May we all feel that strength, within us and between us, even as we live in our own vulnerable bodies, minds, homes, and countries.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

70 responses »

  1. What a lovely treat to come on this as I wrap up my day. I enjoy thinking this through with you. I think I would invite Marc Chagall. His paintings are so joy filled and he would recognize the tradition. As for Miriam, she sure could dance. I love remembering that. I am finally really tackling the history of the 29% of me that is Jewish. I have been reading the French records and comparing my DNA with other French citizens. So far I have discovered only that my grandmother shaved 15 years off her age!

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  2. That’s a beautiful wish/ prayer for people, there at the end. What a lovely celebration, Feast of Tabernacles. I did not know all this, before now. Thank you.

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  3. I really enjoy reading your posts. Although I don’t know a lot about the Jewish faith, I’m leaning quite a bit from reading your blogs. I also appreciate the way you extrapolate the ideas to the world. It sounds like a wonderful and interesting faith. I also wish I could have time with my grandparents again.

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  4. What a lovely post about a custom I was not familiar with. Thank you, Rachel. I love your idea of thinking of which special people you’d invite. I’m going to have to give that some thought!

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  5. Oh, how beautiful. 🙂 I love the idea of inviting ancestors to dine with you (similar to Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico, which I feel strong ties to since it’s all around me in Texas even though I am not Latina). The prayer is especially lovely since it speaks to all religious communities right now about how it’s the people that make is special. Have a wonderful Sukkot!

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  6. This is so nice to think about. Great post!

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  7. Beautiful post! I would invite my parents, of course… 💖

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  8. I love the posts with your insights into Judaism. How about Marc Chagall for your artist? He is a favorite of mine.

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  9. In the Hindu religion, we have such a celebration for the entire month called Shradh, where we offer prayers to our ancestors and prepared food that they liked when they were alive. We feed crows, dogs, and cows, assuming that it reached them.

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  10. Such a lovely post. We are all human and should care about everyone. I enjoy learning things from your blog. My grandparents and my mother would be the most wonderful to share with.

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  11. How interesting, thank you for sharing this with us. I would certainly echo your sentiments.

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  12. That’s beautiful and really enjoyed reading.

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  13. What a beautiful and meaningful tradition. I’d love to have my ancestors dine with me.

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  14. A transformative image: entire Earth as humanity’s sukkah. Thank You, Rachel.

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  15. Your religion has a lot of stuff to learn! It’s nice to imagine you and your guests though. I watched a film this week about a Jewish woman who returns from New York to London when her father dies. It is set in the Jewish community of north London, in an area I know well.
    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6108178/
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  16. Everyone could benefit from a custom like Ushpizin, regardless of faith or wisdom tradition.

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  17. Very interesting, encouraging, heart warming and offers much food for thought. Thank you!

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  18. Rachel, You are my idea of Netzach. Great post. Have a wonderful Sukkot and keep writing.

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  19. Thank you, Rachel for this great explanation of the different qualities each day of Sukot embraces. I never knew any of this, and now the holiday has much more meaning to me, as does the idea of the sukkah.

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  20. Thank you! What a wonderful celebration! I learned about it here.

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  21. What a beautiful tradition. Thank you for the lesson and for your perspectives on the guests.

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  22. A lovely post explaining tradition. Always lovely to learn new things. Thank you.

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  23. Lovely, Rachel – and my grandfather was very much like yours. My cousins and I agreed he must be the best man on earth.
    Your ending quote is so wonderful I am “stealing” it for my blog widget. I’d been struggling to find a quote, but I love this one. I will totally give you credit!

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  24. I say it to my friend Elaine all the time, whose family keeps so many Jewish traditions–the Jewish faith is beautiful. It takes us out of our focus on the mundane and into the mystical in such a gorgeous way.

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  25. Thank you for sharing these interesting facts associated with Sukkot. Jewish culture fascinates me and I’ve recently enjoyed watching “Shtisel” on Netflix. Blessings, Rachel! Keep writing!

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  26. Absolutely fascinating!

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  27. Fantastic post. Agree with MichaelStephenWells that the idea of the entire earth as humanity’s sukkah is a truly transformative image. Thinking back on so many wonderful meals and conversations shared in friends’ sukkah. What a blessing that is. This was always my favorite Jewish holiday. Wishing you a good sukkot!

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  28. Rachel. Your write up gave me a close incite to the Jewish culture and the various examples to the attachment to people. I am forced to ask…do Jews do ancestor worship like Buddhists or…?

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  29. This a beautiful post about Sukkot, invite the dear ones ….grand parents !!

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  30. I really enjoyed reading this! I love learning about different religious customs, especially in relation to honouring the dead.

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  31. Youv’e given us a a warm invited feeling. I hope Covid absense from these good things this year is met with renewal next year, rather than speeding the trend away.

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  32. I don’t know how I missed this, but I am very happy I found it! I would invite my mother and her parents. And maybe even my dad…

    Reply

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