As autumn sets in and the Jewish calendar turns to the festival of Sukkot, a unique and storied tradition known as the Ushpizin comes to life. While not as well known as many of the other iconic symbols of the holiday, it is nevertheless an important to its modern observance.
Each night of Sukkot, a different figurative guest, or Ushpiz, is symbolically invited to join the inhabitants of the sukkah. These Ushpizin are revered figures from Jewish history, embodying traits and values that reflect the holiday’s themes. This is read out with a special text from the machzor for Sukkot each of the nights, though it may be found in lots of siddurim. The order of the Ushpizin may vary depending on customs, but here are the traditional seven:
- Abraham: The embodiment of hospitality and kindness, Abraham symbolizes the importance of welcoming others into our lives.
- Isaac: Representing strength and self-sacrifice, Isaac highlights the virtues of endurance and dedication.
- Jacob: Known for his dedication to learning and spiritual growth, Jacob reminds us of the importance of self-improvement.
- Moses: A symbol of leadership and divine communication, Moses brings the message of guidance and humility.
- Aaron: Known for his pursuit of peace and harmonious relationships, Aaron inspires us to mend broken bonds.
- Joseph: A model of resilience and forgiveness, Joseph’s story teaches us the power of reconciliation.
- David: A shepherd and king, David exemplifies both humility and courage, reminding us of the blend of traits necessary for leadership.
The Historical Roots: The Ushpizin tradition finds its origins in Kabbalistic teachings and the Zohar, a foundational text of Jewish mysticism. The term “Ushpizin” is derived from the Aramaic word for “guests” or “visitors,” signifying the welcoming of figurative guests into the sukkah. The practice gained prominence in the 16th century with the spread of Kabbalistic teachings.
The Ushpizin tradition holds multiple layers of significance. Firstly, it bridges the gap between ancient history and contemporary practice, reminding us of our connection to generations that came before. Additionally, the Ushpizin concept serves as a reminder of the divine presence, as these figurative guests each manifest one important quality to improve one’s relationship to God.
Why Sukkot?: This practice only exists during the week of Sukkot. Sukkot itself commemorates the Israelites’ journey through the desert after their liberation from Egypt as they wandered through foreign lands at the mercy of others. The temporary dwellings, or sukkot, mirror the impermanence of life and the dependence on the Divine. At every holiday, but especially around sukkot, it is a mitzvah to welcome in guests. Even if one has invited in a stranger in need of a meal and dwelling in a sukkah, the tradition of ushpizin still remains, since another central factor of this tradition is directly referencing qualities that are universally good, but can be easily forgotten.
Bringing the Ushpizin Into Our Lives: Incorporating the Ushpizin tradition into our Sukkot celebrations can be a spiritually enriching endeavor. Each night, upon entering the sukkah, take a moment to reflect on the virtues and qualities of the Ushpiz being welcomed that evening. This is not the only time of year when each day is linked to a certain quality and improving one’s character, and growth is best accomplished a little bit each day. The holidays are a particularly auspicious time for that.
Where the sukkah stands as a symbol of transience, the Ushpizin custom reminds us of the timeless values and teachings that connect us across generations. Honoring these spiritual guests into our temporary dwelling becomes an invitation to deeper reflection, growth, and the recognition of the divine presence in our lives during the joyous festival of Sukkot.