On Ushpizin and Ushpizot: The guests at my sukkah
During Sukkot, the values of hospitality and caring for others in Judaism are accompanied by the concept of Ushpizin – ‘guests’ from the Jewish tradition.
Undoubtedly, Judaism makes many of its holidays even more special by including the values of hospitality and caring for others. We open our Passover seder by saying “all who are hungry come and eat,” many people set extra seats at their Shabbat table to invite guests at the last minute, and of course, at Sukkot, we are instructed to invite guests to our sukkah every day.
This beautiful tradition of hospitality is accompanied by the tradition of Ushpizin - “guests” from the Jewish tradition. The prevalent custom involves decorating the sukkah with pictures of the traditional Ushpizin—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David—and “inviting” one of them each night of the holiday. When the Ushpizin are guests in our sukkah, we are inspired by their values and teachings, and are also reminded to make sure our sukkah is open to all guests in need.
These days, the number of Ushpizin has grown, most notably correcting the lack of women among their ranks. Matriarchs, queens and prophets such as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Esther, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Hulda have become “Ushpizot” and remind us of the important role women have played in our history as well. In preparation for this year’s holiday, the Jerusalem branches of NOAM (the Masorti youth movement in Israel) went around the city, learning about the male and female Ushpizin and performed activities and good deeds inspired by their stories. Without question, these figures will be guests of those who participated in the event—staff and camper alike—for the duration of the holiday and beyond.
Like many other young urban dwellers, I am not lucky enough to have my own Sukkah this year. I will, however, be fulfilling my Sukkot obligations through the generosity and hospitality of others, and I hope to bring with me the good values of the figures who inspire me. While certainly the traditional Ushpizin and Ushpizot are important, here are a few that are particularly meaningful to me:
1. My family—I would want to of course invite my parents, my siblings, and my living grandparents (all of whom live outside of Israel, and with whom I haven’t celebrated Sukkot in some time), as well as my deceased grandparents. The combination of Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions in my family, the love for Israel and the love for Judaism are perhaps the most important principles guiding my observance of this and all other holidays and aspects of Jewish life.
2. Martin Buber — The Jewish philosopher continues to impress me with the wisdom of his philosophy laid out in the book I and Thou. In a word, a philosophy that forces us to interact with all aspects of our lives as more than just objects is one of great value—especially in the way it impacts our relations with other human beings. This is especially important on Sukkot, when we’ve just a finished a period of focusing so intensely on ourselves.
3. Rebecca Gratz—A native of Philadelphia, like myself, Gratz established a Sunday Hebrew school and a college to train Jewish educators. In doing so, Gratz played a central role in allowing Jews to live in the world around them while maintaining Jewish identity and receiving a Jewish education. Even as I now live in Israel, the notion that we can choose to live in the modern world, interact with non-Jews, and still invest in making Judaism an important part of lives guides my existence and the way I hope to be a Jewish educator.
4. Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach—While these two figures were very different, they are the two most significant influences on modern Jewish music today. Judaism and Jewish liturgy appear the way they do today because of the impact of these two, both of whom made it their life’s work to bring Judaism and Jewish music to a wide audience, each in his or her own way. I will not only bring in their spirit of joy in the holiday season, but also plan to use melodies of each in the songs I sing.
The above list includes just a few of the people whom I will be thinking about during this year’s holiday. I know that next year my list will be even greater, as this year I will have the pleasure of experiencing all of the guests with whom I will dwell in the sukkah – both literal and figurative - through the generosity of those who make me one of their Ushpizin.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.