Word of the Day / Ushpizin: The Inns and Outs of Sukkah Guests

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Guess who's coming to dinner? Crowded sukkahs in Jerusalem's Ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood.Credit: AP

One of the customs associated with Sukkot is inviting invisible guests into the sukkah.

On Passover, Jews are blessed with a supernatural visitor, who drops in for a few drops of wine: the prophet Elijah. On Sukkot we get seven such guests, one for each day of the holiday: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.

Collectively, they are called ushpizin, which means “guests” in Aramaic. “Enter, exalted holy ushpizin,” begins the text that some people recite to welcome the visitors.

But if the overcrowding in the sukkah leaves your Great-Uncle Max feeling ill, he might find himself hospitalized – or me’ushpaz, which comes from the same root as ushpizin and essentially means he becomes the hospital’s guest. A hospital stay is an ishpuz, or guestification, if you will.

In Aramaic, ushpiza means “inn,” “innkeeper” or “host.” By the time of the Zohar, where the concept of those Sukkot visitors comes from, it had also come to mean “guest.”

The Aramaic-Hebrew tag-team effort isn’t the only example of an overlap between the concepts of hospital and hospitality. The description of hospitals as institutions for sick people was first recorded in the 1540s. Before that, hospitale meant “guesthouse” or “inn,” with the Late Latin word coming from the Latin hospes, meaning, as in Aramaic, “host” as well as “guest.”

Not only is the linguistic connection in Hebrew and Aramaic similar to that in English; the words actually come from the same source. Like the English “host,” “hospital” and “hospitality,” the Aramaic ushpizin is derived from the Latin word hospes, via the medieval Greek word for “inn.”

So if you should have reason to find yourself complaining about Israeli hospital food, perhaps it will be of some small comfort to know that, in some sense at least, you are not just an inpatient but also an honored guest.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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