It is now the midpoint of Sukkot, so on day four of the Feast of Tabernacles, let’s deal with all those pesky queries about the ghostly guests, the Ushpizin!
1) Q: Ushpiz? What sort of word is that?
A: It’s Aramaic, borrowed from the Latin hospes, meaning host or guest (we’ll be using the latter term), which has given us the term “hospitality.”
2) Q: Why do my Israeli friends call an ambulance when I say I want to be an ushpiz for a Sabbath meal?
A: Ah, well just as “hospital” evolved from this root in French and English, the modern Hebrew term for hospitalization, ishpuz, followed a similar route (although hospital is still beit holim, house of the sick).
3) Q: So what’s so special about guests on Sukkot?
A: That brings us to the Zohar, the classic work of Jewish mysticism first published in the 13th century, which states (Lev. 103b):
Rabbi Abba said: Abraham and the five righteous and King David share their dwelling together with him. Of this it is written: “In sukkot you shall dwell seven days” (Lev. 23:42)… It is written, “In sukkot you shall dwell seven days” and then “they shall dwell in sukkot”—first, “you shall dwell,” and then “they shall dwell.” The former refers to the Guests; the latter to the people of the world.
Thus taught Rav Hamnuna the Elder. When he would go up to the sukka, he would rejoice and stand outside the doorway of his sukka and say: “Let us invite our guests; let us set out the bread. And he would stand on his feet and bless, saying: “‘In sukkot you shall dwell seven days’ — be seated, supernal guests, be seated. Be seated, faithful guests, be seated.”
4) Q: Wait, who are the “five other righteous”?
A: It never says, but Isaac and Jacob are mentioned later in the passage, pronouncing curses on those who invite them but not the poor.
Rabbi Abba said: All his days Abraham would stand at the crossroads to invite guests and to set bread before them. Now that he is invited, together with all the other righteous and with King David, and [the needy] are not given their portion, Abraham stands up from the table and calls out: “Go away from the tents of these wicked people” (Num. 16:26). And they all go away after him. Isaac says, “The belly of the wicked suffers want” (Prov. 13:25). Jacob says “The morsels you have eaten you shall vomit up” (Prov. 23:8). And all the other righteous say: “For all the tables are filled with vomit and excrement, with no space left” (Isa. 28:8).
5) Q: Yum. But wait, “the other righteous” could be anyone! Why then are the feminists criticized for coming up with usphizot?
A: Because it’s USHPIZAN. Where did you people learn Aramaic grammar, anyway?
6) Q: Then how did we get Joseph, Moses and Aaron as the other three?
A: Oh, that’s a different Zohar (Addenda III, 301b-302a):
In parallel to these seven supernal days, the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in the world seven worthies of truth to establish them and enlighten them, each and every one on his respective day, and He planted each one in the appropriate generation. These are the fathers of the world: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
7) Q: But isn’t that about the days of Creation, i.e. the days of the week?
8) Q: So, today is Sunday, the fourth day of Sukkot but the first day of the week. Is it Joseph’s day or Abraham’s?
A: Well, each of these has a unique Kabbalistic superpower, and Joseph’s ranks him after Moses and Aaron, even though he lived earlier. So maybe it’s Moses’ day, as Sephardic and Hasidic Jews maintain. An Ushphizin Fighting Championship would settle this once and for all.
9) Q: But everyone agrees that it’s seven total, right?
A: No. Before Rabbi Abba is quoted, the first opinion leaves out David, so it’s only “Abraham and five other righteous.” On the other hand, some (like R. Zadok of Lublin, Peri Tzadik, Deut., Sukkot 38) add an eighth for the extra day in the Diaspora: King Solomon. Surprisingly, the same Frankfurt Jews who do not say prayers that have their source in the Zohar nevertheless embrace the idea of eight Ushpizin.
10) Q: Still, it’s just words, right?
A: Depends whom you ask. One version opens with, “I beseech thee, X,” which is hardly the tone of R. Hamnuna’s invitation. Indeed, some authorities (R. Hayim Palachi, Kaf Ha-hayim 639:8) demand action: lighting candles in the name of the respective night’s Ushpiz and putting an embroidered chair out for them. (To share?) I’m sure the odd pauper out will appreciate knowing that a seat is being saved instead for those who won’t eat.
A: That’s why I leave it all out. Math is easy; Kabbala is hard.