Who and what are the ushpizin?
Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means “guests.” Translated into English, the word loses some of its mystery and otherworldliness. Yet these “guests” are indeed quite mysterious (at least until we learn more about them) and otherworldly (at least until we make them part of ours). We use the Aramaic term because our source of information about these mystical guests is from the Zohar, the fundamental Kabbalistic work written in that mystical language.
There are seven supernal guests who come to visit us in the sukkah (the branch-covered hut in which we eat our meals throughout the festival of Sukkot), one for each of the seven days of the festival. Guests are an important part of the Jewish home all year round—there were even Jews who would never partake of a meal in their own home unless there was at least one guest, preferably a needy wayfarer, with whom to share it—but especially on Shabbat, and even more especially on the Jewish festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, etc.). On the festivals, there is a special mitzvah (divine commandment), “One who locks the doors of his courtyard, and . . . does not feed the poor and the embittered soul—this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but the joy of his belly . . .”“And you shall rejoice on your festival . . .” (Deuteronomy 16:14), and, our sages explain, the only true joy is shared joy. Indeed, the verse in full reads: “And you shall rejoice in your festival—you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow who are within your cities." In the words of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals 6:18): “When one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and other unfortunate paupers. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and eat and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered soul—this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but the joy of his belly . . .”
If guests are integral to festival joy, they are even more so to Sukkot. Sukkot is the festival of Jewish unity; in fact, the Talmud states that “it is fitting that all Jews should sit in one sukkah.” If this is logistically difficult to arrange, it should, at the very least, be implemented in principle. We cram as many guests as possible into our sukkah, demonstrating that we fully intend to implement the Jewish communal sukkah to the full extent of our ability, each in our own domain. There is even a story told about a certain chassidic master who, because he lacked a guest, the patriarch Abraham refused to enter his sukkah (why Abraham was there—more on that later).
And so we come to the ushpizin. As we fill our sukkah with earthly guests, we merit to host seven supernal guests, the seven “founding fathers” of the Jewish people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.
While all seven ushpizin visit our sukkah on each of the seven nights and days of Sukkot, each supernal “guest” is specifically associated with one of the festival’s seven days, and is the “leading” or dominant ushpiza for that night and day.
Translated into English, the word loses some of its mystery and otherworldliness
The Kabbalists teach that these seven leaders—referred to in our tradition as the “Seven Shepherds of Israel”—correspond to the seven sefirot, or divine attributes, which categorize G‑d’s relationship with our reality, and which are mirrored in the seven basic components of our character (man having been created “in the image of G‑d”).
As each supernal “guest” graces our sukkah, he empowers us with the particular quality that defines him. This is the deeper reason that they are called the “Shepherds of Israel,” for like a shepherd who provides nourishment for his flock, these seven leaders nourish us their spiritual essence: Abraham feeds us love; Isaac, self-discipline; Jacob, harmony and truth; and so on.
And while these seven great souls are our “shepherds” all year round, the seven days of Sukkot are a time when their presence in our lives is more pronounced and revealed. As we enter the “temporary dwelling” of the sukkah, freeing ourselves from the dependence we developed on the material comforts of home and hearth, we are now in a place in which our spiritual self is more revealed and accessible. In this place, the ushpizin visit us, empowering us to connect the seven dimensions of our own soul’s “divine image” with its supernal source in the divine sefirot, feeding, nourishing and fortifying our spiritual self for the material year to come.
The seven sefirot, or divine energies, we are fed by the ushpizin are:
First day: Chessed—the attribute of “Benevolence” or “
Love”—personified by Abraham.
Second day: Gevurah—“Restraint” and “Discipline”—embodied by Isaac.
Third day: Tif’eret—“Beauty,”
“Harmony” and “Truth”—the sefirah of Jacob.
Fourth day: Netzach—“Victory” and “Endurance”—Moses.
Fifth day: Hod—“Splendor” and “Humility”—Aaron.
Sixth day: Yesod—“Foundation” and “Connection”—Joseph.
Seventh day: Malchut—“Sovereignty,” “Receptiveness” and “Leadership”—David.