Tishrei: Talking to the Dead on Sukkot

Tishrei, the official head of the Jewish year is chock full of holidays. We have Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe, during which is also the Autumnal Equinox. Then we have Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabba, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. This is the time of the year, where we take stock and look to the year ahead. It makes a lot of sense to do this in the Fall. In ancient times, or just an agrarian culture, this is when you finish up the harvest and see how you are going to make it through the winter. It’s a pretty universal theme across many cultures.

Another theme that appears across many religious & indigenous traditions during the days following the Autumnal Equinox is the gates between the worlds being open, or the “veil between the worlds” being thin. In particular, this appears in holidays where people honor their beloved dead. Two holidays like this that leap to mind are the Mexican Day of the Day, and the Celtic holiday of Samhain. Judaism also has its holiday where we honor our revered ancestors this time of year: Sukkot.

The most prominent rituals of Sukkot are the setting up of our Sukkahs, the “huts” we “dwell in” and the shaking of the Lulav and Etrog. The harvest roots of Sukkot are hardly worth discussing and debating, because they are just so blatant. So let’s talk about that other fascinating tradition: the Ushpizin.

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Ushpizin is actually just the Aramaic word for “guests.” When used in Jewish context, it refers to the “spiritual or ghostly guests welcomed into the festive hut during the holiday of Sukkot.” (Dennis: EJMMM) That’s right, you just read the words spiritual or ghostly!

If you are now thinking, but wait – I thought talking to the dead was forbidden in Judaism? You are right, expect pretty much everything Judaism forbids — it also has sanctioned versions. Expect eating pork and shrimp. Sorry — still never found a sanctioned version of that. In case you are also wondering if this is just some weirdo custom that the Orthodox would frown upon — nope. Here’s the Orthodox Union’s take on it.

According to all the sources that I’ve looked at, the custom began with those fabulous original kabbalists in Safed around the 16th Century CE (1700s).

The custom is based on a passage from the Zohar, a core text of Kabblistic Judaism:

When people sit in a sukkah, the “shade of faithfulness”—the shekhinah [the feminine divine manifestation]—spreads Her wings over them and…Abraham, five other righteous ones, and King David make their dwelling with them. And so, people should rejoice with shining countenance every day of the festival, together with these guests who lodge with them…. Upon entering the sukkah, Rav Hamuna Sava would rejoice and, while standing in the doorway, say, “Let us invite the guests and prepare the table.” (as translated inThe Book of Customs, Kosofsky)

The ritual involves inviting one each of seven ancestors (Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David) into your Sukkah each night of the holiday to join you at your meal. In modern times, many have also added or substituted the Matriarchs and/or seven prophetesses of Judaism generally listed as: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, Esther. Because the tradition is a kabbalistic one, each of the Ushpizin also represents a Sephira – or emanation of the Holy One from the kabbalah tree of life.

There are manymanymany, approaches to inviting the Ushpizin and Ushpizot into your Sukkah. Did you know that the scent of Myrtle is said to be the scent of Gan Eden and was used in Jewish customs to welcome the ancestors? Lots more on that on the Lulav & Etrog source sheet.

There are also many fascinating ways to physically mark the presence of the Ushpizin (m) and Ushpizot (f) in your Sukkah. Generally these are described as “decorations,” but let’s be honest. What we are doing is building an ancestor altar. So why not just embrace it? There is a custom of having an empty chair for the Ushpizin. Why not make an altar of mini chairs? It’s not like the spirits need full sized chairs?

One year, I sculpted fabric “tents” and put out my favorite one as my official “Usphizin/ot” sukkah in my garden. The rain and weather will eventually wear down the clay and the tent will return to the earth.

Questions for You:

  • How will you engage with this fascinating tradition this year?
  • What Usphizin traditions have you discovered?
  • What questions about Jewish practice has this raised for you?
  • What connections does this make for you with other religious traditions?

Adapted from a post originally published on PunkTorah, 2014