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Hospitality for the Living and Dead: Sukkot Custom Invites Biblical Guests

October 6, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

ushpizin n. Aramaic (oosh-pee-ZEEN) “Visitors” or “guests.” The ancestors who are invited into the sukkah. Sukkot is a harvest celebration. It’s a blessing to invite families, friends, neighbors and even strangers who do not have a sukkah of their own.

Along with the actual guests, religiously observant Jews also welcome seven heavenly guests — the ushpizin. These seven are the biblical characters Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.

In the Sephardi tradition, families set aside an ornate or specially decorated chair in the sukkah for the ushpizin.

Some say the inspiration for Sukkot hospitality dates back to the patriarch Abraham, who would sit outside his desert tent waiting to invite travelers.

A modern version of the ritual includes Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Esther, Deborah and Miriam.

In another modern twist, some families also invoke the names of their deceased grandparents.

Maimonides saw holiday hospitality as a matter of religious obligation. He wrote that “while eating and drinking himself, one is obligated to feed the stranger, orphan and widow. If you do not, you are not performing a mitzvah for joy, but for your stomach.”

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are co-authors of The JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words (Jewish Publication Society, 2006).

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