March 7, 2010

Why are the Ushpizin so fitting for Sukkot?

I know it's Passover season, but I'm getting a head start on Tabernacles this year. Please read on anyway, friends - I need some real help with this one.

The Hebrew word Ushpizin means honored visitors, or guests. One traditional Jewish custom during the Feast of Booths [Sukkot] is to invite seven ancient figures symbolically into the family's outdoor Booth [Sukkah] as guests for the evening meal. The seven Ushpizin are: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron & David. A list of real Hebrew all-stars, to be sure, but is there more to it than that? I think there is.

Unfortunately, the origins and date of this custom are disputed. Some attribute the practice to 16th century kabbalists, but other experts (such as Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt U.) believe the custom goes back to the first century or beyond. In fact, Matthew 8:11 may be a reference to the Sukkah table of Sukkot.

I don't have great arguments for the earlier position, but it seems reasonable to suppose the 16th century claimants merely revived in their own region what had never died out in other places.(?) Whatever the case, I think I can state this much safely without arguing forcefully for ancient origins: the custom of the Ushpizin became widely adopted by Jews (in whatever century) because these seven figures naturally represent major themes involved with the season of wandering commemorated by the Feast of Booths. As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld observed in 1985:
"There is another connection between the ushpizin and Sukkot. All of the ushpizin were wanderers or exiles: Abraham left his father's house to go to Israel; all three patriarchs wandered in the land of Canaan, dealing with the rulers from a position of disadvantage; Jacob fled to Laban; Joseph was exiled from his family; Moses fled Egypt for Midian and later, together with Aaron, led the people for forty years wandering in the desert; and David fled from Saul. The theme of wandering and homelessness symbolized by the temporariness of the sukkah is reflected in the lives of the ushpizin." - The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary (Quill Paperback in 2002, via Harper Collins)
That same quote, by the way, is reproduced almost verbatim in The Complete How To Handbook for Jewish Living (2002), by Rabbis Kerry M. Olitzky & Ronald H. Isaacs, p.407 (w/o direct citation, which may be an honest mistake because they cite Strassfeld elsewhere). At the very least that makes three prominent rabbis who found Strassfeld's observation to be significant. I say 'Strassfeld's observation' because he also gives no citation and because I can't find anyone else making the point before 1985.

I asked Dr. Levine the briefest of questions about this last weekend at the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, and she replied, "Isaac never wandered". Well, maybe not outside Canaan, but Isaac was still nomadic. On that, note Strassfeld's exact wording, above. Still, Dr. Levine has me wondering about the validity of one Rabbi's observation... and I'd like some further opinions on this.

Why does it matter so much to me? Because the story of these seven Ushpizin takes up about 95% of Stephen's speech in Acts 7. Historicity aside for the moment, Strassfeld's observation once convinced me there was definitely a Sukkot flavor to Luke's account (at least) of Stephen's speech. So before I say anything else about Acts 7, I ought to do a bit more on the Ushpizin and Sukkot.

Why are the Ushpizin so very fitting for Sukkot? Is it because they wandered, in the sense outlined above, or was it something more general? (And where can I find more scholarly research about wandering/exile/mobility as a theme of Sukkot - not to mention of Acts 7?)

Dear Readers, if you could please notify any experts on Judaism to view this post, and encourage them to comment, I'd greatly appreciate it. Thanks so much in advance...

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