A kabbalistic practice that has become increasingly popular today is welcoming the ushpizin into the sukkah. Aramaic for guests, the ushpizin are the seven biblical personalities, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David, who are invited, one per night, into the sukkah to join in the week-long holiday celebration. Recently, Jewish feminists have expanded the custom to include women as well, calling them in the feminized form, ushpizot.
The selection of ushpizot is based upon the seven female prophets named in the Talmud (B. Megillah 14a-b): Sarah (Genesis 16:21), Miriam (Exodus 2:1-9; 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 4-5), Hannah (I Samuel 25), Abigail (I Samuel 25:20), Huldah (II Kings 22:10-20), and Esther (Book of Esther). In the talmudic passage each woman is associated with prophetic acts, but later they were invested with mystical symbolism by the medieval kabbalists.
The ushpizin were first attributed in the Zohar (late 13th century):
“When you sit in the sukkah, ‘the shade of faithfulness,’ the Shekhina spreads Her wings over you and… Abraham, five other righteous ones, and King David, make their dwelling with you…Thus you should rejoice with a shining countenance and every day of the festival together with these guests who lodge with you…” (Zohar Emor, 103b)
The custom of actually welcoming them as guests was attributed to Isaac Luria, the sixteenth century mystic of Safed, who instructed that each of the biblical leaders should be invited into the sukkah on subsequent nights of the holiday. According to kabbalistic thought, each of these seven evoked or represented one of the sefirot, the mystical aspects and emanations of God. Of the ten sefirot, these seven are in contact with the created world. Luria taught that through these seven physical emanations, personified in the seven great guests, one can reach up to the unfolding aspects of God’s presence in the world. They are:
With the development of many new rituals for women over the past decade, inviting Ushpizot to your sukkah can be added to the list of creative innovations.
The spiritual guest of each day is invited before the meal and the following text is recited:
May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, to send Your presence to dwell in our midst and to spread over us the sukkah of Your peace, to encircle us with the majesty of Your pure and holy radiance. Give sufficient bread and water to all who are hungry and thirsty. Give us many days to grow old upon the earth, the holy earth, that we may serve You and revere You. Blessed by the Lord forever – amen, amen.
On each night another guest is addressed, for example:
Sarah, my exalted guest, may it please you to have all the exalted guests join me and you” —Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther
A number of internet sites offer resources and suggestions for crafting your own Ushpizot tradition. Some recommended websites include:
If you would like stories about more biblical women, click below to Programs for You, Invite them In: Women in the Bible.
As an incentive to inviting the ushpizot, you can purchase a stunning 27″ x 32″ laminated poster created by artist Ellen Alt for decorating your sukkah. It features the seven women named by the Talmud and comes with a resource packet of ideas on how to use the poster and/or create your own ritual. If you don’t have a sukkah of your own, take it as a gift to someone else’s. To order, visit www.haggadahsrus.com.
Another custom attributed to Luria is to invite seven poor people to eat in the sukkah. Then there are the seven exalted guests from above with the seven earthly guests, and the shekhinah hovers over all.
Some Sephardic Jews follow the custom of setting aside a chair in the sukkah for the guest of the day. The chair is decorated and they announce each day that this is the chair of the ushpizin/ot. That chair remains empty throughout the meal. This custom is reminiscent of Elijah’s cup at the Passover seder and Elijah’s chair at a traditional circumcision. They might also place a plate of food by the empty chair. The food is then sent to the poor with a note that says, “This is the share of the ushpizin/ot.”
So, in the adaptation of this custom as a women’s ritual, we provide a context for studying women in an atmosphere that is appealing and informal. As we study the stories of Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Avigail, Huldah, and Esther, they can be elaborated and expanded, and perhaps even complemented with the achievements of more contemporary female personalities. Their stories are rich and engrossing, highlighting the multi-layer dimensions of the lives of our biblical female forebears.
Sarah journeyed with her husband Abraham from Ur to Canaan to Egypt and back. Her inability to conceive jeopardizes the covenant God made with Abraham (and therefore his household) to make their progeny numerous and give them the land of Israel. Her response to God that he will give her a son in her old age is to laugh; the name given to her son, Isaac, means laughter.
Miriam first appears in the Torah as the unnamed sister of the infant Moses. She watches over him when his mother hides him in the reeds of the Nile River after pharaoh’s decree to kill all infant Hebrew baby boys. Miriam saves him (and by extension, the Jewish people) by convincing pharaoh’s daughter to adopt him and raise him as her own. Later she appears in another form, as Miriam the prophet who leads the Israelite women in song and dance after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.
Deborah is the Bible’s only female military hero and the only judge to be called a prophet. She is a critical figure in the Israelite victory over the Caananites led by King Jabin and his general, Sisera. Deborah is often depicted sitting under a palm tree, adjudicating legal matters. She should, in fact, be depicted wearing a helmet and brandishing a sword.
Hannah is the most loved, but again curse with infertility, of the two wives of Elkanah. In despair over her childlessness, she offers a silent prayer at the sanctuary at Shiloh for God to open her womb. In her prayer she vows to consecrate her child to the service of God. When she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Samuel, Hannah sings a triumphant song that proclaims her success over her adversaries and the ultimate power of God.
Avigail’s story begins with a description of her wealthy husband, Nabal. David, not yet king of Israel, travels to their tribal area and asks Nabal for hospitality. Nabal refuses, and the enraged David prepares to attack him. Avigail brings David food and drink and asks him to spare her husband.
Huldah is a prophet who validates the scroll of law found in the temple during the time of King Josiah (mid 7th BCE). Josiah sends his emissaries to Huldah, asking if the scroll is authentic. This story affirms that prophecy was indeed a role practiced by women in antiquity.
Esther is first introduced as one of the young virgins taken into the harem of King Ahasuerus as a replacement for his banished, independent-minded wife, Queen Vashti. Esther is chosen to become queen but does not reveal her Jewish identity to the king or his court until her people are imperiled by court intrigue.