Friday, October 02, 2009

Sukkot (Zohar)

For more teachings on Sukkot, see the archives to this blog at Octiber 2006. Readers: please note that I have belatedly posted more material on Rosh Hashana, Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur, as well as a major essay at Ki Teitze. Please scroll down to read them.

Ushpizin: Inviting Supernal Guests into the Sukkah

One of the popular Jewish customs associated with Sukkot is the welcoming of supernal, spiritual guests into the sukkah. At the beginning of each meal, a special formula is recited, inviting one of the “seven shepherds” of Israel—the three patriarchs, Joseph, Moses and Aaron, and King David—as guests into the sukkah, a different one on each day. The origin of this practice is Kabbalistic, and is found in Zohar III: 103b–104a:

Rabbi Eleazar began: “Thus says the Lord: I have remember the kindness [or: devotion] of your youth” (Jer 2:2). This verse is said concerning the Congregation of Israel, at the time that the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness. “I remembered your kindness”—this refers to the cloud of Aaron, who took five others that were connected with you and shined light upon you. “The love of your bridal time”—that were perfected for you, and crowned you, and adorned you like a bride who puts on her ornaments. And all this, why? Because “you walked after me in the wilderness, in an unsown land.”

Come and see: When a person sits in this dwelling, the shadow of faith, the Shekhinah spreads its wings above him, and Abraham and the five other righteous people who are with him make their dwelling with him.

Rabbi Abba said: Abraham and the five righteous men and King David share their dwelling together with him. Of this it is written: “In Sukkot you shall dwell seven days” (Lev 23:42). It is written “seven days” [alluding to the seven sefirot that correspond to these supernal “guests”] and not “for seven days.” In like manner it is written, “For six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth…” (Exod 31:17). And a person must rejoice in each and every day with a shining face with these guests who reside with him.

Thus far, the Zohar presents the metaphysical, symbolic dimension of this idea—that the souls of these archetypal figures—who are referred to almost interchangeably with “their” sefirot—descend to the sukkah. As if to say: the sukkah, notwithstanding its mundane, homey aspects, is a special, sacred place created by each Jew during the holiday, and as such a fitting dwelling place for these spiritual entities. There is an entire ritual and liturgy surrounding this idea.

An interesting small point: the first of the Ushpizin mentioned here is Aaron, who is clearly identified with Hesed; this, unlike the standard order, found in all the Siddurim, in which Abraham is the first of the seven, both as the earliest historically and as embodying Hesed. I do not know why this is so.

Rabbi Abba said: It is written, “you shall dwell in sukkot seven days” (op cit.) and thereafter “they shall dwell in sukkot”—first, “you shall dwell” and thereafter “they shall dwell.” The former refers to the [supernal] guests; the latter to the people of the household [lit, of the world]. The former refers to the guests, as in the teaching of Rav Hamnuna Sabba. When he would go up to the sukkah, he would rejoice and stand outside the doorway of his sukkah and say: Let us invite our guests; let us set out the bread. And he would stand on his feet and bless, saying [the verse]: “In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days.“ Be seated, supernal guests, be seated. Be seated, guests of faith, be seated. He lifted up [or: washed] his hands and rejoiced and said: Happy is your portion! Happy is the portion of Israel! Of whom it is written, “for the portion of the Lord is His people…” (Deut 32:9). And then he would sit.

The ritual described here as being performed by Rav Hamnuna Sabba (one of the “heroes” of the Zohar) is the basis for the Ushpizin ritual used today, whose language is based upon the words quoted here in his name. Following this, the Zohar turns to the ethical dimension:

The second phrase refers to the members of the house, for one who has a portion in his people and in the holy land dwells in the shadow of faith, to receive guests, to rejoice in this world and in the World to Come. And he must rejoice the unfortunate. What is the reason? For the portion of those [supernal] guests he has invited is that of the poor. And one who dwells in the shadow of faith and invites these supernal guests, these guests of faith, and does not give them their portion—they all stand up and say, “Do not eat the bread of the stingy” (Prov 23:6). For that bread which he has set out is his own, and not that of the blessed Holy One. Concerning him it is written, “And I shall spread dung upon your face, the dung of your festival-offerings” (Mal 2:3). “Your festivals” and not “My festival.” Woe to that man when these guests of faith rise from his table.

The supernal guests are of course spiritual presences, who do not literally partake of the food set out on the table. And here comes the important point: those who partake of the food in the name of Abraham, Isaac, etc. are the poor! Thus, one who goes through the ritual of inviting the supernal guests to his table, but does not invite the needy (or the lonely) to his table, has missed the point, and the Ushpizin will walk out in anger!

Interestingly, Rambam, in his very different style and world-view, says something very similar to this. He of course does not have supernatural guests who walk out quoting ominous verses, but he says that if one eats and drinks with ones family and friends alone, but locks the gate of his house to the poor and the unfortunate—this is not simhat mitzvah (“celebration of mitzvah”) but simhat kereso (“rejoicing his own stomach”—Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.18). He even quotes the same verse from Malachi as doers the Zohar! (scholars: is there influence here?)

In any event, hospitality and caring for the indigent is always a great mitzvah, and never more so than during festive days! (Sociologists and psychologists observe that depression among those living alone tends to be most rife around holiday times: around Christmas in the US; Pesah and Rosh Hashana in Israel).

Rabbi Abba said: All his days Abraham would stand at the crossroads to invite guests and to set bread before them. Now that he is invited, together with all the other righteous and with King David, and they are not given their portion, Abraham stands up from the table and calls out: “Go away from the tents of these wicked people” (Num 16: 26). And they all go away after him. Isaac says, “the belly of the wicked suffers want” (Prov 13:25). Jacobs says “the morsels you have eaten you shall vomit up” (Prov 23:8). And all the other righteous say: “for all the tables are filled with filth and muck, without the Omnipresent” (Isa 28:8)….

But our passage ends on a positive note, with the blessings that shall accrue to those who do what they are able in rejoicing the poor:

Rabbi Eleazar said: For that reason, The Torah did not demand of people more but what they are able. As is written, “each person according to the gift of his hand” (Deut 16:17). And a person should not say “I will eat and be satisfied and quench my thirst first, and from that which is left over I shall give to the poor”; but rather he must first of all give to the guests. And if he rejoices his guests and they are satiated, the blessed Holy One rejoices with him, and Abraham says of him, “then you shall rejoice upon the Lord” (Isa 58:14). And Isaac says of him, “every weapon that is made against you shall not succeed” (Isa 54:17).

Rabbi Shimon said: King David said, Because all the weapons of the kings, and the battles of the kings are all given over into the hands of David. But Isaac said: “A mighty man in the land shall be his seed… wealth and abundance in his house” (Ps 112:2-3). And Jacob says, “Then your light shall burst forth like the dawn” (Isa 58:8). And the other righteous say, “And the Lord shall guide you always, and satisfy you.” And King David said, “Every weapon made against shall not succeed” (ibid., 11). For he is appointed over all the weapons of the world. Happy is the portion of that man who has merited all these. Happy is the portion of the righteous in this world and the next. Of them it is written, “And your nation is completely / entirely righteous” (Isa 60:21). (this translation was made with the assistance of Mishnat Hazohar, II. 557-560)

Cyclical Time and Linear Time

Conventional wisdom has it that Judaism is a historical religion, celebrating the ever-forward progress of human history from the Creation of the Universe through the Revelation at Sinai, and anticipating the Final Redemption with the coming of the Righteous King Messiah, speedily in our days (albeit, with many stumbling blocks and obstacles along the way—certainly in the history of the Jewish people). This is contrasted invidiously with pagan cults, that see life as an endless series of cycles, constantly returning to the starting point without any real change: a kind of fatalistic, static view of human life and history.

Certainly, even a cursory look at many of the major and minor festivals of the Jewish year—Pesah ,Shavuot, Purim, Hanukkah, and, lehavdil, Tisha b’Av—suggests that they are solidly rooted in historical occasions and historical consciousness.

But an examination of Sukkot—and perhaps of all the festivals of Tishrei—suggests a different picture. True, Sukkot is seen in a general way as commemorating the forty years of wandering in the desert, and the Almighty’s protective hovering over the Jewish people, “leading you through this great and awful wilderness, [a place of] fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirst without water; He took for you out of the flint stone” [Deut 8:15]. Yet it is difficult to see it as commemorating a specific event in quite the same way as Pesah does the Exodus or Shavuot the Epiphany at Sinai. Indeed, in several Torah passages the emphasis is primarily on Sukkot as the festival of “gathering the produce from the field” concluding a natural annual cycle “when the year goes out” or “at the turning point of the year” (Exod 23:16; 34:22).

The puzzle grows deeper as we examine the rituals associated with Sukkot. The quintessential mitzvah of the Hag, from which it takes its name—dwelling in the Sukkah—is more a static state of simply being in a particular place, “sitting” in the festive booth, rather than requiring any specific action (albeit by way of analogy to Pesah, Hazal required one to eat a certain minimum quantity of bread, kezayit or kebaitzah, in the Sukkah on the first night). If you will, it celebrates “being” rather than “becoming.” Similarly, the na’anu’im, the taking of the fruit and branches of four species and shaking them in the six directions of the cosmos, seems to celebrate a certain orientation or relation to the world of space rather than any trans-natural, historical process in time. Finally, the Hakafot—the circular procession around the Bimah with lulav and etrog on each of the first six days, and seven times on Hoshana Rabbah—seems to express whatever is symbolized by the circle, a shape that forever returns to its beginning, as opposed to the line, the vector that is history. (This ritual already originated in the Temple, with processions around the altar; tannaim disagree as to whether it was performed while holding the Four Species, or with especially tall willow branches then used to adorn the altar; see Mishnah Sukkah 4.5; Bavli 43b).

This same ritual is repeated on Simhat Torah, in terms of its basic structure, but with Torah scrolls rather than with lulav and etrog. (The joyous dancing, the main “attraction” of the holiday today, is a kind of elaboration of the basic ritual: circling the synagogue seven times; in any event, it too involves the circle form). As Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l once commented: during Sukkot Jews march in a circle holding an object of mitzvah, with the Torah scroll in the center; on Simhat Torah, Jews carry the Torah scrolls with them along the circumference of the circle—it is God Himself who is in the center!

These things are reminiscent of the aggadah at the end of Ta’anit (31a):

Rabbi Eleazar said: In the future, The Holy One blessed be He shall make a dance for the righteous, and He will sit among them in the Garden of Eden, and each one will point with his finger, as is said: “And they shall say on that day: Behold, this is our God whom we have hoped for that he might save; this is the Lord for whom we have hoped; let us rejoice and be happy in His salvation” [Isa 25:9].

Incidentally, this verse is among those found in the series of verses known as Atah horeta with which the Hakafot open.

Indeed, the very etymology of the word hag which, while used to refer to all three pilgrimage festivals, is used in Rabbinic language to designate Sukkot in particular, is derived from the word for “dance”, “circle” or “circle dance.” (It is a close cognate to the word ‘ag עג, from which are derived such words as מעגל, “circle,” and עגול, “round,” and even the title of the miracle working Honi Ha-Ma’agel, “Honi the Circle Drawer.” Ugah means both “circle” and “cake,” from the fact that cakes were originally baked in round tins, such as the famous sir pele, wundertopft, found in every Israeli home during the early decades of the State. Much as kugel derives from the German for “circle” or “sphere.” (Contrary to popular belief, the children’s song, Ugah ugah ugah, bama’agal nahugah means “Let’s go dance round in a circle” and not “Oh boy, we’re getting cake! Let’s go dance to celebrate”—although an anthropologist could doubtless write a learned study on the ritual role of cake-eating in Israeli kindergartens.)

I once suggested, in a different context (HY X: Shevi’i shel Pesah), that the two kinds of Hallel found in our liturgy—Hallel ha-Mitzri recited on festival days, and the “Hallel” of Pesukei de-Zimra recited every day—reflect two paradigmatic moments in history, around which all biblical and Jewish thought revolve: the Creation and the Exodus. It seems to me that the same typology could be applied to the contrast or tension between Pesah and Sukkot, between the linear-historical and cyclical-eternal modes of thinking. To celebrate the Creation means: to recognize God’s presence in all places and all times, to see Him as the “ground of being” (to use the language of the Germanic theologians). To celebrate the Exodus means to see Him first and foremost as the God of History, and to see history itself as a process leading towards the third great moment: Redemption.

A Creation-oriented theology celebrates the regular, cyclical ordering of the universe, each year returning to the same point where it was in previous years: the regular cycles of day and night, the seven-day cycle of weekday and Shabbat, the phases of the moon, the rhythm of spring and autumn, summer heat and winter rain—and even the life cycle of the human being, from birth, through maturity, to death, repeated endlessly, with each new generation taking the place of its parents and continuing human—and Jewish—civilization and tradition through all eternity (this is one plausible reading of the imperative, “you shall tell them to your children,” which lies at the heart of the Seder). Indeed, the blessing given to Noah after the flood: “summer and winter, sowing and harvest, heat and cold seasons, day and night will not cease” (Gen 8:22) are no more than that simple promise: life will continue in its natural course, without dramatic disruptions and upheavals. A celebration of “the day of small things.”

The sub-text of this dispute, within the contemporary scene, relates to Zionism. Zionism has been seen as the exemplar par excellence of the Jewish return to history, and the attempt to achieve redemption of the Jewish nation in actual history (Gush Emunim and other post-’67 settler ideologies represent the fusion of this with traditional religious messianism). The alternative, more “a-historical” view, sees our historical moment more in terms of olam keminhago noheg, “the world goes on its usual way,” and our task as religious people as the same as it was 100 or 500 or 1000 years ago: to perceive the Divine presence within the seemingly mundane, secular world, dominated by human greed and passions and at times violent, Hobbesian struggle—and to somehow sanctify that world. Or perhaps Zionism itself, in another reading, may be seen as a “Creationist” typology: leaving the insecurity of Galut existence, to return to the “earthliness” of a people dwelling on its own land, living a life close to these same natural cycles.

Finally, a short thought about Sukkot and weddings, in light of my nephew's forthcoming nuptials: Perhaps Sukkot may be viewed, in continuity with the other festivals, as a kind of wedding celebration of the People of Israel and God. God betroths us to Him on Pesah; Shavuot is the wedding itself; while the seven days of rejoicing (which traditionally take place in the huppah, originally, the canopied bed of the bride and groom) correspond to Sukkot. Note: the words sukkah and huppah are cognates, belonging to the same linguistic field, meaning “to cover / hover over protectively”; see Isaiah 4:5-6.


Post a Comment

<< Home