One of the least understood practices of Sukkot is that which is colloquially referred to as “ushpizin,” an Aramaic term for guests. With no mention in the Gemara, rishonim, or Shulchan Aruch, the practicing of this minhag is a rare occurrence in many families. However, ushpizin has firmly grounded roots in the Zohar, and can help us better understand the overall message of Sukkot.
The Torah states, “Ba’sukkot teishvu shivat yamim kol ha’ezrach b’Yisrael yeishvu ba’sukkot – “You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in sukkot” (Vayikra 23:42). There are a few glaring issues which arise from this pasuk. Firstly, what is the reason the pasuk gives us the commandment us to dwell in sukkot twice? Secondly, why is there a shift in the form of the commanding word (“teishvu” to “yeishvu”)? Lastly, the pasuk in its current grammatical state means, “In booths shall seven days dwell”; the Torah should have used the phrase “b’shivat yamim” had it intended to say “You shall dwell in booths for seven days.”
The Zohar in Parashat Emor (3: 103b) quotes Rabbi Abba who states that, in fact, the strange phraseology of shivat yamim serves as a reference to shivat ha’roim – Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Moshe, Aharon, David, and Yosef – our seven spiritual shepherds and guides. Yamim, days, refers to tzadikim because had tzadikim not been in this world, then the whole world would be comparable to night time (see Bava Metzia 83b). Furthermore, the apparent redundancy in the pasuk as well as the change from “teishvu” to “yeishvu” is no longer an issue. The first half of the pasuk is a command to the shivat ha’roim to leave Gan Eden, their dwelling place, and join us in our dwelling place. The second half of the pasuk, though, is Hashem’s statement to us, almost as a fact rather than a command, that we will dwell in sukkot.
The obvious question is what is the purpose of ushpizin, and how does it further our understanding of the holiday of Sukkot? If we understand that the shivat ha’roim serve as our spiritual guides, then they are by definition here in order to facilitate the fostering of a connection with Hashem. This point is further evidenced by the fact that, according to Kabbalistic tradition, each of the Seven Shepherds represents one of the seven sefirot, or attributes, with which Hashem interacts with this world.
When Bnei Yisrael dwelt in sukkot for their forty years in the midbar, they were not only out of their element, but they also felt as if they were in constant danger and distress. Nevertheless, they had faith in Hashem that He would protect and provide for them. Similarly, Hashem
commands us to dwell in these booths for seven days. Sometimes eating and sleeping in sukkot can be difficult, but we must understand that we have to put our faith in Hashem and trust that what He is doing is not just for our benefit, but it is also to serve as a learning experience for us and our families.
Perhaps this is why the pasuk states, “yeishvu,” as a statement, rather than “teishvu,” as a command. When Hashem tells us to do something, we should do it automatically to the extent that Hashem can state what we will do rather than what we are commanded to do. We should serve Hashem in such a way that His commandments and our actions are identical. As a result, as the Zohar teaches, Hashem reciprocates the deep devotion, connection, and commitment we have to Him by sending the shivat ha’roim, His representatives, to visit our sukkot and show His continued connection to us.