Wednesday, 04 Oct 2017

Written by Igor Zinkov

Recently the Jerusalem Post released its list of the fifty most influential Jews in the world. The top position is shared by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. They are followed by Israeli actress Gal Gadot and Benjamin Netanyahu. Of course, any list like this raises lots of questions about who is in, in which place and why. The context of Sukkot made me compare this list with the Ushpizin – traditional Sukkah “guests” from the Jewish tradition. With a formula established by the Kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the Zohar, every night during the festival we ‘invite’ into our Sukkah one famous character from Tanakh and imagine we’re sitting in the booth together. The relevant passage from the Zohar begins with the following lines:

“When one sits in the Sukkah the Shechinah (Divine Presence) spreads Her wings over it from above and Abraham and five other righteous men of God (along with David) make their abode with him. One should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests.” (Zohar, Emor 103-104)

As with the Jerusalem Post’s list, the Ushpizin list raises many questions for a contemporary Jew. The ‘traditional’ list includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. They are chosen based on their correspondence to one of the kabbalistic characteristics: lovingkindness, strength, splendour, eternity, glory, foundation and sovereignty. The most obvious issue with this list for a postmodern reader is the absence of women in it. Undoubtedly, all of them are indeed honoured and important figures and I’m sure they all would be very interesting people and good company to spend some time with. However, the list maybe seen as controversial when one thinks about gender and other kinds of representation. That is why the Progressive Jewish world often promotes two Ushpizin guests on each day of Sukkot. For example, the egalitarian guest list from the British Reform prayer book for pilgrim festivals “Forms of Prayer” (1995) has the following guests:

Day One – Abraham and Ruth

Day Two – Isaac and Rizpah

Day Three – Jacob and Abigal

Day Four – Joseph and Esther

Day Five – Moses and Huldah

Day Six – Aaron and Hannah

Day Seven – David and Deborah

This list looks much better for many of us. While all these ‘guests’ remain a product of our imagination, they have a deep spiritual, religious and intellectual value. It seems that there is no practical implications here, just a nice intellectual game with no connection to the real world. Nevertheless, the passage from the Zohar, which is cited above, continues thus:

“…Therefore, everyone should try to invite an equal number of poor people to share his meals in the Sukkah. Otherwise Abraham and the other righteous men rise and say: ‘Let us leave the tents of these wicked people’. But if one entertains poor people in their Sukkah, then not only do the above-mentioned seven righteous men rejoice, but even God partakes of their joy and in the joy of the poor.”

The last prayer we read on Yom Kippur was a blessing for building a Sukkah. I cannot think of a better application of the idea of repentance than supporting those who are in need and opening our tents to the poor. Maimonides develops this idea further and writes in Mishneh Torah the following:

“Whoever eats and drinks on the festival is obliged to feed the stranger, the orphan and the widow, together with the destitute poor. But if the door is locked and the family eat together without providing for the poor, that is not ‘joy of fulfilling commandments’, but ‘joy of the stomach’. Rejoicing of this kind is a disgrace.”

Elizabeth Topper, an Israeli poet who made Aliyah from England in 1982, writes poetry inspired by the Jewish tradition. In 2015, she chose to write about Sukkot. I hope it will serve as a good summary and will give inspiration for those who are reading this D’var Torah.

Sukkot: The heart of the Sukkah

let the walls of my heart

be easily moved

as the walls of the Sukkah

that sway in the wind


let the roof of my heart

be porous to tears

as the roof of the Sukkah

that lets in the rain


let the space in my heart

be open to guests

as to Ushpizin

who pass through each night


let the beat of my heart

be a vital reminder

that life here is transient –

a temporary dwelling


let the walls, left unsealed,

and the roof, with its lattice,

frame the cracks

that will let in the light


Have a meaningful and joyful Festival! Chag Sameach!


Igor Zinkov


For further reading:

1) The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2017 –

2) Inviting (science) fictional ushpizin –

3) Seder Ushpizata by Rabbi David Seidenberg –

4) Other poems by Elizabeth Topper –

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.