A Deeper Look at the Ushpizin of Sukkot


This week we celebrate Sukkot, the third and last of the Shalosh Regalim, the three harvest-pilgrimage festivals of the Torah. One of the most interesting customs of Sukkot is that of inviting the ushpizin, literally “guests”. These are not the earthly guests that we welcome into our sukkot, but spiritual ones whose presence is said to rest inside the sukkah. There are seven ushpizin, one for each of the Biblically-mandated days of the festival. The seven are the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the brothers Moses and Aaron; as well as Joseph and David. They are often collectively referred to as the “Seven Shepherds of Israel”.

Although there were many other great leaders in Jewish history, there are several reasons why these seven in particular are welcomed as guests. For one, each of them is a “self-made” man. Abraham found God amidst a world of idolatry and immorality, left everything behind, and went out to forge a new era for all of mankind. Isaac, too, had to lay down a new path, and work to merit his own blessings and fortunes (see Genesis 26). Jacob was completely destitute, and essentially enslaved to Laban for fourteen years before battling his way to become Israel. Moses and Aaron were born into slavery, yet led a revolution that brought the largest empire in the world to its knees, and forever changed the course of history. Joseph outsmarted his way out of both slavery and imprisonment to become viceroy of Egypt. Like Joseph, David was abandoned by his brothers, yet rose to kingship despite his humble origins. Each of these seven had a tremendous impact on world events. They are revered not just by Jews, but billions of others, particularly in Christianity and Islam.

The 10 Sefirot

The 10 Sefirot

From a more mystical perspective, these seven shepherds are the archetypes that correspond to the seven lower sefirot. Abraham is the personification of chessed, kindness; Isaac of gevurah, strength and restraint; Jacob of tiferet; beauty, balance, and truth; Moses of netzach, victory and perseverance; Aaron of hod, splendour and gratitude; Joseph of yesod, sexual purity; and David of malkhut, royalty, wholeness, and self-expression. Like the 49 days of the Counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, each of the seven days of the festival of Sukkot corresponds to a successive sefirah, and therefore to its corresponding archetypal figure.

Ushpizin and Sukkot in Gematria

Delving further, it is taught that each of the Seven Shepherds has an intrinsic connection to the holiday of Sukkot, and to the actual sukkah itself. The Bukharian edition of the Sukkot prayer book (Machzor L’Shalosh Regalim Beit Gavriel) presents a fascinating set of gematrias whereby the names of each of the seven shepherds is mathematically transformed into the sukkah. (Click here to learn more about mathematical transformations in gematria.)

Basic Gematria Chart

Basic Gematria Chart

For example, sukkah is spelled סוכה, and has a numerical sum of 91 (ס is 60, ו is 6, כ is 20, and ה is 5). One of the styles of transformation in gematria is known as milui, where each of the letters is spelled out in full, and the total value of all the letters is taken. Thus, the letter ס is spelled out in full as סמ”ך, which has a value of 120; ו is וא”ו, which is 13; כ is כ”ף, 100; and ה is ה”י, 15. The total value of the milui of “sukkah” is therefore 248. This is the numerical sum of Abraham, אברהם.

Another type of transformation is known as atbash. This is where the first letter of the alphabet is replaced with the last, the second with the second last, and so on. This form of transformation is actually used in the Tanakh, for example where Babylon is cryptically referred to as Sheshach, since the atbash of Babylon, בבל, is ששך, “Sheshach” (see Jeremiah 25:26 and 51:41).

If one takes the atbash of “sukkah”, the ס becomes ח, the ו turns to פ, the כ into a ל, and the ה into a צ. Thus, the total value of “sukkah” in atbash is 208. This is the numerical sum of Isaac, יצחק. The text goes on to present similar transformations for each of the seven guests.

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

Of the seven, the one most deeply connected to Sukkot is undoubtedly David. In the wilderness, the Jewish people lived in temporary, mobile sukkot. Similarly, God’s presence was centered in the Mishkan, the tabernacle, a mobile sanctuary. It was David who finally brought the Mishkan (or at least what was left of it) to its ultimate resting place in Jerusalem. There it remained for centuries, until the destruction of the First Temple.

The Ark of the Covenant disappeared at that point, and is said to be hidden until the coming of Mashiach, a descendant of David. And so, every day of Sukkot we pray harachaman hu yakim lanu et sukkat David hanofelet – “May the Merciful One restore for us David’s fallen sukkah.” And as we read on the Haftarah of the first day of Sukkot, in those days, the entire world will ascend to Jerusalem just once a year, on Sukkot, to celebrate together a new era of global peace, unity, and prosperity. May we merit to witness this soon.

Chag sameach!

How Did Adam Live 930 Years?

This week’s parasha is Vayelech, which begins with Moses’ statement that “Today I am one hundred and twenty years old” (Deut. 31:2). It was the 7th of Adar, Moses’ birthday, and also his day of passing. Moses goes on to conclude his final speech to the people, then sings a deeply prophetic farewell song in next week’s portion Ha’azinu, followed by his blessings to the people in the last parasha of the Torah, V’Zot HaBracha.

Moses was the greatest of all prophets, the humblest man to walk the earth, and the central founding figure of Judaism. He was blessed with living a full and healthy life spanning exactly 120 years. It has become common today for people to wish each other 120 years of life. Why is this the specific figure? Can humans not live longer? Don’t we see in Genesis that Adam lived 930 years, Noah lived 950 years, and Methuselah (Metushelach) lived a record 969 years? What happened?

The Flood Generation

Ten generations from Adam, the world had descended into endless sin and immorality. God decreed that man’s days “will be numbered at one hundred and twenty” (Genesis 6:3). Many believe this to mean that God decreed humans will no longer be able to live past 120 years. Indeed, when looking at modern records of longevity, the vast majority of the world’s oldest people die close to 120 years. There has only been one official case of anyone exceeding 120, a Frenchwoman named Jeanne Calment who lived 122 years.

However, the traditional Jewish interpretation is that the Genesis verse above does not mean man is unable to live past 120. After all, our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived long after this decree, and they lived 175, 180, and 147 years, respectively. Rather, the Jewish Sages state that God decreed the arrival of the Great Flood 120 years hence. God gave mankind 120 years to repent, and possibly avert the Flood. Noah was commissioned to go around and inspire people to mend their ways, and he had 120 years to do it.

Unfortunately, Noah failed in this endeavour, unable to bring even a single person to righteousness (as the Ark only carried his own family at the end). This is one reason for why the Flood is known in Hebrew as Mabul Noach, literally “Noah’s Flood”, as if he was partially responsible for not doing enough to inspire people to change. Because of this, many (including Rashi) have commented on the verse “Noah was a righteous and pure man in his generation” (Genesis 6:9) to mean that Noah was only righteous in his faulty generation. Had he lived in another generation, such as that of Abraham, he would not have been deemed so righteous!

We see from the Biblical chronology that after the Flood, people’s life spans steadily shorten. Moses’ older siblings Aaron and Miriam lived 123 and 126 years. Moses died at 120, and this appears to have become the new limit. After Moses, there are only a few people noted to have lived longer, one of which is Yehoyada the High Priest, who lived 130 years (II Chronicles 24:16).

What accounts for this steady degeneration in longevity?

Yeridat HaDorot

The Talmud (Shabbat 112b) states: “If the earlier [scholars] were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier [scholars] were sons of men, we are like asses…” This is one of many passages that attests to the well-known concept of yeridat hadorot, “the descent of the generations”. It is said that each passing generation falls lower and lower in its wisdom and spiritual greatness. This concept can solve the puzzle of longevity.

The body is a finite lump of matter. It is only animated and vitalized by the infinite soul within it. Thus, the greater the soul, the longer the body can live. As the spiritual potential in each generation falls, so too does the lifespan.

Moreover, it is taught that Adam contained essentially all of the souls of humanity within him (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 11). As more and more people were born over the centuries, this single universal soul broke down further and further into smaller and smaller fragments. With the exception of a number of “new souls”, the vast majority of the world’s 7 billion people are all parts of the soul of Adam. It is therefore not surprising that today’s spiritual capabilities (and with that, the lifespans) are severely limited.

At the Speed of Light

Science may offer another intriguing possibility. According to modern physics, time as we know it doesn’t really exist. The universe is one interwoven fabric of both time and space. The faster one moves through space, the slower the effects of time for that person. There is actually a formula to measure the impact of this time dilation, known as the Lorentz transformation. It is given by the equation ΔT = t√1-v2/c2, where v is one’s speed and c is the speed of light.

Theoretically, the speed of light is the absolute maximum in our universe. At light speed (just under 3.00 x 108 m/s, or 300,000 km/s), time will totally stop for the traveller (if plugging it into the formula, one gets a value of zero). This seems impossible. However, if we plug in a value very close to light speed, such as 2.99 x 108 m/s, we get a very interesting result.* A person who has perceived living 80 years will have actually lived 980 earthly years! That makes Adam’s 930 years a more palatable 76, and Methuselah’s record 969 as 79. This fits in well with the verse in Psalms that a normal lifespan is 70 to 80 years (Psalms 90:10). But how could Adam and Methuselah have lived at near-light speed?

Beautifully, the Sages teach us that Adam was not a human like us. In many texts (such as Bereshit Rabbah 20:12), Adam is described not simply as a being of flesh, but rather as a being of light. Though most will interpret this metaphorically, there are those sages, such as the Arizal (for example, in Sefer HaLikutim, Bereshit, ch. 3) that interpret this quite literally. It remains to be seen what this means exactly, and if it has anything at all to do with physics, but perhaps there is much more to the idea of Adam being a man of light than we can imagine.

Adam and Eve - Beings of Light, as portrayed in the film Noah (2014)

Adam and Eve – Beings of Light, as portrayed in the film ‘Noah’ (2014)


*To be fair, choosing a value such as 2.99 x 108 m/s may be deemed quite arbitrary. One can also plug in finer values even closer to the speed of light, such as 2.997 or 2.9972, and so on, each of which would give a more refined result. The point of this exercise is simply to illustrate the relativity of time, and what might explain the difference in perceived years between our generations and those of the first people, through a scientific perspective.

Why is Rosh Hashanah The New Year?

This Sunday evening is the start of Rosh Hashanah. It is well-known that this day, the first of the month of Tishrei, is the Jewish New Year. It is also well-known that Rosh Hashanah is “Judgement Day”, when everyone’s merits and sins are placed on a scale and each person is written into the book of life, or the book of death. What’s amazing is that neither of these ideas are actually recorded in the Torah! The Torah does not describe the first day of the month of Tishrei as either “Rosh Hashanah”, a new year, or as a “judgement day”. All that the Torah states is that this day is a yom teruah, a day to blow the shofar (Numbers 29:1), and a day of zikhron, “remembrance” (Leviticus 23:24). More puzzling is that Tishrei is the seventh month on the Jewish calendar, and not the first (which is Nisan). So, where does the idea of the first of Tishrei being a new year come from? And why is it a day of judgement?

'Hasidic Jews Performing Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah' by Aleksander Gierymski (1884)

‘Hasidic Jews Performing Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah’ by Aleksander Gierymski (1884)

Four New Years

The Talmudic tractate of Rosh Hashanah begins by stating that there are actually four new years on the Jewish calendar. First of these is Nisan, the first month of the calendar, and “the new year for kings and festivals”. Elul, the sixth month, is the new year for cattle tithes. Tu B’Shvat is the new year for trees. And the first of Tishrei is the “new year for years”, as well as for Jubilees and vegetable tithes.

The Talmud goes on to debate why the first of Tishrei is the new year of years. Some argue that the years should start in Nisan, while others suggest it may even be in Iyar or Sivan (the second and third months of the calendar). Based on an analysis of a number of Torah verses, the conclusion is that the new year should be in Tishrei, for this ensures the best Torah chronology.

The Talmud then suggests that Nisan is the new year for Jews, while Tishrei is the new year for all of mankind. This makes sense in light of the tradition that Adam and Eve were created on the first of Tishrei. As they are the ancestors of all human beings, their birthday is the new year for all of humanity. The new year for Jews specifically, though, is in Nisan, since it is in Nisan that the Jews were taken out of Egypt and headed towards Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and officially become a nation.

Judgement Day

It is well-known that Adam and Eve ate of the Forbidden Fruit on the very same day that they were created. After partaking of the fruit, they were judged by God, and exiled from Eden. Not surprisingly, then, that same day became associated not just with a new year, but with judgement, too. By consuming the fruit, Adam and Eve brought death into the world (Genesis 2:17). It is therefore appropriate that on Rosh Hashanah, the books of life and death are opened, and each person is inscribed therein.

Based on Deuteronomy 11:12, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8a) concludes that one’s entire forthcoming year is set on Rosh Hashanah. The verse states that God’s “eyes”, so to speak, are set mereshit hashanah v’ad acharit hashanah, “from the beginning of the year, and to the end of the year”, and so, the Sages interpret that the entire year is already pre-destined from the start of the year.

The Sages then ask: how do we know that this judgement day is on the first of Tishrei? Psalms 81:4-5 states, “Blow the shofar on the new moon; at the full moon is our festival. For it is a statute for Israel, a sentence of the God of Jacob.” This verse just about ties it all together. It tells us that the day of shofar blowing is on the new moon (the first of the month), and on the full moon is the festival. This festival is Sukkot, which is celebrated on the 15th of Tishrei – a full moon. The Psalm continues by saying it is a mishpat, literally a court ruling or a sentence, a clear allusion to judgement.

[Although the verse in Psalms specifically refers to Israel and Jacob, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8b) assures us that all of mankind is judged, and the verse in Psalms simply means that Israel is judged first.]

The Last Piece of Evidence

There is one more verse that can be used to conclude that the first of Tishrei is a new year, and is tied to the day of judgement. The term Rosh Hashanah is, in fact, mentioned in the Tanakh, just once, in the Book of Ezekiel. Chapter 40 begins by stating, “In the twenty-fifth year of our captivity, in the beginning of the year [b’Rosh Hashanah], in the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was smitten, on that day, the hand of Hashem was upon me, and He brought me there…”

Ezekiel writes that on the tenth day into the new year he received a prophecy from God. As explicitly recorded in the Torah, the tenth of Tishrei is Yom Kippur. On this day, and this day alone, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and receive a divine revelation. Ezekiel himself was a priest, but in his day the Temple was already destroyed (as the verse above tells us, it was fourteen years after Jerusalem’s destruction). If there was ever an auspicious time for a priest to receive a prophecy, it would be Yom Kippur – the tenth of Tishrei. Thus, it is highly probable that the Rosh Hashanah that Ezekiel refers to is the first of Tishrei, since he, as a priest, likely received his revelation on the tenth.

And so, although the Torah does not explicitly say so, a careful analysis of Biblical and Talmudic verses reveals that the first of Tishrei – the day of shofar blowing – is indeed a new year, and a day of judgement.

Wishing You a Shana Tova v’Metuka!

Does the Torah Allow Polygamy?

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, is full of intriguing Torah laws. One of these is with regards to inheritance in the case of a man having two wives, where one of them is beloved while the other is hated. This brings up a fairly big question: does the Torah permit polygamy, the practice of having multiple spouses? On the one hand, looking at passages such as the one mentioned here, it appears that the Torah does allow it. On the other hand, we see very few actual cases of polygamy in the Torah, and in those few cases, they are always painted in a negative light. So, what’s the final verdict?

Starting at the very beginning, God created Adam and Eve – one man and one woman – and commanded: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Clearly, it was God’s intent that a single man unite with a single woman to become completely unified as one. Monogamy is undoubtedly the ideal.

The Talmud (Sotah 2a) further comments: “Forty days before the conception of a child, a Heavenly Voice issues forth and declares: ‘the daughter of so-and-so is designated for so-and-so’…” Thus, long before a child is even born, their spouse is already designated for them in the Heavens. This may be among the most ancient sources for the concept of soulmates. Interestingly, the same passage in the Talmud concludes that this applies specifically to a first marriage, while to pair a second marriage would be “as difficult as the Splitting of the Sea”!

Not surprisingly, essentially every case of polygamy in the Torah comes with a negative twist. The first person to have multiple wives was Lemech, in the seventh generation from Adam (Genesis 4:19). Here, Rashi writes that it became common in the time of Lemech for men to take two wives: one for reproduction, and the other simply for pleasure. The latter would be given a certain medicine that made her infertile, and would be adorned and beautified. This was a great evil, and Rashi suggests that it was one of the major reasons for the Great Flood that wiped out the Earth’s population. Further solidifying the point, the Torah explicitly states that the righteous Noah and his three sons each had a single wife.

Ten generations later, Abraham was married solely to Sarah, until it became clear that she was barren. At this point, Sarah suggested the surrogate womb of Hagar. This brought a great deal of tension into the family, and Hagar had to be expelled from their home. Later, after Sarah’s passing, Abraham formally married Hagar, who was now known as Keturah. (Although 24:6 suggests that Abraham may have had other concubines, Rashi assures us that the verse refers only to Keturah.) Abraham’s son Isaac married only Rebecca, and this couple is held up as an ideal of love and marriage (click here to read about their unique relationship).

Jacob, too, only wished to marry Rachel. However, his father-in-law Laban tricked him into first marrying her sister Leah. Although he could have technically divorced her, Jacob took pity on Leah, as no one wanted to marry her. With Rachel’s consent, he kept Leah as a wife, but never loved her. This alludes directly to the passage in this week’s Torah portion that describes a man with two wives, one beloved, and one despised. Later, when Rachel and Leah were barren, they too gave their maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah) to Jacob as surrogates in order to bear more children. Jacob may be the only righteous Torah figure that can be described as polygamous. Ultimately, the competition between his wives, and later between their respective children, only brought Jacob endless troubles, and he himself stated that his life was a miserable one (Genesis 46:9).

Having said that, the cases of Jacob and Abraham illustrate why the Torah seems to allow polygamy, and does not expressly forbid it. Throughout most of history, the average person could not survive on their own. There were no condos for rent, no fully-stocked supermarkets, and no police departments to call. People generally had to construct their own homes, grow the bulk of their own food, and defend their property by themselves. This required a lot of hands, and very large families. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always possible.

For instance, if a woman was unable to have children, it would make it very hard for the couple to make a living. Thus, instead of abandoning their wives, men would take on another. A good example is that of Elkanah, who married Peninah because his beloved Hannah was barren. Peninah gave him ten sons, yet he always loved Hannah more than anything (I Samuel 1:5-8).

Further exacerbating the problem was that oftentimes the population of women far outnumbered that of men, since entire male populations could be decimated in battle. In order to survive, several women would have to marry a single man. (This also helps to explain why it is polygyny, the practice of having multiple wives, that predominates, and not polyandry, the practice of having multiple husbands).

And yet, polygamy was still extremely rare in the Jewish world. Joseph and his brothers, Amram, Moses*, Aaron, Joshua, Caleb, and just about every other great Torah figure was monogamous. The kings of Israel were permitted to take on multiple wives, but mainly for the sake of political alliances. Most famously, King Solomon had one thousand wives and concubines, yet these were certainly not for his own pleasure. Rather, they were marriages for political purposes that allowed him to bring peace to the entire region (hence his fateful name, Shlomo, which means “peace”). This, too, ended in disaster though, and was never attempted again by any other Hebrew king.

Further on, the Sages of the Talmud were monogamous, and by the Middle Ages, Rabbeinu Gershom formally banned polygamy. Today, it is essentially unheard of in the Jewish world, as well as in the Western world at large. Once again, this could very well be a reflection of the world approaching a perfected state, and a return to the Garden of Eden, where a pair of soulmates – one male and one female – can unite as one, as God originally intended.

'Garden of Eden', by Thomas Cole

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole


*Numbers 12:1 may make it seem like Moses had a second wife, but the Midrash explains that after Moses fled Egypt in his youth, he lived in Cush (likely modern-day Ethiopia) and married there, though he never consummated that marriage. Because of this, he left Cush and made his way to Midian, where he married his one true wife, Tzipora.



Taking Care of the Environment: A Torah Mitzvah

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, “Judges” (not to be confused with the Biblical book of the same name). It begins with the command to appoint judges and officers, then describes many details of the justice system, as well as a long list of interesting laws.

Fruit Tree

One of these laws is known as bal tashchit, the prohibition of not wasting resources, primarily based on the verse in this week’s parasha that prohibits soldiers from destroying fruit trees in the midst of battle (Deuteronomy 20:19). The famous passage concludes by saying “Is the tree of the field a man that it should go before you under siege?” The simple meaning of this verse is that a tree is not a human, has never wronged anyone, and does not deserve to be needlessly destroyed. However, the verse can also be read in a different way, as if saying, “Because the tree of the field is a man…” In fact, many of the sages throughout the centuries have interpreted the verse in this way, suggesting that trees are comparable to humans, and should be equally respected as important living creatures. After all, trees (and all other plants, for that matter) provide us with the oxygen that we breathe, the bulk of the food that we eat, as well as many of the vital resources we use regularly such as wood, fabric, and medicines.

Back to the Garden of Eden

The command to take care of trees, and nature as a whole, actually originates much earlier in the Torah: “And God took the man and placed him in a Garden of Eden, to work it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). Man was tasked with tending the garden and keeping it wholesome. Commenting on this, the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7) elaborates:

“When God created the first man, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.’”

It appears that the very first thing God instructed Adam was to take care of the world that He created. Thus, being environmentally-conscious is undoubtedly a Torah mitzvah. Reducing our waste, limiting our consumption of fossil fuels, recycling, composting – all of these fulfil a divine command! Whenever we hold on to our water bottle just a bit longer so that we can put it in a recycling bin, we should keep in mind that this is a mitzvah. Whenever we choose to walk to that place down the street instead of firing up our gas-guzzling engines, we should keep in mind that this, too, is a mitzvah.

This is all the more important today, with the health of our planet at its worst point in history. The air is unbreathable, the ice caps are disappearing, the oceans are strewn with garbage, entire landmasses are contaminated, and wildlife is suffering immensely. As God told Adam in the Garden of Eden, if we don’t do anything about this, we are jeopardizing our own existence, and there won’t be anyone left after us to fix it.

Restoring a Perfect World

In fact, the Garden of Eden was far more sensitive when it came to the balance of nature. It wasn’t just that Adam was tasked with guarding his environment and “keeping it green”. Eden was in a state of complete peace, where nothing living perished, and where fruit was the only food permitted for consumption. Meat was forbidden until the time of Noah, and even then, was initially only allowed under specific circumstances. It is safe to reason that with the coming of Mashiach and the inevitable return to a state of Eden, meat consumption will once more be forbidden*, and total peace in nature will be restored. Perhaps the current global rise in vegetarianism and veganism is a reflection of the world edging closer to Messianic times. May we merit to see it soon.

The environmental impact of just one hamburger (Courtesy of Dailytech.com)

The environmental impact of just one hamburger (Courtesy of Dailytech.com)


*If you are worried about this, artificial, lab-grown meat is on its way, and it will be healthier, too. Click here to learn more.