Tag Archives: Moses

Ushpizin & Anti-Ushpizin

Over the course of Sukkot, we are graced with the spiritual presence of the “Seven Shepherds of Israel”: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. These Heavenly guests are commonly known as the ushpizin. Interestingly, the root ushpiz or oshpiz, “guest”, actually comes from the Latin hospis, as in the English “hospitality”! What is the origin of the notion of Seven Shepherds? Where did the practice of inviting the ushpizin come from? And who are the mysterious “anti-ushpizin” that oppose the Seven Shepherds?

Origins of Ushpizin

‘Micah Extorting the Israelites to Repentance’, by Gustave Doré

The idea of Seven Shepherds of Israel comes from the Tanakh, from the prophet Micah. The fifth chapter of his book begins by telling us that an ancient soul of Judah, mikedem mimei olam, will emerge out of Bethlehem of Efrat to be moshel b’Israel, a ruler of Israel. The next verse tells us it will come at a time of great desperation for Israel, following a series of “birth pangs”. This leader will be righteous, and serve in the name of God. We might think this is referring to Mashiach, but the chapter continues to warn that Assyria will invade and drive Israel into exile. It’s quite clear that Micah is speaking about the near future, and the Judean leader he envisions is the righteous Hezekiah, who drove away the Assyrian invasion and miraculously saved Jerusalem. Indeed, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) records an opinion that all of the Messianic prophecies of the Tanakh were referring to Hezekiah!

Nonetheless, this chapter of Micah is seen as a “double-level” (or “dual-fulfilment”) prophecy, one that spoke of the near future in Micah’s own days, and also cryptically referred to a future time at the End of Days. This is how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai read it, for instance, and saw “Assyria” here as secretly referring to Persia at the End of Days, who will invade Israel in the final apocalyptic war (Eichah Rabbah 1:41). Whatever the case, Micah 5:4 says that God will raise up “seven shepherds and eight princes of men” against the invaders. Again, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:1) wonders if this means there will be seven or eight messianic figures in the End of Days, and concludes that there will actually be four:

There is a great debate with regards to how many messiahs there will be. Some say there will be seven, as it is said “then shall we raise against him seven shepherds…” (Micah 5:4) And some say there will be eight, as it is said, “and eight princes of men.” And it is neither of these, but actually four, as it is said, “And the Lord showed me four craftsmen…” (Zechariah 2:3)

And David came to explain who these four craftsmen are [Psalms 60:9 and 108:9, where God declares: “Gilead is mine, Menashe is mine; Ephraim also is the defence of my head; Judah is my sceptre”]: “Gilead is mine” refers to Elijah, who is from the land of Gilead; “Menashe is mine” refers to the messiah who comes from the tribe of Menashe… “Ephraim is the defence of my head” refers to the Warrior Messiah who comes from Ephraim… “Judah is my sceptre” refers to the Great Redeemer, who is a descendant of David.

That said, the seven shepherds must refer to other figures. The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) explains: “Who are these seven shepherds? David is in the middle; Adam, Seth, and Methuselah are to his right; Abraham, Jacob, and Moses are to his left. And who are the eight princes among men? They are Yishai, Saul, Samuel, Amos, Zephaniah, Zedekiah, Mashiach, and Elijah.” The Sages seem to suggest that alongside Mashiach and Eliyahu, the souls of thirteen other great figures of the past come back to help them. Glaringly missing from the list of seven shepherds is Isaac. Why is he the only one of the Forefathers not included? Any why include Seth? Are there not greater figures of that era, like Noah and Enoch?

Some would explain Isaac’s omission from the shepherds by pointing out that, well, Isaac wasn’t really a shepherd! The Torah describes him digging wells and irrigating farms, his blessed crop producing me’ah she’arim, hundred-fold yields. A deeper explanation is given by the Arizal, who says that Itzhak (יצחק) is an anagram of ketz chai (קץ חי), “lives at the End”, as he will come back at the End of Days in the form of Mashiach ben Yosef, the “Warrior Messiah” mentioned above. The name Itzhak itself is in the future tense, meaning “he will laugh”—in the future when he is victorious in battle. The Arizal even proves it mathematically, as the value of Itzhak (יצחק) is 208, equal to Ben Yosef (בן יוסף)! (See Sha’ar haPesukim on Lech Lecha, for instance, and also the Ba’al haTurim on Deuteronomy 7:21.)

Noah was not a shepherd either, but a farmer. Enoch was a scribe and scholar, and transformed into an angel. That leaves Adam, Seth, and the longest-living Methuselah to represent the pre-Flood generations. Aaron was not a shepherd in Egypt, and served as high priest after the Exodus. Joseph was a shepherd-in-training in his teens, but did not return to that profession in Egypt. Instead, he oversaw all of Egypt’s farming operations and granaries. That leaves us with David, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses.

The lower 7 Sefirot correspond to the 7 Shepherds of Israel

The Zohar (III, 103b) comes in and tells us that holy figures of the past visit us on Sukkot, and this is the source for ushpizin. However, the Zohar only states “Abraham and five other tzadikim”. It doesn’t say who the five are directly, but does quote David, Isaac, and Jacob speaking. The whole passage itself comes from the mouth of Ra’aya Mehemna, the “Faithful Shepherd”, who is Moses. Right before this, Aaron is mentioned in passing, for it was in his merit that the Clouds of Glory—which the sukkah is likened to—appeared in the Wilderness. The only one missing is Joseph. However, the Zohar always parallels such things to the Sefirot, and the six righteous figures are meant to correspond to the six Sefirot of Zeir Anpin, from Chessed to Yesod. The figure that always stands in for Yesod is Yosef haTzadik. David, meanwhile, is always paralleled to the seventh Sefirah of Malkhut. In this way, we find our Seven Shepherds, as we know them, in the Zohar.

The Anti-Ushpizin

Elsewhere, the Zohar (Sitrei Otiyot on Beresheet) says that the world endures in the merit of these Seven Shepherds of Israel. Opposing them are seven shepherds that stem from the “Left Side” or “Other Side”, the Sitra Achra. They seek to shepherd Israel away from God and towards idolatry. This is the meaning behind Jeremiah 15:9 which reads “She who bore seven is forlorn, utterly disconsolate; her sun has set while it is still day, she is shamed and humiliated. The remnant of them I will deliver to the sword, to the power of their enemies—declares God.” The Zohar lists the “anti-ushpizin”: Jeroboam, Ba’asha, Ahab, Yehu, Pekah, Menachem ben Gaddi, and Hoshea ben Elah. Who are these people?

Recall that Yerovam ben Nevat, “Jeroboam”, was the first king of the northern Kingdom of Israel after the split following King Solomon’s reign. Afraid to lose his throne and grip on power, he set up roadblocks so that his Israelites wouldn’t go to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals. Instead, he built two idolatrous temples with golden calves. For this, the Sages say he has no share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 10:2).

Ba’asha ben Achiya was the third king of Israel. He spent his reign at war with the Kingdom of Judah, and even allied with Aram at one point. He continued the wicked ways of Jeroboam, so God declared he would obliterate Ba’asha just as he did Jeroboam (I Kings 16:3). King Ahab is well-known, being the husband of the wicked idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and the tormenter of Eliyahu. His dynasty was destroyed by Yehu ben Nimshi, originally a military general. Yehu was used as an instrument by God to carry out Ahab’s punishment. However, Yehu went a step too far and bloodily massacred countless people in the Valley of Jezreel. Although God initially rewarded him with a multi-generational dynasty, He did declare that He would eliminate Yehu’s dynasty for the cruelty at Jezreel (Hosea 1:4). Amazingly, we have archaeological evidence clearly confirming Yehu and his story, from the Assyrian Black Obelisk.

King Yehu of Israel giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud (circa 827 BC), currently in the British Museum.

Menachem ben Gaddi was another such general-turned-king. We know little about him. So was Pekah ben Remalyahu. He allied with King Rezin of Aram to attack Jerusalem. The Judeans were terrified, and it was in the context of this that Isaiah relayed his famous prophecy about the miraculous birth of a saviour child (Isaiah 7). Although it is abundantly clear that the passage is speaking about Hezekiah—who did go on to save Judea and Jerusalem as a young, righteous ruler—Christians infamously interpreted the prophecy to refer to the birth of Jesus (reading the word almah, a “young lady”, as “virgin”). Their argument that this, too, is a “double-level” or “dual-fulfilment” prophecy speaking about both contemporary times and future times cannot be the case. A double-level prophecy must not give a specific time, in order to allow interpretation for the present and the future. This prophecy clearly states the events are supposed to happen “in 65 years” (Isaiah 7:9). A specific time is given, leaving no ambiguity. The Tanakh continues to relay how the prophecy was fulfilled.

Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea ben Elah. The Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III then appointed Hoshea as the new (and final) king of Israel. An Assyrian inscription confirms this, too, stating that the Israelites rebelled and “overthrew their king Pekah and I placed Hoshea as king over them. I received from them 10 talents of gold, 1,000 talents of silver as their [tri]bute and brought them to Assyria.” Hoshea didn’t last long. One of Tiglath-Pileser’s successors soon destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and exiled the tribes.

The souls of these seven idolatrous kings stand in opposition to the souls of the holy Seven Shepherds. We find that the Seven Shepherds of Israel were all about unity, bringing people together to serve God and inspire righteousness. The anti-shepherds, meanwhile, were power-hungry and vindictive, instigators of division and civil war, propagators of idolatry, and collaborators with Israel’s enemies. On Sukkot, we welcome in the spirit of the righteous ones as we bring people together in our huts. And we hope to expel the spirit of idolatry and divisiveness, of the wickedness stemming from “the Left Side”. This is all the more important to keep in mind and meditate on as we see what is happening all around us today in the Holy Land and the world at large.

Chag sameach!


More Sukkot learning resources:

Medicinal Properties of Arba Minim
Russia, Iran, and Gog u’Magog
What is Happiness?

The Heavenly Academies

This week’s parasha (in the diaspora) is Shlach, recounting the Sin of the Spies. When God subsequently punished the Israelites for their lack of faith, He said of that generation: “in this wilderness they will end, and there they will die.” (Numbers 14:35). The Zohar (III, 161b) explains that they died there in the wilderness, but not in the afterlife, meaning they did still merit to enter the supernal Garden of Eden. The Zohar further points out that the Torah specifically states their “corpses shall fall in this wilderness” (Numbers 14:32). The use of the word “corpses” serves to teach us that only their physical bodies—not their souls—would fall. God would destroy the evil inclination that ensnared their bodies into sin. The souls, however, would ultimately ascend to Heaven.

Following this, the Zohar takes us on a long journey exploring the Heavenly Academies. One such yeshiva is presided over by Betzalel, the craftsman who put together the Mishkan. There is an academy of the Sages of the Mishnah, and another academy for the “masters of Scripture” (מָארֵי מִקְרָא), a place devoted to the study of Tanakh. Higher than these is the academy for the study of Aggadah (ie. Midrash), and the Zohar makes sure to point out that these luminous Aggadists are the ones who truly understand the Torah properly. (Intriguingly, the Zohar does not seem to describe an academy for the study of Talmud!)

Higher still is the yeshiva of Aaron, called the Yeshiva of Love (מְתִיבְתָּא דִּרְחִימוּתָא). Aaron leads his students through the Heavens, and they fly around “like eagles”. Aaron visits an even more exclusive academy, the yeshiva of Moses, called the Yeshiva of Light (מְתִיבְתָּא דִּנְהוֹרָא). Aaron’s students have to wait outside since only Aaron is allowed to enter, as well as any individuals Moses calls by name. Just like he did on Earth, up in his academy Moses is still wearing his special veil, his face being too luminous to behold. Even higher than this academy is the Yeshiva of the Firmament (מְתִיבְתָּא דִּרְקִיעָא), presumably presided over by the angelic Metatron.

Several pages later, the Zohar (III, 167b) tells us about the academies (“palaces”) of women. First is the school of Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh who adopted Moses. There are thousands of righteous women there learning with her. They learn “what they did not merit to learn in this world” since, until recent history, women were not expected to learn Torah. Meanwhile, there are many more thousands of female souls learning with Serach, the daughter of Asher (for more on her, see ‘The Incredible Story of Serach bat Asher’ in Garments of Light, Volume One). Here they focus on learning the secrets of the Torah’s mitzvahs, and the deeper reasons for the commandments.

The third female academy is full of myriads of women, and they don’t seem to do much learning here but rather spend their time in meditation, song, and praising God, alongside many angels. The leader here is Yocheved, mother of Moses. Opposite her academy is a similar palace belonging to Deborah the Judge and Prophetess. She, too, leads the women in song and prayer. In addition to these, there are four palaces that are concealed, belonging to each of the four Matriarchs. These are called the “palaces of the trusting daughters” (הֵיכָלִין דְּבָנוֹת בּוֹטְחוֹת), but they are too lofty to be described.

The Zohar does divulge a deep secret here. While during the day the male and female souls are segregated in their various academies and palaces, the soulmates do reunite at night:

Every night they get together, since the time of coupling is at midnight, both in this world and that world. The coupling of that world is accomplished by the adherence of one soul to the other, light with light. The coupling in this world is body to body. Everything is as it should be: a kind with its kind, a match with its match, body to body; and in the other world, it is light with light… The union in that world produces more fruit than the coupling in this world. When they pair up in the pairing in that world, with their unified desire, and when the souls cling one to another, they produce fruit. And lights emerge and lamps are produced. These are the souls of those that convert…

The souls of Jewish converts are produced from the spiritual unions of the righteous souls above!

Going back to our parasha, the Zohar tells us that despite what we might read in the Torah, the generation of the Exodus and the Wilderness was indeed a very righteous one. The Zohar (III, 168b) says there will never be another generation as worthy as they until the coming of Mashiach. And at that time, the Wilderness generation will merit to be the first to rise in the Resurrection of the Dead. May we merit to see it soon.

Archaeology Discovers Moses

One of the most common questions that people ask about the Exodus is: where is the evidence? The truth is that there is a great deal of evidence supporting the subjugation and liberation of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. Much of the evidence has been deliberately suppressed (as explained here), and other pieces of evidence are just not discussed or not well-known. Perhaps the greatest of the latter variety is the Mose Stele. This incredible archaeological find is possibly the best proof that we have of the existence of Moses, and the details of his unique life.

The Mose Stele, currently housed in the Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany.

The Mose Stele was found in the village of Qantir, just two kilometres away from the ancient Egyptian city of Pi-Ramesses. The Torah states explicitly that the Israelites built the city of Pi-Ramesses (Exodus 1:11). We know that Pi-Ramesses was built atop the more ancient city of Avaris, which was actually a Hyksos city. Recall that the Hyksos were Semitic foreigners who migrated to Egypt and, at one point, even took over much of the kingdom. Excavations at Avaris (in the northeast of Egypt, a region the Torah calls “Goshen”) show architecture in Canaanite and Syriac style. Amazingly, archaeologists have even found numerous seals bearing the name “Yaqub”.

For these reasons, among others, scholars both ancient and modern believe that the Hyksos and the Israelites are one and the same. Already two millennia ago, Josephus identified the Hyksos (which he translated as “shepherd kings”) as the Israelites. If not completely one and the same, it is also highly possible that the Israelites were part of a larger wave of Semitic migration, and were initially a small group among the Hyksos. Whatever the case, the Hyksos as a whole were officially defeated by Pharaoh Ahmose I, who established the 18th dynasty around 1550 BCE.

The following dynasty, starting in 1292 BCE, was founded by Ramesses I. His grandson was Ramesses II, the Great (r. 1279-1213 BCE), who ruled for a whopping 66 years. It was Ramesses II who built Pi-Ramesses and made it his new capital, and it is Ramesses II who is typically identified as the pharaoh of the Exodus. This is disputed for several reasons, including that the timing of Ramesses’ reign is both too long after the Hyksos defeat and a bit too late to fit with traditional Jewish chronology (which holds that the Exodus was in 2448 AM, or 1312 BCE). However, Ramesses’ reign is quite close to the Jewish dating and the chronology of ancient Egypt is not exactly known and may very well have discrepancies.

One of the artifacts that we have from the time of Ramesses II is the Mose Stele. It describes a great general in Ramesses’ army. The general’s name is Mose (hence the name of the stele). In ancient Egyptian, this word simply meant a “son” or “begotten by”. Ramesses, for instance, means “son of Ra” or “begotten by Ra”, Ra being the sun god and one of the chief deities of the Egyptian pantheon. We find many Egyptians with mose or mses as a suffix in their name, including Ahmose, Thutmose, and countless others. “Mose” would just mean “son”, which is strange at first glance, since it carries no qualifying prefix. However, it makes perfect sense when we go to the Torah and remember that the daughter of Pharaoh adopted baby Moses and named him. While the Torah says she named him Moshe because she took him out (meshitihu) of the water (Exodus 2:10), it is highly unlikely that an Egyptian princess would give the baby a Hebrew name. She would have named him Mose, in Egyptian, meaning the long-awaited “son” she always wanted. Moshe is indeed his true Hebrew name, as God intended, which is why the Torah records the proper Hebrew etymology. Of course, in Hebrew both Moshe and Mose would be spelled exactly the same anyway (משה), since the shin and sin are one letter with interchangeable sound. Thus, he could simultaneously be “Moshe” to his Hebrew brethren, and “Mose” for his fellow Egyptian royalty among whom he grew up!

The Mose Stele says that Mose was a victorious soldier, and Ramesses is shown lavishing gifts upon him. Ramesses declares: “How good is what he has done! Great, great!” Was the Biblical Moses a soldier? The Torah doesn’t quite say so explicitly, but the Talmud and Midrash do describe Moses as a warrior in several places. The most famous is where Moses is described participating in the battle against Og, and smiting the giant himself (Berakhot 54b). Lesser known is the Midrash that says Moses was once a great general in the land of Cush (see, for instance, Yalkut Shimoni I, 168). This is how he ended up marrying a Cushite woman, as the Torah later mentions in Numbers 12:1 (for more on this see ‘Did Moses Have a Black Wife?’) While the Midrash generally assumes that this happened after Moses fled Egypt and before he came to Midian, Josephus provides an alternate account that says Moses fought in Cush while still an Egyptian prince (Antiquities, II, 10:239). Before he fled, Moses was a highly decorated general in the Egyptian army, and helped the Egyptians subdue their Cushite neighbours.

The Mose Stele fits perfectly with Josephus’ ancient account. Moses returns from battle with Cush as a victorious general, and is praised by Ramesses. The stele adds that Mose is “beloved of Atum and greatly favoured by him”. Atum was none other than the Egyptian creator god, the first of their gods, and the originator of all the others. It is fascinating to note that while Ramesses’ patron god was Ra, the stele describes Mose as being favoured by Atum, not Ra. We can learn from this that Moses was already something of a monotheist among the Egyptian royalty: he made sure that they knew he worshiped only the one true creator God. For the Egyptians, the closest thing to that was Atum! This is how Moses could have masked his Hebrew beliefs while growing up with idolaters in the palace.

There is one last connection to Moshe in the Mose Stele. Ramesses is quoted as saying that he is “pleased with the speech of [Mose’s] mouth”. The Torah tells us that Moses was “heavy” of speech, and Moses himself humbly sought to shy away from oration. The fact that the stele mentions the speech of Mose is unlikely to be a coincidence. Perhaps Ramesses put it there specifically to address the critiques of others who disparaged Moses for his speech difficulties. Moses silenced his critics, and Ramesses declared that he is pleased with the speech of Moses, despite what others might say.

All in all, the Mose Stele is an amazing piece of evidence that strongly supports the existence of the Biblical Moses. It was likely commissioned by Ramesses II while Moses was still a young Egyptian prince and general, before he fled, and long before he returned decades later to liberate his people. We can imagine that after the events of the Exodus, the angry Egyptians would have destroyed any mention of Moses, and would have tried to expunge any relic of his name or life. Thankfully, at least one piece of evidence has nonetheless survived, buried and hidden away for millennia. What other incredible treasures are still lying deep under the sand, waiting to be uncovered?

For more on dating the Exodus and finding scientific evidence, see Did the Jews Build the Pyramids?