Tag Archives: Seth

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?

Did Bilaam Prophesize 9/11?

This week’s Torah reading is Balak, which describes how the Moabite king Balak hired the (non-Jewish) prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Balak saw what the Israelites had done to neighbouring kingdoms, and feared that he would lose his own as well. He therefore sought to reverse their fortunes through a curse. The Sages state that Bilaam could sense the precise moment when – just once a day, for precisely 1/58,888th of an hour (or about 61 milliseconds) – God was in his “strictest” mode, and Bilaam could take advantage of this moment to kindle God’s wrath against His chosen people (Berakhot 7a).

The plan ultimately failed, of course, and instead of cursing the Israelites, Bilaam’s mouth uttered blessings and praises. Perhaps most interesting, Bilaam also spoke a series of prophecies about the End of Days. They begin like this:

I see it, but not now; I behold it, but it is not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel which will smite the Moabite princes and uproot the sons of Seth. Edom shall be inherited, and Seir will become the inheritance of its enemies, and Israel shall do valiantly. And out of Jacob shall one have dominion, and will destroy the remnant of the city… (Numbers 24:17-19)

1558 Mantua Publication of the Zohar

1558 Mantua Publication of the Zohar

Bilaam describes a time in the very distant future, and the Sages agree that the “star of Jacob” refers to Mashiach. The Zohar (III, 212b) further elaborates on Bilaam’s prophecies, and describes what precisely is supposed to happen, and when that star of Jacob will be seen. Within this lengthy passage are a few verses that describe a scene quite familiar to the modern reader, and have therefore been used to suggest that the Zohar predicted the events of September 11, 2001:

… And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall…

In traditional Jewish texts, Rome is typically referred to as Edom, and represents the entire Western (or European/Christian) world. The “city of Rome” represents whatever place is the centre of the Western world at a particular period of time. After the city of Rome itself had fallen in 476 CE, the “new Rome” was Constantinople. When this new Rome collapsed as well (and became present-day Istanbul), a “Third Rome” was said to arise. In the past, we have written about the identity of the Third Rome. Most scholars – at least in Jewish circles – agree on two possibilities: the Third Rome is either Moscow (as we have written about before), or New York.*

World Trade Centers: North, South, and 7

World Trade Centers North, South, and 7

If it is indeed New York, then the Zoharic passage above makes a lot of sense. A great edifice of three high structures will fall? Yes, on September 11, three of the iconic World Trade Center buildings collapsed (WTC1, WTC2, and WTC7). And the dates match quite closely, too. The Zohar says the 25th of the sixth month, ie. the 25th of the month of Elul. September 11, 2001 happened to be the 23rd of Elul!

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a number of articles circulated online (for example, here) suggesting that the Zohar predicted this tragedy, and added an additional detail of great interest: These articles claimed that Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, better known as the Vilna Gaon – who lived in the 18th century – corrected the Zohar and wrote that the event will, in fact, take place on the 23rd of Elul. These articles claim that the Vilna Gaon’s correction is recorded in a mystical text called Sifra DiTzniuta.

Are these claims true, and did the Zohar really predict the September 11 attacks?

What Do The Prophecies Actually Say?

First of all, Sifra DiTzniuta was written and published long before the Vilna Gaon’s time, so suggesting that his correction of the Zohar was recorded there is already unlikely. The Vilna Gaon did write a commentary to the Sifra DiTzniuta (full text is available here).

Having searched through both Sifra DiTzniuta and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on it, I was unable to find any reference to the 23rd of Elul, or any correction of the Zohar’s prophecy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is false, but it definitely looks like the source is incorrect.

Either way, we have to go back to the Zohar and read the entire passage, not only those few verses describing the fall of the buildings. It reads like this:

It is taught that in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will rebuild Jerusalem and reveal one firm star, glowing with seventy pillars of fire, and with seventy sparks flashing from it in the middle of the Firmament, and they will be reigned over by seventy other stars, and they will glow and burn for seventy days.

And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall. The ruler of that city will die. Then the star will spread out to be seen in the rest of the world. In that time, great wars will stir all around the four corners of the world and no faith will be found among [its people].

In the middle of the world, when that star will shine in the middle of the Firmament, a great king will arise and rule the world, and his spirit will gain pride over all the kings, and he will awaken a war between both sides, and he will become strong against them.

On the day that the star will be hidden, the Holy Land will tremble forty-five miles around the place of the Holy Temple, revealing an underground cave. From this cave will come out a blazing fire to burn the world. And from this cave a great branch will grow out, and it will rule over the whole world, and to it will be given the kingdom. The Holy Beings will gather to it. Then Mashiach will be revealed to the entire world…

Clearly, there is a lot more going on! While Jerusalem has been rebuilt, we have yet to see the emergence of a star glowing with seventy pillars of fire, with seventy other stars glowing for seventy days. (These may be metaphors, of course, and may not be literally referring to celestial objects.) The Zohar says the edifice would fall at the end of seventy days (or at the beginning, depending on how one reads the passage). There was nothing particularly salient about the period of seventy days before or after 9/11. Moreover, “the ruler of that city” did not die on that day. The events of 9/11 did instigate “great wars” and it is true that we live in an increasingly faithless world. Ultimately, a “great king” to rule the entire world has not arisen (as far as we can tell), nor did the Holy Land tremble to reveal a cave from which Mashiach sprang forth.

Therefore, to suggest that this Zohar is speaking of the 9/11 attacks is perhaps a bit premature. While there are several parallels, the entire sequence of events has not occurred in the years since September 11, 2001. It appears that we have yet to witness the true fulfilment of Bilaam’s and the Zohar’s prophecies.

*While New York is the largest city in the United States, and by far its most important and famous, another candidate for the “Third Rome” is Washington, D.C. Washington has the plus of being a capitol city, the seat of “the ruler” as the Zohar says. It, too, was attacked on 9/11, and its major edifice – the Pentagon (the world’s largest office building) – damaged. Interestingly, long before Washington became America’s capital city, it was settled by a man who named it Rome!

The article above is adapted from Garments of Light – 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!