Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ushpizin at Sukkot: Time to Gather the Spirits

"Humans are not proud of their ancestors, and rarely invite them round to dinner." - Douglas Adams

One of the recurrent experiences I have found in delving into Jewish lore is how often the most startling esoteric practices are hiding in plain sight. Take for example the Ushpizin (Aramaic, “Guests”). Granted, until the release of the 2005 award-winning comedy of the same name, many Jews had never even heard the word. But those of us who observe the festival of Sukkot every fall certainly have. We’ve just failed to think through the true nature of this ‘quaint’ tradition.

Sukkot, of course, is the Biblical festival that follows almost immediately after Yom Kippur. Christians who know it at all know it by the charmingly archaic "Feast of Tabernacles." It celebrates the fall harvest (and is sometimes called the "Festival of Ingathering"), heralds the rainy season, and commemorates the generation our ancestors spent wandering and living in the wilderness before we were allowed to enter the Land of Israel. The centerpiece of the holiday is constructing and living in sukkot, “huts,” for seven (or eight) days. A beautiful theo-psycho-drama, during Sukkot we relive the experience of our ancestors while we reconnect with the earth and its life-giving power. The Gerer Rebbe compares the Sukkah to a chuppah, that through our desert experiences, we became "wed" to God.

Any wedding requires guests, and ushpizin are guests we invite to join us in our sukkah. It is considered a great tikkun, a great act of healing and rectification to have living souls share our hospitality in our temporary shelters. But ushpizin do not have to be alive. In fact, Jewish mystical tradition actually encourages us to summon the spirits of our ancestral dead to visit us also. Most modern commentators, when describing this ritual, stick the word “symbolically,” "metaphorically" or "poetically" in front of the word “invite.” But if you read the traditional explanations of this ritual, there is no sense that this is merely a symbolic act. Rather, the tradition is “dead” serious that spirits gather with us at this time of year: "When a person sits in his Sukkah the Shekhinah spreads its wings over it from above and then Avraham together with the other five Tzadikim and King David dwell together with him” (Zohar, Emor).

How is this possible? Mystics believe it is because the Sukkah serves as a kind of liminal zone between the physical and spiritual realms. The sukkah occupies material and supernal space simultaneously. As one contemporary Chasidic master put it, Di suke iz iber undzere kep vi di Shkhine shvebt iber undz, vi a mame iber di kinderlekh...“The sukkah is over our heads as the Shekhinah hovers over us like a mother over her dear children...”[1]. Even more striking, according to Isaac Luria the sukkah is a potential ‘frame’ for the Shekhinah, the feminine dimension of God. When we properly perform the commandments within its space, we unite the feminine Shekhinah with the masculine divine principle of Tiferet. In doing so we transform the sukkah into a spiritual womb which draws together Jewish souls, both living and dead (Sefer Sha’ar ha-Kavanot, drash 5).

In order to draw in these spirits, we recite this prayer of summoning:

"May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, to send Your presence to dwell in our midst and to spread over us the sukkah of Your peace, to encircle us with the majesty of Your pure and holy radiance. Give sufficient bread and water to all who are hungry and thirsty. Give us many days to grow old upon the earth, the holy earth, that we may serve You and revere You. Blessed by the Lord forever - amen, amen. I invite to my meal the exalted guests — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David."[2]

As you can see, there are seven spirits, one for each day of the Biblical observance. You may also notice that they are all men. This is the norm in many traditional Jewish communities, but some mystics have not neglected to draw upon the spiritual power of our matriarchs also. 16th Century Italian mystic Menahem Azariah of Fano also associated the seven “lower” sefirot with the seven prophetesses the Talmud enumerates: Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther. So in some traditions, these spirits are also called forth to bless their descendants on Sukkot.

So on Sukkot we gather souls as well as produce. Fact is, Judaism as always been comfortable with the idea that there is some interaction possible between living Jews and their righteous ancestors. They visit us in our dreams, they are present with us at critical moments. In time, as the Bible puts it, we will all be “gathered to our kin” (Deut. 32:50-51). But at Sukkot, at least, they can gather to us.

To learn more, see the entries Ancestors, Ghosts, Sukkot, Prophecy, Usphizin in the EJMMM.


Illustration: The Ushpizin prayer plaque is displayed at www.jhom.com/calendar/tishrei/

[1] R’ Shlomo Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, 1999, cited at http://telshemesh.org/fire/the_jewish_goddesses_justin_lewis.html

[2] Translation taken from Jewish Heritage Online Magazine

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Lilith - semen demon or feminist icon?

Exactly who or what is Lilith? Now regarded by Jewish esoteric tradition to be one of the four queens of demons, the nature of Lilith has undergone many reinterpretations throughout Jewish history.

[Illustration: etching of Lilith on a metal amulet]

The origins of Lilith are probably found in the Mesopotamian lilu, or “aerial spirit.” Some features of Lilith in later Jewish tradition also resemble those of Lamashtu, a Babylonian demoness who causes infant death. There is one mention of lilot (plural) in the Bible (Isa. 34:14), but references to lilith demons only become common in post-Biblical Jewish sources.

Furthermore, the characterization of Lilith as a named demonic personality really only begins late in antiquity. Amulets and magical texts well into the Middle Ages continue to speak of lilot as a class of demonic beings. Even the gender of the creature is not fixed. Several incantation bowls, for example, explicitly protect against “…lilot [plural], whether male or female…”

Jewish tradition gradually fixes on lilith as a female demon. In Talmud she is described as a demon with a woman’s face, long hair and wings (Nid. 24b; Er. 100b). In amulet incantations she is addressed as a demon that preys on women in childbirth and as a killer of children (Ber. 8a; Zohar I: 148a-b; II:267b).

Other sources describe her as a kind of succubus, seducing men in their sleep and then collecting their nocturnal emissions in order to breed demonic offspring (Shab. 151b) (See earlier entry, "Spawns of Satan").

The use of “Lilith” as the proper name of a specific demonic personality first appears in the Midrash. The most famous legend of Lilith is the one first appearing in the Medieval satirical text Aleph-bet ben Sira. In that document, Lilith is identified as the first woman God created along with Adam. The case for their having been two women in the Garden of Eden is based on the differing accounts of the creation of woman (Gen. 1:27 vs. Gen. 2:19-23). According to AbbS, Lilith immediately quarreled with Adam over sexual positions during intercourse. When Lilith did not get satisfaction, she invoked the power of the Tetragrammaton and flew away. God sent three angels, Sanoi, Sansanoi, and Samnaglof, to bring her back. When she refused, she transformed herself into a demon that weakens children with disease (perhaps diphtheria, whooping cough, or SIDS – probably all three) to take her vengeance on God and humanity. But, the story concludes, if the names of her three pursuing angels are used together on an amulet, she is powerless to harm the person bearing it (see Sefer Raziel for the continuation of this tradition). This account, incidentally, is a Jewish variation of a story about a demon curbed by three pursuers that also appears in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, and Slavonic legends.

Lilith appears in a very different incarnation in the Treatise of the Left Emanation, the Zohar, and other later mystic texts, where she is one of the four queens, or the four mothers, of demons. She is the most prominent of the four, being queen of the forces of Sitra Achra, the impure side of divine emanations that shape our world. In the Treatise, she and Samael are the evil doppelgangers of Adam and Eve, coming in existence as a spiritual byproduct of the primordial couple’s sin.

In answer to your question concerning Lilith, I shall explain to you the essence of the matter. Concerning this point there is a received tradition from the ancient Sages who made use of the Secret Knowledge of the Lesser Palaces, which is the manipulation of demons and a ladder by which one ascends to the prophetic levels. In this tradition it is made clear that Samael and Lilith were born as one, similar to the form of Adam and Eve who were also born as one, reflecting what is above. This is the account of Lilith which was received by the Sages in the Secret Knowledge of the Palaces. The Matron Lilith is the mate of Samael. Both of them were born at the same hour in the image of Adam and Eve, intertwined in each other. Asmodeus the great king of the demons has as a mate the Lesser (younger) Lilith, daughter of the king whose name is Qafsefoni. The name of his mate is Mehetabel daughter of Matred, and their daughter is Lilith (Trans. from Early Kabbalah, Joseph Dan ed.).

Intriguingly, the Treatise of the Left Emanation starts to come full circle, once again referring to multiple Liliths, as did the ancients. This tradition of there being two (or more) Liliths also appears in Pardes Rimmonim.

In the Zohar, she is the evil antipode of the Shekhinah (II: 118a-b; III: 97a). There is also a tradition in the Zohar that Lilith was the Queen of Sheba who came to test Solomon. Most startling of all is a Zoharic statement that while Israel is in exile, Lilith has replaced the Shekhinah as the "consort" of the Blessed Holy One (See my earlier entry, "The Sacred Feminine II" ). This seems to be a mythic way of expressing how, because of their condition as a despised, persecuted minority, medieval Jews perceived theirs to be a world given over to the control of the dark side.

Defenses against Lilith include providing amulets to women in childbirth and to newborns inscribed with the angelic names Sanoi, Sansanoi, and Samnaglof (or Sandalfon), not sleeping alone in a house, and tapping an infant on the nose if he appears to be responding to something the parent cannot see. Psalms, particularly Ps. 91, Ps. 121, and 126, are effective in driving off Lilith (Shimmush Tehillim). There is also a ritual that can be performed during and after intercourse to drive her away (Zohar III:19).

In modern times, inspired by the singular Ben Sira portrayal of her as a woman who stands up to male domination, Lilith has become something of an emblem among feminists in critiquing the overwhelmingly male-oriented perspective of traditional Judaism and she has been adopted as a symbol of feminist resistance to male spiritual hegemony. It should be pointed out, however, that modern claims by Raphael Patai, Robert Graves, and others that Lilith was an early Hebrew goddess later censored out of the tradition by editors of the Scriptures has no foundation whatsoever in any literature we have from before the 10th Century CE. This claim appears to depend entirely on appealing to the Ben Sira narrative, but this story is sui generis, and there is no precedent for any tradition of Lilith as either as “Wife of Adam” or “Wife of YHWH” prior to the Middle Ages.

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