Sukkot and Ancestor Veneration

Now that we have passed the High Holidays and the Days of Awe, we are embarking upon another 7 day Jewish festival- the harvest festival Sukkot. Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei- at the time of the full moon. Sukkot is a time to build huts and decorate them with fruits. It’s the time we dwell in these huts to remind ourselves of our agrarian roots and the temporary nature of the dwellings we lived in in the desert after the Exodus. 

Sukkot is so much more than this, however. It is also the time to venerate our ancestors. Just like the Celtic Samhain and the Mexican Day of the Dead, Sukkot is a time to honor and remember our ancestors. Building a sukkah and engaging in everyday activities within it is not enough. We also welcome ushpizin or guests, into our sukkah. Those guests are friends and relatives, but also, our ancestors.

Traditionally speaking we invite one of the seven patriarchs and matriarchs to dine with us each night of the festival. It is often common to also welcome our own ancestors to dwell with us as well. In order to welcome the ancestors it is customary to decorate the walls of the sukkah with photographs and other objects. We also place empty chairs for the spiritual ushpizin to sit in. Special prayers and blessings are recited for welcoming the souls of our departed ushpizin. When we decorate the sukkah and welcome our spiritual guests, we are basically building an ancestor altar (although modern Judaism would not even be aware of this). 

The custom of welcoming guests into our sukkah goes all the way back to our patriarch Abraham. It is well known that he would sit in his tent and welcome guests. His tent is said to have been open on all sides so that he could see travelers from whatever direction they came. When Abraham saw a traveler, that person would become his guest for a welcoming meal and respite from the road. 

Let us be like Abraham and make this Sukkot a lovely time of welcoming our ancestors as guests. They have been travelling a long and hard road after their passing. Let us welcome them into the cool shade of our sukkah for rest and a meal.