Hospitable Origins


By Philologos

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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L. Yourman writes: “I recently heard that the English word “hospitality” has an etymological connection to the Hebrew-Aramaic word ushpizin. Is this so?”

Ushpizin, besides being the name of a new Israeli movie, is the plural of ushpiz, a word meaning “guest” in medieval Aramaic. In Jewish tradition, the ushpizin are the biblical patriarchs who come to visit us, according to Kabbalistic legend, on the holiday of Sukkot — and yes, they’re connected to “hospitality.”

“Hospitality” and ushpizin both derive from the Latin word hospes (feminine, hospita), which rather curiously meant both “host” and “guest.” Words sometimes undergo such flipflops: Think of the English verb “to loan,” which in colloquial speech means to borrow as well as to lend.

In fact, hospes flipflopped more than once. If on the one hand, it gave us our English “hospitality,” “hospice,” “hostel,” “hotel” and “host” in the sense of an extender of hospitality, it is also gave us “hostile” and “host” meaning army; the latter two words derive from Latin hostis, a corruption of hospes that originally signified “stranger” — i.e., a traveling guest who lodges with an innkeeper. From “stranger,” hostis proceeded to take on the meaning of enemy; then of enemy army, and ultimately, in the early Christian church, of the archfiend or devil himself. And yet at the same time, in the expression “Lord of Hosts,” the King James translation of the biblical Hebrew epithet for God adonai tsva’ot, “Lord of [heavenly] armies,” hostis ended up as a term for the Divinity. That’s quite a checkered career for a single word!

And that’s only in Latin and English. Hospes had, as we have said, an Aramaic and Hebrew career, too, starting with its appearance in the Talmud, in which ushpiz means an innkeeper or a night’s lodging. However, in the medieval Aramaic of the Zohar, the great classical text of the Kabbalah, the word reversed itself as in Latin and came to designate a guest. And it was the Zohar that bestowed on Jewish folklore the legend that seven ushpizin or guests —Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David — honor each sukkah invisibly with their presence on the seven nights of the Feast of Tabernacles. To this day, it is a custom among some Jews to begin meals in the sukkah by inviting the seven ushpizin to join them, and among Sephardim it is common to place a special chair at the table that is known as the kisei shel ushpizin, the “ushpizin’s chair.”

It is also a custom on Sukkot to invite the poor and homeless to one’s sukkah, and such guests, too, are known as ushpizin or ushpizei mata, “lower-world guests,” to distinguish them from the ushpizei ma’ala or “upper-world guests.” Two such ushpizei mata indeed are characters in the charming new Israeli film, “Ushpizin.”

The two are quite literally guests from the lower world, being a pair of raffish underworld types who, rather than return to prison as they are supposed to at the end of a weekend’s leave, go off to Jerusalem and drop in on an old friend — an ex-criminal like themselves who has become a ba’al-teshuva, a returnee to Judaism in the form of a pious Hasid. It happens to be the first night of Sukkot, and the ba’al-teshuva and his wife, a penniless and infertile couple who want a child desperately, have miraculously, in answer to their prayers, been provided at the last moment with a sukkah and money with which to decorate it and to buy food for the holiday meals. When the two convicts appear, therefore, the husband gratefully takes them in as heaven-sent ushpizin despite their flagrant irreligiosity.

The ushpizin manage to ruin the couple’s holiday, taking over the sukkah, eating and drinking with abandon, scandalizing the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood with their rowdiness, and turning husband and wife against each other. Since “Ushpizin” is a sweetly forgiving comedy, however, it has to have a happy ending — which comes when the couple is reconciled by the discovery that the ushpizin were indeed heaven-sent because the wife is pregnant. It’s a well-acted and well-produced fable, shot in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Me’ah She’arim in Jerusalem, and the most unusual thing about it is that all the main characters except for the ushpizin, including the husband and wife, are played by real ba’alei-teshuva who were actors in their former lives.

To get back to hospes, though, it’s also the source of “hospital,” a word that in 14th-century English referred to an inn; took on in the 15th century the meaning of a refuge for the homeless, and was being used widely by the 16th century for an institution that cares for the sick. And it’s here that, after going their separate ways, hospes and ushpiz re-converge in Israeli Hebrew. Since Hebrew had a traditional word for “hospital” — namely, bet-h.olim or “sick house” — the modern language didn’t need a new one; but since bet-h.olim cannot morphologically be turned into a verb, a Hebrew term meaning “to hospitalize” had to be invented. The solution? Take ushpiz and turn it into ishpez! Ishpazti ota — “I hospitalized her.” Ani me’ushpaz — “I am hospitalized.” Ishpuz — “hospitalization.” It’s nice to see the two old companions, the Latin and the Aramaic, together again.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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