The Mitzvah of Welcoming Guests
On our honeymoon in Jerusalem, almost ten years ago, my husband and I decided to attend Shabbat morning services at a Conservative minyan in the Baka neighborhood of the city. We didn’t know anyone personally in theminyan , but we had heard the davening was nice, intimate and egalitarian. We were not disappointed. But a pleasant surprise waited for us at the end of services. When it became known that we were still in our first week of marriage, ten members of the community decided to invite us to Shabbat lunch and celebrate Sheva Berakhot with us – the special blessings recited during (often elaborate) meals in that first week of marriage in the presence of a bride and groom (and at least eight others!). The meal was makeshift – everyone contributing their dairy potluck fare – and the surroundings modest – but we were delighted beyond belief! Imagine, ten people who had never met us before, inviting us into their home on the spot, preparing a celebratory meal for us, and sharing in the simhah of our new marriage! What a great Jerusalem story – one which we have repeated time and time again, so touched were we with the generosity of our hosts and their wonderful hospitality.
I was reminded of our special honeymoon as I read parashat Hayyei Sarah this year, because the core part of the reading includes a similar kind of open hospitality. In search of the perfect bride for Isaac, Abraham’s servant encounters Rebekah at the well, and after asking her for a sip of water, she says: “Drink, my lord . . and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink.” When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking” (Genesis 24:18-19). After drawing water for his ten camels, she assures him that there is a place for him to stay at her father’s house, and plenty of straw and feed for the camels as well. Thus Abraham’s servant is graciously welcomed into the home of Bethuel, his wife, his daughter and his son.
Readers familiar with the Bible know that this is not the only story of hospitality in our tradition. We need only look at Abraham’s treatment of the “men” of Mamre (Genesis 18), Jethro the Midianite’s disappointment at not being able to extend hospitality to Moses (Exodus 2:20) and the Shunammite woman’s unsolicited preparation of a special room for the prophet Elisha (II Kings 4:8-11) to find examples of how important the hospitable treatment of guests is in the world view of the Bible..
But clearly, this emphasis on hospitality didn’t stop in Biblical times. It continues and develops as the mitzvah ofhachnassat orechim (welcoming guests) in rabbinic literature, and assumes an importance equal to many of themitzvot in our tradition. The Talmud (Shabbat 127a), in a discussion of what kinds of “work” may be performed in order to properly receive a guest, records the following:
Rabbi Yohanan said: “Receiving guests is as great as rising early to attend the study hall . . .” And Rav Dimi from Nehardea said: “Receiving guests is even greater than rising early to attend the study hall . . .” Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Receiving guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence, for it is written (Genesis 18:3): “And [Abraham] said, ‘My Lord, if I have now found favor in Your eyes, please do not pass away from Your servant.'”
Keenly aware of the deep importance of study in the rabbinic world, Rabbi Yohanan and Rav Dimi state nonetheless that receiving guests is at least as important a Jewish value as study is. And Rav Yehudah, reading Genesis 18:3 in context, realizes that in this verse, Abraham is asking God to please wait for him as he runs to welcome three wayfarers on the road. He concludes that if Abraham asked God to wait, then receiving guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence itself! This is strong language for the rabbis!
But the passage goes even further. Rabbi Yehudah lets us know that there are six mitzvot which, while providing some reward in this world, reach their real value in the world to come, and these six are: receiving guests, visiting the sick, concentrating during prayer, rising early to attend the study hall, raising one’s children to the study of Torah, and judging one’s fellow favorably in a case of doubt. Placing hospitality in this group of important and essential mitzvot (which follow us into the World to Come) lets us know that the rabbis felt very strongly about the value of hachnassat orechim – receiving guests and making them feel welcome.
The mitzvah continued in Jewish history, and we have literature testifying to its special importance in medieval times, with, as an example, a charitable association called Hevra hachnassat orechim being established explicitly for this purpose in certain medieval communities. We know that it was a mitzvah practiced on the personal as well as communal level in these times, and that certain yeshivah students depended on this communal and personal hospitality in order to be able to pursue their studies.
The mitzvah continues to our own day as well, and many of us know it from our family and community celebrations of Pesah, Rosh Hashanah , and Sukkot . Where a Jewish community is strong and traditional, it is a mitzvah which is practiced on a weekly basis, where hundreds, if not thousands of families and individuals open up their homes to their friends, neighbors, family and community members for a Shabbat meal (or two or three) and often lodging, so that their friends and family can celebrate Shabbat in its fullness. Anyone who has been the recipient of Shabbat or Yom Tov hospitality knows what a delight it can be – a good meal, warm company, words of Torah, singing of zemirot, and a sense that one is safe, harbored, and surrounded by people who care. Hachnassat Orechim is a very important mitzvah, one that teaches us not only to emulate our Creator, who provides for our needs, but also to care for each other, to create that sense of community which reinforces our Jewish identity, and to be comforts and anchors for each other in good times and bad. As we continue to face uncertain and emotionally challenging times, I can only believe that opening our homes to friends, neighbors, and community members – especially for a Shabbat meal – will be a comfort and a refuge for all of us. May we all feel the blessings that hachnassat orechim can bring us.