Open-door policy

Jewish tradition is replete with incidents of hospitality and its rewards.

By BEREL WEIN
February 21, 2008 13:17
3 minute read.
Open-door policy

yeshiva kitchen 88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

One of the items that is mentioned in the Talmud Yerushalmi as allowing one to eat its fruits in this world, while its principal benefits are received in the world to come is hospitality to guests and strangers. The Jewish trait of hospitality is an inheritance from the first Jewish home in history - the tent of Abraham and Sarah. The trait of hospitality is what allows the angels to enter that tent to inform Sarah of the miraculous tidings that she will bear a son in spite of her advanced years. The sin of hostility to any form of hospitality is what dooms Sodom to destruction. The humane response of Lot to the angels begging hospitality in Sodom is what saves him and his daughters from their destruction in Sodom. The act of generous hospitality to the prophet Elisha by the woman of Shunam allows her to bear a child after years of barrenness and that child will grow to become one of the prophets of Israel. In short, Jewish tradition is replete with incidents of hospitality and its rewards, and throughout the ages hospitality to others has become a given in Jewish societal life. In most Jewish locations, a stranger without a place to eat on Shabbat could rely on finding such a host when he attended the Friday night services in the local synagogue and made his plight known. Hospitality became second nature in Jewish society from Morocco to Russia and all places in between. There are different levels of hospitality. Everyone is anxious to have interesting and famous guests frequent their homes and eat with them. However, people who are troubled and depressed, ragged in appearance or poor in hygiene, difficult in social situations and relationships with others are less desired guests. The prophet Isaiah in the famous chapter of his which we read on the morning of Yom Kippur speaks of bringing "the downtrodden and bitter poor" to one's home as guests. Not all of us are up to this sort of hospitality. I know of cases where the children of the household were turned off completely to granting any type of hospitality of their own in later life by the continued presence of strange and even disruptive guests at their parents' Sabbath table. The effect that guests can have on the household of the hosts is definitely something to be considered in extending hospitality to strangers. The Torah, its values and commandments, is always a matter of healthy balance, of moderate and thoughtful behavior and in realizing the consequences that flow from one's behavior, no matter how noble the motives for that behavior may be. And one should always realize upon whom the burden of hospitality falls in the household. Being a great host at the expense of one's spouse's labor and sleep is not always the fair and correct way of going about the fulfillment of the core value of hospitality. One should never assume the mantle of righteousness at someone else's expense. One of the great features of hospitality is that it helps, even if only temporarily, to alleviate the feeling of loneliness that guests or even hosts suffer from. Thus it is the companionship of other people much more than the food or drink that ultimately matters and is the true benefit of hospitality extended and received. Even those who have enough resources for all of the food deemed necessary desire human company and interaction. In our time and place I think that this latter feature is the true measure of hospitality. Soup kitchens and charitable distribution of food packages are great examples of goodness and fill a vital physical need. Yet filling the stomach does not always fill one's soul and spirit. Hence, the necessity to view hospitality in its broadest form and not only in its bare requirements, fundamental and axiomatic as they may be. The rabbis praised the sharing of food and drink with others "for it brings closer to us those who are far distant." We are not speaking any longer about physical distance, people who are from a far distant location, but rather about those who are physically near us but distant from us. The rabbis realized the value of hospitality as companionship and bonding. As such perhaps hospitality in our age and place has taken on a different dimension than the usual traditional understanding of purely one of food and drink. We should and can raise hospitality to a new and important level in our social and home lives. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator. www.rabbiwein.com


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