World of the Sages: Gracious guests

One commentator suggests that 'guests' is a metaphor for human beings who sojourn in this world like travelers resting on a journey.

The Talmud records how Ben Zoma unreservedly expressed gratitude for the efforts of others (B. Brachot 58a). Thus when Ben Zoma would see masses of people ascending to Jerusalem from a high vantage point on the Temple Mount, he would recite the appropriate blessing over a multitude, and add an extra blessing acknowledging how so many people contributed to his own survival and well-being. In this tone of wholehearted appreciation, Ben Zoma compared the attitudes of two types of guests. A good guest who rests from his journey and his host proffers refreshing food, sincerely says: "How much trouble my host went to for my sake! How much meat he brought before me, how much wine he brought before me, how many rolls he brought before me! And all the trouble that he took, he took only for my sake!" A different guest who is offered the same refreshments in the same manner, views the matter entirely differently, deriding: "What trouble did the host go to for me? I ate one piece of bread, I ate one piece of meat, I drank one cup of wine. All the trouble that this host went to, he took only for his own wife and for his own children." The difference is apparent and is even revealed in the focus of the assessment of each guest: The good guest highlights the efforts of the host, while the bad guest only notices what he received. The talmudic passage continues offering scriptural allusions to the two types of guests. Regarding the good guest, the following verse is suggested: "Remember, so that you will aggrandize his work that people shall see" (Job 36:24) - a verse that exhorts people to publicly acknowledge the efforts made on their behalf. For the bad guest a different verse is cited: "Therefore people fear him, he does not see any of the wise-hearted" (Job 37:24) - the guest fails to appreciate the benevolence that the wise-hearted host has bestowed upon him. In truth the biblical verses cited can be read as referring to God's providential role in giving sustenance to humans. Following this line, one commentator suggested that the "guests" described by Ben Zoma are metaphors for human beings who sojourn in this temporal world just as travelers rest along a journey. During our stopover in this physical world, all our material needs are provided for by a most gracious host - the Almighty (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). The question remains whether we will be good guests appreciative of what we have, or bad guests unable to acknowledge what we have been granted. One of the hassidic masters - Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynów (1783-1841, Galicia, today Poland) - offered a different metaphor for Ben Zoma's guests. When Shabbat coincides with a festival or Rosh Hodesh, the first day of new month which is considered a minor festival, the central blessing of the Amida prayer which is normally dedicated to commemorating Shabbat is replaced by a festival benediction and only a passing mention of Shabbat is retained from the original formula. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech found this practice surprising: Wasn't the status of Shabbat greater than that of the festivals and certainly than that of Rosh Hodesh? How could such a breach of the honor of Shabbat be sanctioned? Using Ben Zoma's idea of the conduct of hosts and guests, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech suggested an explanation: The festivals were all instituted to commemorate events in our people's history - Pessah recalls the Exodus, Shavuot the giving of the Torah and Succot the protective cocoon provided by the Almighty during the desert years. Even the commemoration of the new month dates back to the lead-up to the Exodus from Egypt when we were enjoined to mark Rosh Hodesh and keep a calendar. Not so the weekly Shabbat, which is independent of the Jewish calendar and dates back to creation. Since the beginning of time, each seventh day is sanctified as the day of rest. In a sense - suggested Rabbi Zvi Elimelech - on the seventh day of the week, Shabbat is like the host. Occasionally a festival or Rosh Hodesh comes to visit the Shabbat host at her seventh-day home. When this occurs, Shabbat graciously makes way for the festival - whether it is one of the major festive celebrations or the more minor Rosh Hodesh commemoration - offering the festival guest pride of place in the center of the Amida prayer. As a good guest, the festival in turn graciously acknowledges the Shabbat host who has welcomed the guest into her domain. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech continued, citing another talmudic passage from our tractate that deals with host-guest relationships. Our sages tell us that while the host should be the first to break bread, it is the guest who should be honored with leading the recitation of Grace After Meals. The host breaks the bread so that generous servings will be offered to the guests; had a guest dished out the rations he would undoubtedly allocate modest portions. The guest leads the recitation of the Grace After Meals so that he may include an extra blessing for his generous host (B. Brachot 46a). In a similar vein, the Shabbat host honors the festival guest with the special blessing of the Amida prayer that acknowledges the uniqueness of the day. Like a good guest, the festival adds an extra mention of the Shabbat host in that benediction, even referring to the Shabbat host in the conclusion of the blessing before mentioning the festival guest. As hosts we aspire to be like Shabbat, who so benignly welcomes the festival guests into her domain; as guests we hope to appropriately acknowledge the kindness of our hosts heaping blessings on their heads. Moreover, whether as guests at someone else's table, or whether as sojourners in the Almighty's world, Ben Zoma urges us to focus on the good and acknowledge the generous goodwill of our host, rather than see all that is benevolently proffered before us in anything other than a positive light. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.