The Jewish Value of Hospitality

Traditional teachings on being a good host (and guest).

In the pre-modern world, without ubiquitous hotels and rapid transportation, wayfarers were often dependent on those whom they encountered en route. Jewish communities traditionally provided for Jews passing through their locales, whether they were indigent or simply in transit. The Talmud even says that welcoming guests is “greater than welcoming the Divine Presence [Shekhinah].”

These traditions of hospitality persist today. Hospitality — known as hakhnasat orchim in Hebrew — is considered one of the most important Jewish values.

A midrash presents the biblical patriarch Abraham as the paragon of hospitality, because of his reception of wayfarers in Genesis 18. His position at the entrance of his tent in the midday heat is interpreted as a proactive seeking out of passing travelers. Other elements of the story, too, contribute to Abraham’s reputation: his eagerness, his largesse, and his insistence on seeing his guests off as they departed.

The residents of Jerusalem, too, are portrayed in midrashic literature as excelling in this virtue. When the Holy Temple still stood in Jerusalem, that city was the destination of pilgrims from throughout the Land of Israel at the three harvest festivals. The rabbinic storytellers of late antiquity relate that Jerusalem’s residents opened their homes for free to those visitors. “No person ever remarked to another, ‘I couldn’t find a bed to sleep on in Jerusalem.’ No person ever remarked to another, ‘Jerusalem is too small [i.e., crowded] for me to be able to stay over there'” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 33).

Not only are food and lodging to be provided for passing travelers, but the travelers must be accommodated graciously. The statement of the early sage Shammai that one should “greet each person with a cheerful facial expression” (Mishnah Avot 1:15) is understood midrashically (in Avot De-Rabbi Natan 13) as an admonition to hosts not to provide for their guests amply but angrily. Better, teaches the midrash, to offer a guest but a little in a gracious tone than large portions obviously proffered grudgingly.

At the beginning of a traditional Passover seder, Jews recite a formulaic declaration of an “open house” policy of hospitality: “Let all who are hard-pressed come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share the Passover sacrifice.” This statement is an expansion of what the third-century Babylonian sage Rav Huna was known to make every time he sat down to a meal: “Let all who are in need come and eat!” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 20b)

Some Jewish communities of the past institutionalized the practice of offering hospitality to wayfarers by establishing a furnished home for such temporary guests. Others offered them lodging in the communal synagogue. The Diaspora tradition of reciting in the synagogue the kiddush prayer at the beginning of a Shabbat or holiday evening — a prayer usually offered where the festive meal is eaten — has its origins in that use of the community’s gathering space.

To this day, it is a hallmark of many Jewish communities that unfamiliar participants in synagogue worship, especially on Shabbat or holidays, are invited to local people’s homes for a meal — and, if arrangements are made in advance, frequently for lodging as well.

Traditional mandates extend to the guest as well. Guests should avoid causing hosts extra work. They should accede to their host’s or hostess’s requests. A guest should not bring along another, uninvited guest. If guest and host are entering the home together, the guest should defer to the host. Leaving together, a guest should exit before the host.

The second-century rabbinic sage Shim’on Ben Zoma couched his directive to guests in terms of a contrast between the responses of a two types of guests. The one to be emulated feels gratitude, saying:

“Look how much this householder has done for me! He has brought me so much meat [i.e., fine, expensive food]! How many cakes he has set before me! And all that he has done, he has done just for my benefit.”

The unsavory guest, receiving the same treatment, says:

“What has this householder done for me, after all? I’ve eaten one serving of bread. I’ve eaten one slice of meat. I’ve drunk one cup of beverage. And anyway, the work was all done for the [host] family, anyway.” (Genesis Rabba 52)

One presumes that the two guest’s different attitudes will find expression, however subtle, bringing host or hostess either pride or consternation, as well as reflecting on the guest’s own character.

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