The mitzva of hachnasat orchim (hospitality) is as old as the first Jew, Avraham Avinu. Among all the great personalities of the Torah he stands out, not only as a man of faith, but also as a man of chesed (lovingkindness). According to the Torah commentaries, he would sit at the doorway of his tent ready to welcome any passers-by. While doing his utmost to provide every physical comfort, he would also uplift his guests spiritually through his radiant kindness. Indeed, we are taught that Abraham and Sarah separately converted hundreds of men and women to following G-d by their example and by their teaching. Perhaps it is because these two very effective methods for deepening love of Judaism and other Jews are present so naturally in hachnasat orchim that it is such a central mitzva in Judaism.
Jews have always needed the hospitality of other Jews for religious survival and even, during dark centuries of persecution, for physical survival. But there is a devotion to the mitzva of hospitality in traditional Jewish life which far exceeds the demands of necessity. Tales about impoverished sages and plain people who go to almost superhuman lengths to welcome strangers for Shabbat abound in the classic sources. Real-life accounts of Jews in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union who took great personal risks hosting a Seder meal are just as common in our own era. Jews have always known that "if I am for myself alone, what am I?"
Most Jews in most times, however, have not had to regard the mitzva as such a critical proposition. The main - and sufficient - reason for inviting guests is simply that it increases Shabbat joy, for host and guest alike. A table with just the family around it feels quite adequately full every other day of the week, but on Shabbat it can feel somehow empty, lacking. We miss the new voices singing and laughing with us.
A guest also enables a host to be more conscious of the beauty and educational value of Shabbat. If the guest is less observant than the host, there may be lots of teaching to do, which usually ends up benefiting the host as well. Teaching in this way helps him learn, reformulate, and re-learn. As the saying goes, "More than the host does for the poor man [meaning poor in money, knowledge, spirit, or anything else] the poor man does for the host."
For the host's children, the experience of having frequent Shabbat guests is invaluable. It teaches in the most powerful way, by vivid examples and without preaching, that they have something special in Shabbat, something that other people want to learn about and share with them. Some of Nechoma's earliest Shabbat memories are of her mother explaining to guests about hand washing, of guests asking questions, and, through their answers to the guests, of her parents teaching her along with them. Seeing kiddush, for example, through their guests' eyes made her appreciate its beauty even more.
Children absorb much more than the explicit content of their parents' teachings. They absorb implicit context as well. Nechoma also feels that she learned from her parents a total hosting style, of teaching guests naturally, of being oneself with guests, of welcoming them with joy, and of regarding them as an integral part of her life - so integral, in fact, that one of her first purchases after marriage was a sofa-bed for company.
At a time when most Jewish children are brought up with one other child at most in a large, comfortable home with "no room for guests," this traditional Jewish way of hospitality is rarely experienced and badly needed. It develops the child's openness and an interest in others, in short, how to be a Jewish social being.
- (Back to text) Pirkei Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers"), 1:14.
- (Back to text) Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra (Leviticus), 34:10.