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Home hospitality has been a staple of Jewish life and tradition since the first Jewish home – the tent of Avraham and Sarah. It is mentioned as being one of the values that if fulfilled grants one reward in this world and the merit of the good deed remains a factor in the World-to-Come as well. Not only was hospitality an established part of Jewish personal and family life but Jewish communities always had a communal, hostel type room and board for wayfarers that wandered into their villages and towns.


In Jewish legend, the prophet Elijah often appears to us as a wayfarer seeking lodging for a night or a hot meal, thereby testing the existence of the vitality of this tradition inherited by Jews from Avraham and Sarah. The Torah allows for the promise of the miraculous birth of Yitzchak to be associated with the hospitality practiced in the home of Avraham and Sarah. It is almost as though the merit of their magnanimous trait allows for this miraculous event of Jewish continuity and eternity to occur.


Throughout the ages the open door to strangers has been a facet of Jewish life. I remember the home of my grandparents in Chicago where the door was never locked so that in the event that a visitor would arrive when they were not home or were asleep and needed a place to rest, he could come right into the house! In our current modern, democratic, progressive society such behavior is unheard of and in fact is dangerous and certainly not advisable. Such is the price of progress.  


All of us are aware that not all guests entering our home are equal. Again, Jewish legend portrays Elijah as being dirty, unkempt and of little notoriety or reputation when he comes to visit. We all are happy to receive people of nobility and fame, of impeccable manners and stylish dress into our homes and to our table. But it is the unkempt if not even unsavory guest that causes us problems.


I remember that as a rabbi in Miami Beach there was an alcoholic, strange scholar who constantly visited our home regularly every winter. Our children were terrified of him to the extent that they ran to their rooms weeping when he entered the house. I had to make arrangements for him to eat and sleep at a local kosher hotel and not allow him into our home any longer. I was conflicted in so doing – maybe he was the prophet Elijah – but the welfare and serenity of my children took precedence.


Oftentimes homes that are overly hospitable to others have children who are resentful of the guests and of their parents. Judaism is a faith of balance and sophistication, common sense and practicality. One’s own family need not be sacrificed on the altar of extremes of hospitality. Children should be trained to adopt and value the concept of home hospitality but they should not be tyrannized by it.


The great woman of Shunam was granted miracles – the birth and later revival of her son – because of her hospitality towards the prophet Elisha. Throughout Jewish literature and legend the value of being hospitable to others is emphasized and stressed. Agnon has a great piece of literature about “one who came to sleep over the night.” Naturally the “night” turned out to be a long visit. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is one of the classic stories of English literature, drama and cinema. In it the guest stays interminably and on his own volition takes over the entire household including the raising of the children. 


How and when to tell a guest that the visit is over, is one of the great ticklish problems in human relationships. The burden of hospitality usually falls on the woman of the house. The husband should be wary of being too great a sport of hospitality on his wife’s back. The rabbis of the Talmud shrewdly observed that many times the woman of the house is less than enthusiastic about having guests in her home and at her table. All of these factors have to be taken into account when considering the limits of hospitality in one’s home. Even our mother Sarah had her limits.


The torah does not intend that any of its values cause pain or familial strife. Thus again good common sense is necessary on the part of all- guests and hosts alike – in this important and holy matter of hospitality.

Shabat shalom.
Berel Wein


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