April 13, 2024 |


Having a guest at your home can change the course of their life. It happens all the time. Sometimes, the change is subtle, over the course of a hundred Shabbat dinners. Sometimes, it is dramatic, a single encounter that alters the vector of a person's journey completely. A family I knew in Jerusalem - the Machlis's - have dozens of guests every Shabbat, of every kind of Jew you can imagine. Sara Yoheved Rigler told the following story about them:

"Another Shabbat both Mordechai and Henny were walking home from the Kotel. In the shuk, they met a doctor from Holland who was in Israel for a laser convention. They invited him home for Shabbat lunch. After Mordechai made Kiddush, he passed small cups of grape juice around to his guests. The Dutch doctor's hands were shaking so much that he could not grasp his cup. Finally, in an impassioned voice, he declared: "This is my first Jewish experience. Both my parents are Jewish, and Holocaust survivors. They would not let any Judaism into our home at all. Even when my son was born, they insisted that we not circumcise him. When I get back to Holland, I'm going to start studying about my Jewish roots."

Sometimes, it is just the knowledge that you will always have a home to go to that makes the difference to a person's soul. We once had a student who loved to come to us for Shabbat meals. She had traveled widely around the world and had found in each far-flung location a home she could spend Shabbat in. Among the many homes that opened their doors to her were Rabbi and Rebbetzen Holzberg, of blessed memory, the Chabad couple in Mumbai who were murdered by terrorists. Their death was a serious blow, but what this student remembered more than anything else was that - even in India -- she had an amazing family and a welcoming place to go and be a Jew. And she needed beautiful Jewish homes - whether in the Far East or the Eastern Seaboard, New York or Nariman - to celebrate in. It kept her connected to her Judaism in a way that nothing else did.

Once upon a time, Jewish hospitality ensured that guests didn't have to sleep in the street, that they were safe from harm. If a stranger got lost or came into down as the sun went down, often only a fellow Jew could take them in. Nowadays, the challenge is more spiritual than physical. For many Jews who don't have - yet - the knowledge or the family to create that special home environment or that special Shabbat ambience, being invited in to be part of the family is a touching gesture, an inspiring connection to the Jewish community and a reinforcement that we are really one people. It gives them something real to do on Shabbat and a template from which to craft their own future Shabbat table. It is special - and sadly unusual in our atomized urban environment - for families to welcome strangers into their midst, to want to share their own home with other Jews. It's not because they are networking, having personal friends over or out of some social obligation, but because it's what Jews do. In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 1:5), it teaches "Let your home be open wide", and Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th c France) comments that it should be open in all directions for passers-by, recalling the famous tent of Abraham, from which he could see guests coming from any direction.

Whenever we come to the Torah portion of Vayera (which is this week), I am sure to be regaled by my children with the stories they have learned in school about the hachnasat orchim , the welcoming of guests, that Avraham and Sarah showed. How Avraham sat in the doorway of his tent (see Gen. 18:1-2), even when he was in pain from his circumcision, even in the middle of the summer heat, just for the chance to welcome a guest. They excitedly tell me, interrupting each other while jumping up and down to be the first to exclaim to me how Avraham made Hashem Himself wait while he welcomed in the three strangers, who were actually angels in disguise.

I am delighted that they are learning this fundamental midda (character trait) in school, but I am also suspicious that they think it is only something that people in turbans did in the times of the Bible, in deserts. So, I stop them and ask them: "Children: do we do hachnasat orchim in our home?" By now, they are well-prepared for Abba's rhetorical questions and they tell me; "Of course we do, Abba! We have MJE'ers over almost every Shabbat!" But I am glad that they know. I am glad that when one Shabbat we decided to have Friday night dinner alone with just our family that 3-year old Uriel didn't want to let us start singing Shalom Aleichem because our guests - the ones he assumed would be coming -- hadn't arrived yet. I am glad that the word and idea of guests - whether it's people the children know well, or have never seen before - is part of the warp and woof of our lives like school, like davening, like breakfast.

The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) makes the observation that "Bringing in guests is [a] greater [mitzva] than welcoming the presence of God." The teaching is based on the first 2 verses of our Torah portion, chapter 18, verse 1: "And Hashem appeared to Avraham in the groves of Mamre, while he was sitting in the entrance of his tent around the heat of the day." In verse 2, it says "And he lifted up his eyes and saw that behold three men were standing near him and when he saw them, he ran to greet them from the entrance of his tent..." In other words, he left God standing there at the entrance of the tent while he went running off to welcome three strangers who had appeared out of nowhere in the desert. In other words, welcoming guests (between person and person) takes a certain kind of precedence over welcoming God (between person and God.) Of course, both are important, but Avraham chooses hospitality, if for no other reason than that the guests were in greater need, so the urgency was on their side. Who knows what will happen to your guests if you do not welcome them now? Perhaps they will not find food or shelter. Perhaps they will never be open to a Shabbat meal again. I know more than one person who was pulled in - reluctantly - to a Shabbat table they hadn't meant to go to and are still around many years later at Kiddush to tell the tale. Would any other time have sufficed or just this one?

But there is more here than just the need. Later on, in verse 17, God suddenly begins to speak to Avraham (about destroying Sodom) out of nowhere. Where did He come from[1]? Rabbi Meshulam Rath (Shut Kol Mevaser 1:44; 20th century Israel) suggests that it's possible that God never left Avraham, but patiently waited while Avraham tended to his guests. When his guests departed, God began the conversation He had meant to have before the guests arrived. Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha on Bava Metzia 86b; 16th c. Poland) says that the reason Hashem didn't leave was BECAUSE Avraham welcomed in guests. When a person is welcoming guests into their home, even God is willing to sit around in the waiting room, biding His time, twiddling His fingers, until the mitzva (commandment) is completed. THIS is what t means that welcoming guests is greater than welcoming God's presence.. Welcoming guests makes you worthy of having God at your table and if He is already at your table, He will never leave.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th c. Germany) connects the message that Hashem was delivering in verse 17 (that God was about to destroy Sodom) with what was going on in Abraham's tent. God had decided to destroy Sodom in large measure because of how inhospitable and cruel they were to strangers. In S'dom, strangers slept in the street and were at the whim of the local populace, who taunted and - if they felt like it - tortured them. How different was the warm hospitality of Avraham from the cruel indifference of Sdom! One deserved to be destroyed forever and one to endure forever. Hashem stayed and watched how Avraham treated his guests and - when they left - He said - How can I not share with Avraham the start contrast between his values that will last forever and the ephemeral nihilism of the Sodomites? (Gen.18:17-19)

There is a story told about the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, late 19th century) that one Friday night, they began dinner very late. The Chafetz Chaim skipped all the songs we sing on Friday night (Shalom Aleichem to welcome in the Shabbat angels, Eishet Hayil to welcome the presence of Hashem and to acknowledge the women of the house) and went straight to the meal. Later, after they had eaten, he went back and sang them. When asked why he had changed the traditional order, he said: "But my guests were hungry and tired and I thought the angels could wait a while." In this way, he emulated Avraham, in his deep concern for his human company. After all, being a guest in someone's home can change the course of their life.

Everyone should have the opportunity to be a guest who's life is changed by their warm welcome, and, come to think of it, everyone should have the privilege of being a host, because being a host for holy Jews in our homes can change the course of our lives as well. I know it's changed mine. Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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