January 28, 2023 |

Welcoming Visitors in the Synagogue

This Sukkot, we had the honor of hosting a relative who happens to be an esteemed rabbi and scholar. On the first day he wanted to get to shul at the start of services, a goal that I strongly support but don’t often achieve. So I sent him off, with etrog and lulav in hand, and a plan to connect a bit (maybe more than a bit) later.

When he arrived, services were just starting. He didn’t know for sure where I sit every Shabbat and yom tov, so he found an empty row at the back of the shul and started to daven. After a while he was confronted by a member of the congregation, not with “Chag Sameach,” or “Gut yom tov,” but with “This is MY seat!” and a hostile look. After thinking, “Is this the way Hachnasat Orchim (Welcoming of guests) is practiced here?” the visitor found another empty seat and that was that. After services, though, he related the incident to me, and, embarrassed by the rudeness shown by one of my fellow congregants, I assured him that this was an exception to the way we treat our visitors.

The incident got me thinking about proper and improper ways to greet strangers who visit our houses of worship and how to balance the courtesy due visitors with the territorial nature of our shul attendance. This possessive attitude toward seats is heightened if our regular Shabbat seat is a particularly desirable one, such as Tevye’s “seat by the eastern wall,” a prized aisle seat, or a sometimes more prized seat at the end of the last row in the back of the shul.

Our patriarch Abraham taught us a better way to deal with such a situation. As we read in the parsha of Vayera, when he saw three strangers approaching from afar, he rushed out to welcome them and offer them refreshment. Note that he didn’t say, “This is MY tent!” or imply that they were trespassing on his property.

The mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim is so important that it is one of the ten precepts for which one is rewarded in this world and also in the world to come. This is expressed in the paragraph, Ailu Devarim, at the start of the daily Shacharit service.

Over the years, I have observed some ways in which congregants miss the opportunity to observe Hachnasat Orchim, and instead take steps to insure that their prized seat is not violated by an unenlightened soul who stumbles into their private domain. While these tactics are often successful in a synagogue, most of them have long been used by veteran airplane, bus, and train passengers who have perfected the art of maximizing their personal space. If properly executed, these techniques will not only free up your own seat, but very likely a few seats next to it as well. I have categorized them as follows:

You walk into shul and find a stranger sitting in your seat? No problem! Just sit right next to him, very very close. Spread your legs as far as you can and stretch your shoulders until they make contact with his. Odds are that you will shortly have your seat back.

As a stranger, he is very likely to be spotted by the Gabbai and offered an aliyah. As soon as he gets up for the aliyah, move back to your seat and remove all traces of his existence, such as a tallit bag, siddur, chumash, placing them further down the row or in another row. This works best if you place your own tallit bag, siddur and chumash on the two seats next to yours.

Take the seat next to him. If he appears to want to daven quietly and sincerely, keep starting new conversations, preferably about sports, business, and the world of entertainment.

Take the seat next to him. Cover your head with your tallit and shuckle (shake) back and forth and side to side with ever increasing fervor. (NOTE: This tactic may not be effective if the visitor is also behaving in this manner.)

Offer the visitor a handshake. Say “Shabbat Shalom,” “Gut Shabbos,” “Chag Sameach,” or “Gut Yom Tov,” depending on the occasion and the color, style, and texture of his yarmulke or hat. Introduce yourself. Ask if he is the guest of any member. If not, offer to introduce him to other members at the Kiddush, and invite him to your home for a Shabbat or holiday meal. Then take a seat near him, skipping the one immediately next to him. It’s very likely that he will ask if he has taken your seat and offer to move. Mazal Tov! You have just performed the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, made a visitor happy, and regained your seat in the process.


Al Kustanowitz

Joined: October 2, 2007

Al Kustanowitz is a speaker, lecturer, and entertainer in the field of Jewish humor. He is the author of nine books on Jewish humor and Blogger-in-Chief at Jewish Humor Central. He is the Aba of three extremely talented children and the Saba of five brilliant (and cute) grandchildren. Start every...

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