R. Yochanan said: Hospitality to wayfarers is as great as early attendance at the Bet Midrash (the House of Study), since [the mishnah] states, “To make room for guests or on account of neglect of the Bet Midrash.” R. Dimi of Nehardea said: It is greater than early attendance at the Bet Midrash because it states, “To make room for guests” and then “and on account of the neglect of the Bet Midrash.” Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name: Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Shekhinah, for it is written, And [Abraham] said, My lords, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by, etc. (Genesis 18:3). R. Eleazar said: Come and see how God is not like mortals. An inferior person cannot say to a greater person, “Wait for me until I come to you.” Concerning the Holy Blessed One, however, it is written, and he said, My lord, if I have found, etc.
Our earliest ancestors were semi-nomadic herdsmen who traveled from the land of the Tigris. For Torah, hospitality is national policy. and the Euphrates to the land of the Nile. We were often dependent upon the hospitality and good will of others. The Pharaoh who elevated Joseph and extended Egypt’s hospitality to his family was replaced by another who enslaved Israel. And so it has been throughout our history, in all the many places we have lived.
Extending hospitality is encoded in our tradition on the personal level through the model of Abraham, who welcomes wayfarers to his tent in the desert (Genesis, chapter 18), but also on the larger level of social justice played out on the national level: When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I, Adonai, am your God (Leviticus 19:33-34). The Rabbis understand the importance of hospitality on both levels. They know that true community is formed around the practice of hospitality: when we genuinely and warmly welcome people into our homes and synagogues, we form important and lasting relationships with them that have significance far beyond the immediate act of kindness we do.
We have three opinions concerning the importance of hospitality, each ramping it up a notch.
- R. YOCHANAN equates hospitality and Torah study in importance. That, in itself, is saying a great deal since the study of Torah is the core of the life of the Sages and the pillar that holds up the Jewish community. He justifies this by pointing out that the mishnah that this passage follows mentions hospitality and study in the same sentence.
- R. DIMI OF NEHARDEA goes further, asserting the superiority of hospitality over study since the same phrase in the mishnah mentions hospitality before it mentions study. Hyperbolic? Consider the next opinion.
- RAV YEHUDAH learned from Rav that welcoming guests into our homes is greater even than welcoming the Presence of God (the Shekhinah)! Abraham, who welcomed the three strangers into his tent, provides the illustration. How does this reflect a preference for the strangers over the Shekhinah? Rav considered the larger context of the verse: The Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. (Genesis 18:1-3) As Rav and Rav Yehudah read the text, Abraham is having a conversation with God when the three strangers appear. Abraham turns his attention away from God to welcome the strangers—hospitality trumps even an encounter with God. This inspires R. Eleazar to observe: People do not ask those of greater status to, “Wait a second for me,” and turn their attention elsewhere. To welcome guests, in contrast, it is perfectly acceptable to put God on hold.
This is a stunning affirmation of the importance of welcoming people into our homes, synagogues, and any other place where someone is the “stranger.” The Rabbis understand that what we do on the level of our day-to-day human interactions informs and shapes our values and attitudes in other arenas, as well. Leo Tolstoy, not always consider a fan of Jews and Judaism, in an essay in 1891 entitled, “What is a Jew?” expressed the view that our obligation to welcome the stranger taught us to champion civil and religious tolerance."The Jew is the emblem of civil and religious toleration. ‘Love the stranger and the sojourner,’ Moses commands, because you have been strangers in the land of Egypt. And this was said in those remote and savage times when the principal ambition of the races and nations consisted in crushing and enslaving one another.” — Leo Tolstoy
“Nowadays the host does not admit you to his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourself somewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance.” — Henry David Thoreau
Invite friends for shabbat this week and fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (hospitality). Don’t worry about cleaning the house or cooking up a storm; make it pot-luck or order in pizza if you don’t have time to cook. And perhaps discuss an issue related to hachnasat orchim, such as immigration. Or bring Ten Minutes of Talmud to the table. Or ask your guests whether they think that what Thoreau wrote in Walden 1854 holds true today.