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Home » Vayera

Vayera: Hospitality

Submitted by on October 27, 2018 – 10:51 pmNo Comment | 51 views

Hospitality has historically been a Jewish virtue. It has its roots in the very beginning of Jewish history. Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people was renowned for hospitality. Not only did he invite and provide for wayfarers, he made a point of making them feel welcome. He conveyed a love and concern that warmed the heart of the lonely traveler.

The Torah tells us that Abraham planted an ashel. The Talmud offers two opinions on the meaning of ashel. Some say it was an orchard with delicious fruit to feed wayfarers, others say it was an inn, where sumptuous meals were offered to wayfarers and where they were welcomed to stay the night.[1]

Accompaniment

In addition to providing excellent accommodations free of charge, Abraham provided a special service. When the guests were ready to check out, Abraham would accompany them for a short distance.[2] At first blush one could be excused for assuming this last service was a final flourish, the icing on the cake so to speak. A final act of service that made the guests feel welcome.

But our sages took a different view. They wrote that accompanying a guest is not a nice gesture, but a requirement of hosting. They went so far as to say that those who accompany their guests are rewarded to no end and that failure to accompany a guest is tantamount to murder.[3] The inference is that sending our guests off on the road without protection renders us responsible for any danger they might encounter. We are not responsible for their safety for their entire journey, but we are required to extend our umbrella of hospitality for at least a short distance.

This brings hospitality to a whole new level. We are not only responsible for hosting and feeding wayfarers who cross our path, we are also responsible for their safety so long as they are in our general vicinity. We can’t just feed them and send them off. Ensuring their safety is part of hospitality.

Comfortable

If our current understanding of hospitality is correct, accompaniment is not just icing on the cake, it is a critical and final piece of the hospitality Mitzvah. Without accompaniment, the Mitzvah is not only lacking, but subject to coming completely undone.

Yet, it would appear that we have yet to completely grasp the critical importance of hospitality. If it were merely a critical, but last step of the Mitzvah, Maimonides would not have defined the entire Mitzvah as accompaniment. Maimonides wrote that we are required to engage in acts of kindness such as visiting the ill and accompanying our guests.[4] Maimonides didn’t even mention food, drink, and sleep. He cut directly to accompaniment. What was Maimonides trying to teach us?

The answer can be found in the difference between charity and hospitality. Many think that hospitality is an extension of the general Mitzvah of charity, but this is not so. They are two distinctive Mitzvos.

The primary objective of charity is that the poor receive food to eat. While it is important to provide our help with kindness (providing for their needs and well as their dignity) the primary objective is that the poor person receives assistance. Thus, we get a Mitzvah if we lose a dollar and a poor person finds it.[5]

Hospitality, by contrast, is primarily about giving a traveler a home away from home. Hospitality is not only for the poor who don’t have a place to eat or sleep. Hospitality is a Mitzvah even if the traveler has plenty of food and can afford to stay a posh hotel. The purpose of inviting such travelers into our homes is to dispel the feeling of loneliness that sets in on long journeys. The purpose is to touch their hearts.

Feeding our guests is part of hospitality, but it is not the primary objective. The primary objective is for travelers to know that they are not alone in the world. When it comes to hospitality, gracious hosting is a must. If we invite wayfarers, provide them with a square meal and a warm bed, but turn our back on them and make them feel unwelcome, we might have fulfilled the Mitzvah of charity,[6] but we would have failed the Mitzvah of hospitality.

If the primary objective of hospitality is to give the wayfarer a cozy feeling of warmth and homeliness, to touch their heart with friendship and kindness, and demonstrate that they are not alone in the world, then accompaniment, rather than food or shelter, is the hallmark of the Mitzvah.

The service that we provide has an element of charity to it—we are filling a need. The accompaniment, however, is pure hospitality. The guests have already left our home, the connection between us has run its course, and we would be justified if we treated our guests as the complete strangers they were before they entered our home. Yet, we refuse to do that and insist on accompanying them a short distance.

This, more than anything, demonstrates to our guests that everything we did until this point, was done out of love and kindness rather than duty and obligation. This, above all, touches the hearts of wayfarers and sends them off on their lonely journey no longer feeling alone.

This insight to hospitality, this keen recognition that a lonely traveler is more desperate for company than for food, was taught to us by Abraham. He recognized that loneliness can be just as crushing as hunger and providing only food leaves a big gap in the wayfarer’s heart. He therefore taught us to view hospitality as more than providing a logistical need. He taught us to view it as an extension of love.

Maimonides therefore characterized the kindness of hospitality by the accompaniment that we provide at the very end. This last act is not just a finish with a flourish, it is not mere icing on the cake, neither is it a critical finale. This last act defines the entire Mitzvah. The Mitzvah of extending not only our house, but our home. Not only our food, but our heart. Not only our bedroom, but our love. The wayfarers will carry that with them, on the next leg of their journey. They will move along, but they will not move alone. They will take their leave of you, but a part of you will always be with them.

In the words of Maimonides, “The reward one receives for accompanying guests is greater than all. This is a statute that Abraham our Patriarch instituted and the path of kindness which he would follow.”[7]

 

[1] Re eshel, Genesis 21:32 elucidated in Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 10a. Re the purpose of the orchard, see Rashi ad loc. Re sleep accommodations, see Rabbenu Bachye ad loc. and Likutei Sichos, 15:501. If it was an inn, the expression of planting refers to planting the tent pegs.

[2] Ashel is an acronym for three Hebrew words, achilah, shtiyah, Leviyah, food, drink, and accompaniment.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 46b. See there for a discussion about how far we must accompany our guests.

[4] Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avel, 14:1.

[5] Sifri Tetze, 24:19.

[6] And even that is minimized on account of our demeanor.

[7] This essay is based on Likutei Sichos 25:73-77.

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