Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

The commandment to host guests, in its purest form, consists of hosting and serving the needs of those who are destitute and have no place to eat or sleep.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:24), three strangers come to visit Abraham as he is recuperating from his circumcision. He runs to greet them. He gives them food and water and insists that they come into his tent, where he can show them full hospitality.

This episode is the paradigm of the mitzvah (commandment) of hosting guests (in Hebrew, Hachnasat Orchim).

The important mitzvah of hosting guests, in its purest form, consists of hosting and serving the needs of those who are destitute and have no place to eat or sleep, our sages say. In ancient times, before the proliferation of inns and hotels, a Jew who had found himself stuck in an unfamiliar village would be at the mercy of the villagers. Such a person had no choice but to randomly knock on the door of a Jewish home, potentially at any hour of the day or night, and hope that the family would welcome him. Some authorities hold that every community has an obligation to build a hotel for potential guests.

There is a misconception that today’s widespread practice of inviting a family or even a few different guests to one’s home for a meal is the fulfillment of the mitzvah of hosting guests. Unfortunately, this may not be the case. Many authorities contend that in our society, inviting friends over to our home to eat, drink or even sleep – friends who could have just as well eaten or slept in their own home – is certainly a very nice and commendable thing to do, but it is more of a social gesture than the true mitzvah of hosting guests. Nevertheless, some authorities do attribute such social gatherings to the mitzvah of hosting guests, insisting that social bonding should be considered a component of Hachnasat Orchim.

Some authorities rule that it is a fulfillment of hosting guests to invite a friend whose spouse is out of town or a family whose home is under construction. So too, inviting newcomers to the neighborhood with the purpose of making them feel welcome is also considered as such. We learn from none other than the infamous Laban (brother of Rebecca, who mistreated his nephew Jacob) that relatives should get extra-special treatment when they are our guests.

Though hosting any friend or neighbor is certainly praiseworthy and may be deemed a component of the mitzvah of hosting guests, one should also endeavor to provide for them according to their financial status and expectations. One should not accept payment for hosting guests, although one who does can still claim merit for the mitzvah. One who is truly kind will actually go out of his or her way to find guests who are destitute in order to show them hospitality.

One should not ask guests any questions that may embarrass them due to their lack of knowledge. One must escort one’s guests out as they leave, especially if they may be in unfamiliar surroundings, and provide them with anything they may need for their journey. In fact, all travelers must be treated as “needy” with all its usual halachic (Jewish legal) implications. It is considered especially meritorious to set aside a room in one’s home specifically for guests.

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